Madness & the media mind
From The New Criterion.
February 28, 2011.
Anyone unaccustomed to the tone and tenor of the political dialogue in America might think that it would take very little self-awareness on the part of those who reach for their keyboards every time an event of national significance takes place to see the absurdity of condemning the alleged rhetorical excesses of their political opponents by charging them with being accessories to murder. Yet much of the rhetorical outpouring that followed so closely in the wake of the shootings in Tucson of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and some nineteen others (six of whom have died as I write) was precisely to that effect. Even those of us who are familiar with the ways of the American media might have expected, or at least hoped, to find one or two cases where one of these writers stopped himself in mid-flight to say, "Oh, dear, I’ve just listened to what I’ve been saying." Or perhaps, "Hate? Oh, golly. It looks just a bit as if I’m being the hateful one here, doesn’t it?"
It didn’t happen. If any among those who sought to blame Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or others on the right for the shootings caught himself in mid-analysis and blushed with embarrassment, he has left no record of it that I am aware of. Perhaps a few quietly forbore to pursue their train of thought to its preposterous terminus, but so many were so eager to get there that any such interrupted journeys must have escaped the general notice. One might even venture to observe that an absence of self-awareness and self-irony on such a massive scale suggests one thing these commentators must have in common with crazy people — people like Jared Lee Loughner (pictured above), the Tucson shooter, to pick an example at random — if one were not dimly aware of leaving oneself open to the charge of having committed the same intellectual and moral faux pas.
As usual, the loudest advocates of tolerance and diversity were the most unforgiving towards those with whom they disagreed. The ever-reliable Guardian of London ran a piece on the shootings by Max Blumenthal, "an award-winning journalist and bestselling author," which never mentioned the name of Mr Loughner (described elsewhere by a former school-mate as a "left-wing pothead") but which strongly suggested that the real culprits were those whose political views the author found uncongenial:
Since I first travelled to Arizona more than seven years ago to interview rightwingers participating in armed anti-immigrant vigilante patrols along the border, I have watched as it drowned in a sea of extremism, signing away its future in the form of racist ballot measures and budget-busting tax cuts. In this climate, the assassination attempt on Giffords was not terribly surprising.
In the same day’s paper, however, S.E. Smith found plenty of compassion and to spare for a "community" that the shooter was much more likely to have belonged to than he was to that of any of the "extremists" mentioned by Mr Blumenthal:
Within minutes of learning Saturday's breaking news about the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords along with staff and bystanders at a public event in Tucson, I, along with many other people with mental illness and mental health advocates, knew exactly what to expect: a torrent of speculation about the mental health status of the shooter. Real time reactions on the internet did not disappoint, whether talking about "crazed gunmen", "lunatics", "psycho killers", or "mentally disturbed people". People on all grades of the political spectrum opined that the shooting must have been committed by someone with mental illness, someone "totally nuts"; no sane person would do this, as numerous people took care to inform me on Twitter.
In other words, guilt by (speculative) association is OK for Tea Partiers and advocates of enforcing U.S. immigration law, but is unfair to lunatics. Ms Smith went on:
While speculating about the mental health status of the shooter, people also reinforced social attitudes about violence and mental illness, asserting that violence is an expression of mental illness and that mental illness makes people violent. The belief that mentally ill people are a danger to others persists – despite the fact that mentally ill people are actually 11 times more likely than the general population to be victims of violence, according to a Northwestern University study. People with "severe mental illness" are responsible for an estimated one in 20 violent crimes, a rate much lower than the general population usually supposes.
One in 20 is still much higher than the rate in the general population itself — or among those who could be stigmatized as being Tea Party sympathizers.
For in fact, violence often is an expression of mental illness and mental illness often does make people violent. Ms Smith chooses to make the illogical argument that because all mentally ill people are not violent, and because they are also often the victims of violence, that it is somehow illegitimate to characterize any act of violence as having been caused by mental illness. True, those who called Mr Loughner nuts did not have a clinical diagnosis on which to base their opinion, but — well, you be the judge.
Here’s a sampling from the political thought of Jared Lee Loughner: "I can’t trust the current government because of the ratifications: the government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar." Nick Baumann of Mother Jones interviewed a "close friend" and school-fellow of Mr Loughner’s named Bryce Tierney who gave the following account of his friend’s actions.
