The great American culture medium seems to nourish, every few years, a person who just can't sleep at night until he's blown away a dozen or so strangers.I've been chewing this all over for a few days now, ever since logging on for some internet on Saturday morning and discovering that a Democratic member of the House of Representatives that I'd never heard of named Gabrielle Giffords had been the victim of an assassination attempt.
-Michael J. Smith
As far as I can tell, I had the same initial instinct as everyone else on the internet, that some Tea Party nutjob had finally flipped out and decided to prescribe one of Sharron Angle's Second Amendment remedies. Given the state of things in Arizona, with its gun culture, economic woes, and sharp divisions between partisans on the two sides of our traditional political divide, it seemed like a pretty reasonable hypothesis, and I surely wasn't alone in believing that that was most likely the case. Before the shooter was identified, and his YouTube channel, MySpace page, and the tweets and statements of those who'd known him were offered up to the national conversation, all manner of folks seemed to believe that he was going to turn out to be inspired by the overheated rhetoric of insurrection, secession, and violent revolution that has characterized the right wing of the Conservative end of the political spectrum for the last couple of years (or, if you will, the last couple of Democratic Presidential Administrations). Even Sarah Palin's people were scrambling to remove evidence of her map of twenty congressional districts carried by McCain/Palin that had Democratic Representatives, going so far as to float one of the all-time most ridiculous and absurd spin-memes ever, that the cross-hairs on said map were not cross-hairs at all (though Palin had referred to them as such), but "surveyor's symbols."
It's easy to lose track of, but in those first hours, before we all learned just how f-cking crazy Jared Loughner is or appears to be, just about everybody realized that Occam's Razor said this guy was a right-wing nutjob, and acted accordingly.
Even the most cursory examination of Mr. Loughner's YouTube postings reveals a mind that is, to say the least, off the beaten path. He seems mostly to be concerned with things like grammar and currency and mind control, both in the sense of the control of the minds of others (through things like grammar and currency) and also in the sense of taking control of his own mind, and by extension reality, by way of what he calls conscience dreaming, which I'm going to go out on a limb and guess is actually conscious (or lucid) dreaming, wherein the dreamer recognizes that s/he is dreaming, and through that realization takes control of the dream. There seems to be a fair case to be made that Jared Loughner believed that lucid dreaming could be made to apply to the real world as well as those associated with his own REM-sleep cycles.
The collective sigh of relief from those whose fame and fortune depend on rousing the raging rabble of the right to further fits of apocalyptic apoplexy when Mr. Loughner's imbalanced mental condition went mainstream was almost audible even if your internet connection was down, and it wasn't long before the recriminations began. Reading the right-wing blogosphere, the impression one received was that the real victims of this tragic and regrettable incident were not in fact the murder victims or the wounded, however grievous their injuries or uncertain their prognosis. No, the real victims, it would seem, were those very folks whose stock in trade were the demonization of anyone to the left of center-right and calls for violent insurrection should our electoral system not deliver the outcomes they preferred.
It was not unlike what happens when white folks get accused of being racist. The horror and historical facticity of racism in America, what with the slavery and the lynchings and the deck-stacking against folks with too much melanin to their skin tone, gets brushed aside, because somebody got made to feel bad about something they said or did, and suddenly it becomes about them, they're the real victim here, and the incident or statement in question gets brushed conveniently under the rug so we can talk about how insulted the accused feels and how completely out of line the person pointing out that what they said or did could be construed as racist is for even thinking such a horrible thing (see this for further elucidation).
In short, methinks they doth protest too much, and the further they go to deny their culpability, the further they dig themselves in.
Indeed, the conversation that we as a society maybe ought to be having, one that's going to be pretty uncomfortable for a lot of people, is getting swept under that same rug, thanks to Jared Loughner's pretty obvious mental imbalance, and to the speed and vehemence with which many on the political left accused (rightly or no, the jury is still out on that one) those on the other side of the political divide.
Current conventional wisdom seems to hold that Loughner was crazy, that was why he did what he did, the minds and motivations of such people can't be understood, and that's that. There's little evidence that Mr. Loughner subscribed to the views of either political party, at least with any real fidelity, nor any that his politics falls within our usual left-right continuum of political understanding and discourse. That his favorite books run the gamut from Mein Kampf to The Communist Manifesto would seem to indicate as much (though evidence that he had the intellectual heft to read and comprehend any of the books he listed is sorely lacking). Indeed, reading the Mother Jones interview with his high school friend Bryce Tierney, the closest we come to a rationale is that Giffords' failure to adequately answer a question he asked her (What is government if words have no meaning?) at another Congress on your Corner event in 2007 seems to have engendered an animus against her in Mr. Loughner's mind.
There are, however, several parallels between Mr. Loughner's avowed beliefs and the Sovereign Citizen movement, most notably his concerns with grammar and currency. It's my understanding that Sovereign Citizens point to certain grammatical choices made in Constitutional amendments as evidence that the United States is slowly undermining the rights and freedoms of the citizenry. And his statement that he would not pay his debts in a currency not backed by gold and silver is straight out of the fringe libertarian canon.
Now, even on the right, Sovereign Citizens are pretty fringey. But the anger that underlies that movement is the same anger that many on the right have used to whip their supporters into a frenzy, to raise money, drive eyeballs to websites and television shows, and in order to get out the vote. It's an anger that's easy to understand, rooted in not only economic uncertainty but also in some genuinely troubling developments in the way our government conducts the business of the people.
However, that anger is, to say the least, unhelpful if what we're really interested in is actually addressing these problems and finding solutions to them we can all live with. I know from personal experience, as does any- and everyone reading this, that people do not make rational choices when they're angry. They do not weigh costs and consequences, and it becomes easier to see those who might think or believe differently from us as something other (and less) than fully human. As John Cole so elegantly put it:
This is really not a hard concept to follow. There are crazy people out there. Stop egging them on.I'm going to have more to say about all of this in the days to come. For now, this is all I can stand to put down in words.