Evading Responsibility

Part of the thicket we have to cut through to think clearly and reasonably about political discourse and events is the near wall of entangled rationalizations and defensiveness. Self-contradiction gets separated from hypocrisy only by insight into an individual’s mind and motivations. Or as Tom Delay justified himself to the court yesterday when he evaded responsibility of money laundering,

I fought the fight, ran the race and kept the faith.

If Milton’s Satan can posture as proud rebel, anyone, even a mere worldly and corrupt minion like Delay can tell himself anything.

Part of the problem is something as fundamental as tribalism, where it shouldn’t show up. A reader of this blog some time back, when I was engaging in my debates with ShrinkWrapped, characterized that blog’s conservative readers as responding tribally to him and other liberals. I agreed. Not that there is anything unique to conservatives in the tendency. Liberals and others do it too. No doubt, it is easier to see the tribalism in others more clearly than oneself. But as liberals have argued these past few days that conservative rhetoric over the past two years may have played a role in the Tucson shooting – how much of the conservative reaction in denial do you think may be spurred by resentment at the charge and an unwillingness to concede fault to what one might think a mortal enemy?

More moderately, but nonetheless, we get this morning David Brooks on The Politicized Mind.

Other themes from Loughner’s life fit the rampage-killer profile. He saw himself in world historical terms. He appeared to have a poor sense of his own illness (part of a condition known as anosognosia). He had increasingly frequent run-ins with the police. In short, the evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it.

Yet the early coverage and commentary of the Tucson massacre suppressed this evidence. The coverage and commentary shifted to an entirely different explanation: Loughner unleashed his rampage because he was incited by the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin.

Mainstream news organizations linked the attack to an offensive target map issued by Sarah Palin’s political action committee. The Huffington Post erupted, with former Senator Gary Hart flatly stating that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric. Keith Olbermann demanded a Palin repudiation and the founder of the Daily Kos wrote on Twitter: “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” Others argued that the killing was fostered by a political climate of hate.

These accusations — that political actors contributed to the murder of 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl — are extremely grave. They were made despite the fact that there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these movements or a consumer of their literature. They were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.

This is a curiously slanted and reductive presentation. While we have, indeed, been having the debate about political responsibility for what happened, no one has been suppressing evidence of Loughner’s behavioral problems, which have been reported as soon as information on the assailant became known. (You wouldn’t know it from Brooks, who is so concerned about clear evidence about political causality, but no one has yet diagnosed mental illness in Loughner.) Defensive rationalizations from the Right have misleadingly argued, as Brooks does that “there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these [Tea Party or like] movements or a consumer of their literature.” But is the argument that this needs to be so for the political climate of the past two years to have played some role. Nonetheless, remember Bryon Williams this past summer?

When California Highway Patrol officers stopped him on an interstate in Oakland for driving erratically, Byron Williams, wearing body armor, fired at police with a 9mm handgun, a shotgun and a .308-caliber rifle with armor-piercing bullets, Oakland police say. Shot and captured after injuring two officers, Williams, on parole for bank robbery, told investigators that he wanted “to start a revolution” by “killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU,” according to a police affidavit. His mother, Janice, told the San Francisco Chronicle that her son had been watching television news and was upset by “the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items.”

But what television news show could have directed the troubled man’s ire toward the obscure Tides Foundation,

Here is one answer.

For good measure, Beck went after Tides again on Fox that night. And Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Thursday night. That’s on top of 29 other mentions of Tides on Beck’s Fox show over the past 18 months (two in the week before the shootout) according to a tally by the liberal press watchdog Media Matters. Other than two mentions of Tides on the show of Beck’s Fox colleague Sean Hannity, Media Matters said it was unable to find any other mention of Tides on any news broadcast by any network over that same period. Beck declined comment.

*(Full disclosure: The Tides Center has been the fiscal sponsor for the non-profit projects – such as documenting child labor conditions around the world – of Julia Dean, of this blog.)

Does mental instability preclude the influence of political rhetoric? Or is it, indeed, the very fertile ground in which the seeds of hateful political rhetoric can take root.? However crazy Loughner may be, why crazy politically?  He has reportedly been focused among other issues on a return to the gold standard. Where do we find an interest in that arcane economic subject?

Some are now citing an Anti-Defamation League analysis of Loughner’s online writing.

Taken together, these writings suggest someone who probably is not associated with any particular extremist groups or movements, but who has a generic distrust of government and a vague interest in conspiracy theories. Additionally, the style and nature of the writings–which are often disjointed, rambling, and semi-coherent–appear consistent with someone suffering from some form of mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

Loughner’s writings are typically not coherent enough to make arguments that are possible to follow in the normal sense, but they can serve at least to indicate his areas of interest or fascination. They do not, however, provide any solid body of evidence or any patterns that would seem clearly to point to a particular ideology or belief system as a significant motivating factor.

One makes of this the basis for a generally mistaken either/or argument only if one wants. If Loughner is mentally ill, which seems likely, it is no wonder that his ideas might be incoherent. But what are his ideas? What is their subject matter? Where did they come from? I don’t mean specifically – Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck – but generally. What did an ill mind feed off? The culture around him. He is clearly drawing from it, however senselessly. He did not, like New York’s Son of Sam over three decades ago receive messages from a satanic dog: he heard political conspiracy and government power. He did not shoot the workers at the animal care center that let him go, or workers and students at Pima Community College which expelled him. He chose a controversial Democratic congresswoman in a volatile district. The dangerously unstable mind will always find its impetus to action, but to pretend that the impetus was not drawn from the current culture is to bury one’s head.

One of the surest signs of defensive rationalization is inconsistency of thought, self-contradiction. It has been fundamental to the conservative critique of contemporary American culture that the substance of high and popular culture has had dramatic deleterious effect on daily life and our greater social structures. From divorce rates to births out of wedlock to adolescent sex to violence and coarse language and manners, conservatives have argued for decades that what we permit and promote become a promoted permissiveness. And now?

Brooks decides that the real story in Tucson is mental health policy. There needn’t be one story, though, and those reducing it to only one have reasons we should question. It isn’t in the end about blame either. Those who deserve some will never acknowledge it anyway. But the rest of us can try to see through arguments meant to obscure rather than clarify.  There are at least three large issues connected to this story: mental health policy, gun policy, and inflammatory – suggestive of violence, conspiratorial, demonizing – rhetoric. The influence of words, mere words, is why we monitor how our children talk and why try to review what they hear on television and in the classroom. Because we believe, without decades of gold standard experimental studies – at least until it is convenient for us not to – that how we talk to each other and what we say matters.



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