Saturday, January 8, 2011

We're Free Not To Judge Too Quickly

The murders and attempted murders in Arizona, which have left a dedicated, principled, and gracious member of the House, Gabrielle Giffords, in critical condition, have also unleashed an onslaught of premature certitude about what is wrong with our political culture. As is often the case when a story is breaking, Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish" is usefully aggregating news as well as the reactions of Sullivan and his correspondents. So far, no matter what anyone says, it's a fluid and completely inconclusive picture.

The suspect, 22-year-old Jerod Lee Loughner, has videos on YouTube that strongly suggest he is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, according to one of Sullivan's commentators, who adds that politics would therefore be irrelevant. Sullivan's own tangential reference to the tea parties prompted another correspondent to say he or she wished Sullivan would be murdered. According to tweets by a friend of Loughner, as recently as 2007 he was a left-winger who was obsessed with prophecies about the end of the world in 2012. Loughner himself writes:

I had favorite books: Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Wizard Of OZ, Aesop Fables, The Odyssey, Alice Adventures Into Wonderland, Fahrenheit 451, Peter Pan, To Kill A Mockingbird, We The Living, Phantom Toll Booth, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Pulp,Through The Looking Glass, The Communist Manifesto, Siddhartha, The Old Man And The Sea, Gulliver's Travels, Mein Kampf, The Republic, and Meno.

If I may briefly atone, one of the first things I did when I heard the story was download a copy of Sarah Palin's infamous map labeling the districts of vulnerable members of Congress, including Rep. Giffords', with rifle cross hairs. The irony was overwhelming, and besides, I'm not a Palin fan.

Then I caught myself. What did I really know about the suspect? Was I really on the verge of trying to score a political point while Rep. Giffords was still in surgery? As the moments and hours passed and the picture became muddier, I resolved to withhold judgment until we had more facts. Meanwhile, tweets and on-line comments blamed Palin and Fox News in ways that struck me as being crudely opportunistic. I'm sorry to say that at LA's usually diligent CBS radio outlet, KNX, senior political correspondent Dick Helton persistently made the same facile and undocumented connections. There but for the grace of God.

Yes, it's ironic that Palin's PAC targeted (as they say in politics all the time) Giffords, even more ironic that U.S. District Court judge John Roll (shown at right), who was murdered today, received death threats after a ruling in a case involving a claim against an Arizona rancher by illegal immigrants.

But irony and truth don't always coincide. Some suggest, including Sullivan, that extreme political rhetoric can trigger psychotic violence by a troubled person such as the suspect. Perhaps so. Still, before we turn this tragedy into an object lesson about the incivility of our politics culture and especially before we name names, don't we need to see some evidence that Loughner was actually paying attention to whatever rhetoric we most passionately want to anathematize? It's not that he hasn't left plenty of documentation for experts to study. For instance, we know (again, from Sullivan's live-blogging) that Loughner was a Jimi Hendrix fan. What do we do if we find out that the last thing he listened to before heading out to Rep. Giffords' meeting was "Hey Joe" from "Are You Experienced?"


MK said...

Well said, John. I think this is one of those situations where the right and Fox to some degree face what they face, fairly or not, because they so consistently give off a vibe that screams, "we can't cope with democracy." And which more than the left evokes weapons in expressing such anxiety. Silly stuff associated with what I view these days as "big baby conservatism" but it demonstrates how visceral some of this stuff is.

Sometimes conservative bloggers write things that just make you go "wha--" and wonder why the tactical thinking is so poor. I'm thinking of how Townhall blogger David Stokes wrote on The New Nixon soon after Obama was inaugurated that for the first time in his life he was thinking about buying a gun. I rolled my eyes at Stokes's musings about buying a gun.

But if you read enough of this stuff, you do start to think, "what is it about the right that makes so many representatives in the blogosphere struggle so with democracy?" Palin's lame target image, which included Gifford, screamed to me, "I'm weak pretending to be strong!" That type of weak-kneed stuff becomes background noise, woven into the fabric when you think of the modern day right. If we think back to our school days, most of us regarded bullies as weak at heart. We certainly didn't admire them as strong or leadership material. Luckily for me, I read Frum, Brooks, Parker, and others to keep things in perspective.

When things like today's tragic events occur, some people think of the accumulated baggage of weakness masquerading as strength, fairly or not. The equation goes: crying about democracy=the modern right=bullying rhetoric and big guy posturing=weakness=something will explode sooner or later. Weak lefties don't have that masquerade of faux toughness and focus on the second amendment associated with them, they're just more obviously weak.

I'm as evidence oriented as anyone but I'm not terribly sympathetic to Palin or Fox or other right wing bloggers who've blustered and cried ever since (gasp) a Democrat took office on January 20, 2009. You reap what you sow, as the saying goes. Just something conservatives have to live with, I think. I'm not holding my breath for thoughtful editorials in rightwing media saying, "guys, we gotta do better in showing a commitment to a two-party system."

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. I certainly understand people's feelings toward the far right these days, which I share. All I can do is account for my own reactions, and in this case, I was a bit worried about my rush to judgment.

Your comment points toward a larger, more important reality. Sometimes the Zeitgeist (for lack of a less overused word) attaches authentic meaning to an event above and beyond the data. I recognize that. I don't like it much, but I recognize it!