Some additional thoughts on the conversation of the weekend.
1. I’m still uncomfortable ascribing a political motivation to alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner — or more to the point, ascribing a political motivation that maps more than tangentially at best to current, popular political trends. As someone elsewhere notes, a guy who lists Animal Farm, The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf as some of his favorite books is someone whose peg doesn’t fit into current rhetorical holes without more than a little bit of hammering (it may suggest a general mistrust of organized government, but such a state is neither inherently “left” or “right”). We know next to nothing about the fellow, he’s currently invoking his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination (if reports are to be believed) and otherwise what we know about him are bits and snatches and rumors.
What little I’ve seen — which is basically what everyone else has seen to this point — doesn’t convince me this is about politics as anyone but Loughner understands it. We may (and probably will) learn more as time goes on. But for the moment, I’m of the opinion that whatever this is about, is about Loughner, rather than the overall state of politics in the United States.
2. That said (and at this point I suspect independently), Loughner’s choice to shoot a US Congressperson whose district was recently mapped by political opponents using a shooting target (a Palin spokesperson’s post-shooting assertion that the images of targets on a Palin Web site were of surveyor’s crosses is one of the more transparent bits of complete bullshit in the aftermath of the event) means that at the moment we’re having a discussion of the current state of political rhetoric in the country. As much as they wish it weren’t so or wish to complain that they’re not the only ones partaking of such rhetoric, the Tea Party folks and their associates are the ones most on the defensive here.
I think this should not be in the least surprising. If your political messaging traffics in rhetoric heavy on gun imagery and revolution of the overthrow-y sort, then when someone shoots a congressperson who you opposed, then guess what: You get to spend some uncomfortable moments in the spotlight being asked if it’s not reasonable to suspect a connection between your rhetoric and the actions of a shooter targeting someone you’ve opposed. You also get to spend time being asked if, in fact, your rhetoric isn’t overblown, simplistic and on balance detrimental to the nation’s body politic. Querulous complaints about the unfairness of this can be reasonably overruled by others; the time to complain about your bed is before you make it.
Bad and obnoxious rhetoric is not solely owned by any party, but I do think the current, predominant strain of it dates back to Newt Gingrich and his rhetorical policy of demonizing political opponents and their positions rather than allowing for the possibility that reasonable people might disagree. Gingrich was not the first to do this, of course (check out the political messaging of the early 1800s, just for fun, nor does one have to go back anywhere near that far). His particular strain of it was both efficient and congenial to the rise of partisanship as entertainment, however, of which both both liberals and conservatives partake, although it’s not (necessarily) an insult to note than in general conservatives are better at it, or at least seem to enjoy it more.
And now is a fine time to ask whether the Gingrich strain of rhetoric is past its sell-by date. I think it is. I think it encourages bad politics; it’s a primary tool in making the manner in which people think of politics in the United States the same as they think about football games. I don’t think it’s going to die without a fight — it’s the morning and evening bread and butter for two of the three major cable news networks (not to mention a whole panapoly of talk radio hosts), so there’s a lot of money invested in its success. But what’s good for the 10-Qs of publicly-traded entertainment companies who happen to own cable news networks and newspapers or the ratings of radio stars and reality shows isn’t necessarily what’s good for the actual political health of the nation.
I wish people were smart enough to recognize this. If one result of this shooting is that we start to think about it more, it’ll be a thin silver lining to a very dark cloud. Even if the shooting eventually turns out to be unrelated to the current state of political rhetoric in the country.
3. A friend of mine who suffers from a mental disorder wrote me a letter to suggest to me that the comments in the previous thread about the possible mental illness of Loughner run the risk of carelessly painting everyone who suffers from a mental illness or a disorder with the same behaviors — i.e., they’re all bad/violent/nasty/evil/dangerous, etc.
This is a fair concern on my friend’s part, and so I think it’s worth noting that a) a layman diagnosis of mental illness via the very limited information available online is worth exactly nothing, b) any general equivalence between mental illness or disorder and one being bad/violent/nasty/evil/dangerous, etc. is uninformed and pretty stupid. Loughner may or may not suffer from mental illness, but it’s going to take professional and in-person observation by trained folks to determine that. I imagine that will be happening soon if it’s not already happening. But even if he does, his individual manifestation of his illness is just that — individual, and not representative of anyone else’s.
Or as my friend puts it: “Maybe you could remind folks that the people with mental disorders are around them, right now, being mentally disordered? Also, being lawyers, parents, farmers, soldiers, nurses, truck-drivers, teachers, college students, judges, 5th graders, fishermen, mechanics, martial arts instructors, writers, and general good folks. Just like them.”