Now that the dust from yesterday’s assault has more or less settled, it’s time for reflection. The NYT has a number of good analyses, although they suffer a bit from attempting to be even-handed in assigning the roots of the vitriol and polarization in American political debate to both sides of the spectrum.
The problem here doesn’t lie with the activists like most of those who populate the Tea Parties, ordinary citizens who are doing what citizens are supposed to do — engaging in a conversation about the direction of the country. Rather, the problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.
Consider the comments of Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite who unsuccessfully ran against Harry Reid for the Senate in Nevada last year. She talked about “domestic enemies” in the Congress and said, “I hope we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies.” Then there’s Rick Barber, a Republican who lost his primary in a Congressional race in Alabama, but not before airing an ad in which someone dressed as George Washington listened to an attack on the Obama agenda and gravely proclaimed, “Gather your armies.”
Currently, it’s unclear whether the gunman, rejected military recruit Jared Lee Loughner (22), was motivated in any way by Tea Party propaganda about government takeover, ‘socialism’ and ‘tyranny’, or by the militant and violent rhetoric of someone like Sarah Palin, with her crosshair map and talk about ‘aiming’ and ‘reloading’.
Looking at Loughner’s ramblings on YouTube, he seems to be more of a ‘general’ paranoid conspiracy theory-believing, anti-government anarchist than either a left-wing or right-wing activist; although it is noticeable that ideas about ‘currency’ (the gold standard) and ‘mind control’ seem to be prominent in his incoherent babble. This may indicate some infatuation with Tea Party topics.
His favorite book list is actually rather good, I must say, featuring Orwell’s Animal Farm, Huxley’s Brave New World, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hesse’s Siddharta (as well as Marx’ The Communist Manifesto and Hitler’s Mein Kampf). While these are all masterpieces, they have in common that they deal with the topic of reality perception being controlled by higher powers, as well as the possibility of alternate realities. Loughner in his YouTube videos writes about ‘conscience dreams’, and his MySpace is called ‘fallen asleep’. His talk of grammar being controlled by the government calls to mind Foucault. The inclusion of The Communist Manifesto on this list has been cited by some as proof that Loughner could not be a Tea Party activist, but since the Manifesto deals with the topic of organized revolution more than it does with imposing a state-controlled economy, I find its appearance on the list not so strange.
It also seems that Loughner had came in contact with (campus) police a couple of times, so a picture more or less emerges of a troubled adolescent, who reads stuff that’s maybe a few levels too complex for him. But these are exactly the people that you shouldn’t expose to the sort of militant, violent political rhetoric that since Obama’s presidency has been employed by the Tea Party and the Republican right. Because let’s face it: the whole imagery of the Tea Party, and of those politicians who’ve embraced them, is about violent revolution, 18th-century style. They wave around with banners from the Revolutionary War, saying ‘Don’t tread on me’, they bring guns to town hall meetings (and vigorously defend their Second Amendment right to do so), and they talk about ‘tyranny’ and ‘socialism’, about ‘taking their country back’. Sarah Palin talks about electoral battles in terms of ‘aiming’ and ‘reloading’, and continuously revels in the use of guns. Above the crosshair map Palin wrote ‘We’ve diagnosed the problem… Help us prescribe the solution’ – a dimly veiled threat. All because of political disagreement with Democrats! All because of a healthcare law that aims to provide uninsured people with basic necessities.
The problem with the American hard right these days is that they paint political differences in terms of doomsday’s and Armageddons. They don’t debate their political opponents; they deny them the right to exist. For Tea Partiers a Democratic presidency is something that’s inherently illegitimate, and not the outcome of a democratic process. That is why they cast their political language in terms that hark back to the foundation of the American polity: the Revolutionary War. But by doing so, they damage what was the result of this struggle: a democratic republic in which political differences are solved through peaceful procedure. And, in addition, they vindicate twisted individuals like Jared Lee Loughner, who lives in his own reality, in which ‘conscience’ is but a dream, to take matters into their own hand, and start using guns.
That is why it is not at all far-fetched, or an attempt at politicization, to cross-connect Tea Party and Republican right political rhetoric, and yesterday’s gunman act. Even if it turns out that Loughner had nothing to do with the Tea Party or their discourse (which I doubt, particularly the latter), it must still be admitted that with the very rhetoric they use, they enable people who have trouble taking rhetoric for just text to start taking things literally, and start their own little one-man violent revolution.
- Edit: I’d also like to say that one of these days, someone is going to point at Loughner’s marihuana use, and find the cause for everything in that. This will then be used as another argument in hysteric anti-drug arguments. Of course this will completely ignore the bigger causes and context of Loughner’s act, but it will happen.
- Edit 2: See How A Political Assault Becomes The Subject Of Culture Wars for a follow-up to this post.