Tierney, who’s also 22, recalls Loughner complaining about a Giffords event he attended [in 2007]. . . "He told me that she opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, ‘What is government if words have no meaning?’"Giffords’ answer, whatever it was, didn’t satisfy Loughner. "He said, ‘Can you believe it, they wouldn’t answer my question,’ and I told him, ‘Dude, no one’s going to answer that,’" Tierney recalls. "Ever since that, he thought she was fake; he had something against her."
I’m not a psychiatrist, I know, but I don’t think I’m going way out on a limb by saying that if you genuinely think that the man who said things like this was somehow manifesting the influence of Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh, maybe you ought to get checked out by one yourself.
Even Paul Krugman, who was predictably among the first to blame Governor Palin and the Tea Party for the shootings, had to admit that young Mr Loughner was a word or two short of a complete sentence. "It’s true," he wrote, "that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate." Excuse me, but that’s just what it does mean. Madness by definition is an isolated event, obscurely turning over in the darkest recesses of the individual fancy until it explodes into incoherent violence of the sort we saw in Tucson. Even if the mad are canny enough to pick up on the odd social or political cue from the "national climate" to attempt a justification of their action, it does not allow us to blame that "climate" — always supposing a climate can be the object of blame in any case.
Of course, there could be other reasons, apart from genuine if irrational conviction, why people with one set of political opinions might want to say that those with another set have created a guilty climate. Politico reported that
One veteran Democratic operative, who blames overheated rhetoric for the shooting, said President Barack Obama should carefully but forcefully do what his predecessor did. "They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers," said the Democrat. "Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people."
At least to this operative, it doesn’t appear to matter that Timothy McVeigh had some connection with militia and anti-government people while Jared Loughner was not known to have any with the Tea Party. But even if we discount such cynics and their deft if as yet only hopeful "pinning" of blame, even if those who attempt to sound judicious by announcing their discomfort with "overheated rhetoric" really mean it, they are really saying the opposite of what they think they are. By implicating the alleged overheaters in the actions of a madman, they are also implicating themselves, since they offer the implied assent of the sane to one of the central delusions of what S.E. Smith calls "the mentally ill community," namely that there is no discernable boundary between the metaphorical and the literal or between the rhetorical and the real. It’s not merely extreme language but language of any kind which would be rendered impossible if it first had to pass the test of seeming innocuous to a madman.
Mr Loughner may or may not have been capable of the elementary mental operation of distinguishing between a symbolic rifle sight on Sarah Palin’s map of "targeted" congressional districts and a real exhortation to kill. We don’t know if he ever even saw the map. What we do know is that, like most of his kind, he seems to have lived in his own fantasy world, a world of idiosyncratic "grammar" criticism and fanciful currencies of his own invention and something called "conscience dreaming," none of which had anything at all to do with any matter of political debate, left or right, known to those of us who still inhabit the political commons. The reason to feel uncomfortable with rhetorical extremes is precisely that, implicitly or explicitly, they tend to result from the same kind of literalism and self-absorption and intellectual imprecision which is supposed to confuse metaphorical and real violence, or put them into some kind of simple causal relation with each other. And the danger of such extreme language is not that it "leads to" real world violence like that which took place in Arizona — alas, we shall never know what dark and diseased mental processes have led and continue to lead to that — but because it delegitimizes political disagreement by identifying it with violence and insanity, with which it has in reality no connection.
It would be foolish to deny the possibility that at least some of those who would make that false connection know very well what they are doing. The events in Tucson and their extensively-argued significance (or lack of it) for American politics came as an interruption to the media’s obsession of the previous week, which had been the decision of Speaker John Boehner and the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives to kick off the 112th Congress by reading aloud the Constitution on the floor of the House. By coincidence, it had fallen to Representative Giffords to read the First Amendment, and she was thus implicated in something else that many on the left and their allies in the media had found, or professed to have found, to be incendiary and rhetorically dangerous. In calling the reading a gimmick, Ezra Klein of The Washington Post (and the now-notorious "Journolist") complained on MSNBC that "the issue of the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago and what people believe it says differs from person to person and differs depending on what they want to get done."
