Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Carrion birds

You know, say what you will about hysteria-mongering right-wing 1980s clergymen who went around claiming that America was under siege by a vast cabal of murderous Devil-worshiping occultists and tried to blame youth murders or suicides on heavy metal or Dungeons and Dragons, they had this going for them: They usually focused on kids who had actually listened to rock music or played role-playing games. It's a pity that so many American left-of-center commentators, journalists, politicians, and Nobel laureates just can't match the demanding standards of thoughtfulness, rationality, and epistemic rigor that fundamentalists at mass public burnings of fantasy books and Judas Priest records hold themselves to.

Looking back in the aftermath of Jared Loughner's shooting spree, it's impressive just how quickly, eagerly, and ferociously the idea that the attack was the fault of antigovernment political rhetoric was embraced on the basis of nothing whatsoever, aside from liberal desire for some corpses to club critics over the head with, and how tenaciously so many clung to that belief. There was a barely-concealed note of triumph in much of the reaction to the murders of Stephen Johns and George Tiller at the respective hands of a white supremacist and a militant antiabortionist, but the response from liberals in the media- and countless others all over the internet- to the near-fatal shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was little short of orgasmic.

(It's also a rather graphic demonstration of where the average citizen stands in the great chain of being, with Giffords' wounding drawing more horror, outrage, and sympathy than the other twelve people who were wounded and the six people who died, one of them a nine-year old girl, put together. The line dividing the person whose life and well-being actually matters to the media and the political class from everyone else was so stark and undisguised as to seem almost feudal.)

The narrative was established literally before the bodies were cold, and since then we've seen an eruption of condemnations of President Obama's critics for their supposed role in causing the shooting. Some, such as Paul Krugman, are quite explicit in laying blame at the feet of conservatives or libertarians; others contain enough weasel words for the speaker/writer to say effectively the same thing without explicitly committing themselves, or are clearly intended to encourage the belief that critics of liberals are to blame but have some sort of "just asking questions/I'm not saying I know for sure that Obama isn't really a citizen, but..." hedge. The latter sort has grown more common as actual information about the shooter streamed in and the assumption that Loughner was motivated by right wing rhetoric went from being merely baseless to outright falsified.

This assumption was not shaken by the first actual information revealed about Loughner, such as the fact that he had a list of favorite books that included both the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. (The Communist Manifesto is the book that had its Amazon.com sales rank shoot up after Glenn Beck endorsed it, right?). Nor was it shaken by Loughner's own words from Internet postings and YouTube videos- repetitive, nonsensical rants filled with the hallmarks of schizophrenic thought disorder but devoid of any endorsement of right-wing or libertarian politics. The closest anything ever came to actual supporting evidence for the conclusion the media instantly pounced on was the discovery that he supposedly had an interest in the gold standard- which turned out to be part of another set of nonsensical ramblings with no relationship to the ideas of actual gold standard supporters.

(There's also the question of how "antigovernment" many of the designated villains in this farce actually are, of course, partly because of opportunistic use of libertarian-sounding rhetoric by conservative statists and partly because many liberals still haven't mastered complex concepts like "Frederic Bastiat and Francisco Franco were not the same guy.")

When the sheer weight of evidence finally forced liberal commentators to back off from their desperately longed-for "murderous right-wing militant" scenario, the result was an orderly strategic withdrawal to a functionally identical fallback position: Perhaps Loughner was not directly motivated by any recognizable political ideology, but his actions were still caused by overly vehement criticism of the Democrats, or government more generally, that pushed him over the edge.

This back-up argument is also based on nothing, and is further discredited by the fact that Loughner's hostile fixation on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords predates the Tea Party movement's existence and apparently started because of her failure to answer one of his nonsensical questions at a public event in mid-2007. But Loughner exists, people saying nasty things about Democrats exist, and no one has direct access to Loughner's thoughts or exhaustive records of every single moment of his life, so you can't prove with absolute certainty that there isn't a causal connection.  It's still no better supported by actual evidence than the idea that Loughner was somehow motivated by leftist propaganda, or the Rev. Fred Phelps' "divine retribution for insufficient homophobia" hypothesis, but it's good enough for politics.

I say "functionally identical" because the lesson everyone is supposed to draw from it is unchanged: The only legitimate, responsible form of "debate" or "dissent" is that which takes the goodness of the state's existing powers and the desirability of further state expansion as given, and anybody who doesn't accept that starting point needs to shut the hell up before their deviance from center-left statism causes another horrible tragedy.

Still more disingenuously, some have taken up a third line of defense: OK, so maybe there's no reason to believe that people who criticize liberal policies more vigorously than liberals would like had anything to do with this, but isn't the ferocity of (the other side's) political rhetoric still a cause for concern and something we should condemn? So, why not discuss that now? This is an especially repellent ploy because it tries to continue to encourage a mental connection between violence and hostile political rhetoric without even trying to argue for any link between them.

Well, perhaps the state of political discourse is worth discussing. We could also use this as an opportunity to talk about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, or gender discrimination in the provision of government services to victims of domestic violence, or occupational licensing laws, or American society's stigmatization of introverts. What relevance do any of these things have to what happened in Tuscon? The same relevance as the harshness of antigovernment political rhetoric: None whatsoever, aside from the fact that I could probably make a more emotionally compelling case discussing them if I had a few bullet-riddled bodies to use as stage props.

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1 comment:

Scott said...

Another well-written essay. Love your style, and I wish you would post more often.