Somewhere in that ineffably stupid and callow remark there is a faint echo of young Jared Loughner’s question to Representative Giffords in 2007: "What is government if words have no meaning?" Fortunately for us and for the governments instituted among men, words do have meaning, and the affectation of believing that they do not or that their meaning is undiscoverable is very often politically motivated. There are plenty of things in the Constitution which Mr Klein and his ideological confreres doubtless wish were not there; there are plenty of other things that are not there which they wish were there. The current intellectual "climate" affords them two ways to deal with this melancholy but inescapable truth. They can say, as many of their fellow Progressives of a century ago did say, that the Constitution is outmoded and inadequate to present-day needs and should be torn up and re-written, or else they can take the more fashionable and post-modern course of claiming that, since there are some disagreements about what the Constitution means, it must mean nothing. Or that it means whatever anyone wants it to mean, which comes to the same thing.
Jared Loughner, mad though he must have been, was making a similar point when he claimed that the Pima County (Arizona) Community College, which he briefly attended until he was asked to leave, was "unconstitutional." "Removing you from the educational facility for talking is unconstitutional in the United States," he wrote. "This situation is fraud because the police are unconstitutional!" See? Ezra Klein might say. Jared Loughner thinks the police are unconstitutional; you think they’re not. Who’s to say who’s right? The pretense that everything is a matter of opinion, and that everyone’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s, is not itself a form of madness, but it is the foundation upon which the superstructures of madness — and, by the way, of the Internet — are very often constructed. In this sense and in this sense only, the "climate" of our media and political discourse really is hospitable to madness — though of course it doesn’t follow that any given political utterance is mad or "leads to" madness.
On the same day that The Washington Post led its report ("Rampage casts grim light on U.S. political discord") of Mr Loughner’s murders and mayhem with the opinion of Pima County’s (Democratic) sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, that they were a sign "that the nation’s heated political discourse had taken a dangerous turn," it also ran a little parody called "The Conservative Constitution of the United States." Clearly inspired by the new Republican majority’s reading of the actual Constitution on the floor of the House, this was said to be "an alternative text, obtained by this author, David Cole, via WikiLeaks," which "has reportedly begun circulating in secret among incoming GOP lawmakers, representing the Constitution they hope to read aloud when the 113th Congress begins." Here’s a brief sampling.
We, the Real Americans, in order to form a more God-Fearing Union, establish Justice as we see it, Defeat Health-Care Reform, and Preserve and Protect our Property, our Guns and our Right Not to Pay Taxes, do ordain and establish this Conservative Constitution for the United States of Real America. . . . Corporations shall have all of the rights guaranteed herein to Citizens, and then some. . . No White Male shall be denied equal protection of the law through Affirmative Action or otherwise. In keeping with the intent of the Framers, as discerned by the Honorable Justice Antonin Scalia, distinctions on the basis of sex shall not be deemed to deny equal protection. . . The right to be uninsured and make other people pay the costs of one's Health Care shall not be infringed under any circumstances. . . . Congress shall make no law limiting Americans' right to warm the Planet by using all the energy they darn well please. . . The Unborn shall have the rights to life, to vote, to bear arms, to practice Religion except in a mosque in Lower Manhattan (see First Amendment) and to make campaign contributions, but once the child is born, it shall have no rights if it is an Alien (see Sixth Amendment). . . No one may be required to do anything He or She does not want to do. Ever.
The more you think about this little jeu d’esprit and the editorial judgment that proferred it for the amusement of the Post’s readers, the stranger both become. How do you get from a reading of what the Constitution actually says to this version of what the readers are supposed, however facetiously, to believe it says or want it to say? Why would they read it at all if what they meant by reading it was that it really says or ought to say something quite different?
I think Mr Cole must be saying essentially what Mr Klein was saying about the Constitution, namely that it means whatever anyone wants it to mean, but with this addition: that the Republicans and Constitutionalists are only pretending to believe otherwise themselves. They, too, are only allowed to mean what our merry po-mo pranksters want them to mean — which in this case is that they are self-condemned as bigoted religious fanatics who are as contemptuous of their fellow citizens and any conceivable civic duties as they are of the planet and, indeed, everyone on it except themselves. Do Mr Cole and the editors of The Washington Post really believe this about them? Possibly not. But they know that the current "climate" of discourse will not reprove him for attempting to control the political argument and steer it into their preferred courses by pretending to believe it of them.