Monday, January 10, 2011

Not us (cont.)

I see that most of the following points which have been rattling uneasily about my mind for the last twenty-four hours (since my earlier post on this subject) have already been made this morning by Paul Krugman in his exceptionally clear-eyed piece, but perhaps they are still worth saying if only to get them out of my system.

1. It borders on begging the question to attribute an act of anti-government political violence to "mental illness." As noted in an insightful piece in Slate yesterday, studies of violence and mental illness have found that schizophrenics and manic-depressives are scarcely more likely than anyone else to commit violent crimes. And for that matter, as this extremely penetrating and deeply disturbing article in The Atlantic a few years ago makes clear, psychiatric illnesses are always shaped, conditioned, and expressed through the social norms of the cultures in which they appear: historical and social norms act as "ecological niches" that powerfully validate and reinforce the expression of aberrant beliefs and thoughts. Nineteenth-century Europe saw psychiatric epidemics of "fugue states"; late twentieth century America had its "multiple-personality disorder." (This applies even to trivial disorders such as anxiety neurosis, which has likewise manifested itself in ways always reflecting cultural and historical context, from "neurasthenia" to "hypoglycemia" to the currently fashionable "chronic fatigue syndrome.")

2. It is a complete straw man to turn this issue into a question of "civility" in politics. Politicians have indeed always attacked, vilified, slandered, and demonized one another; and yes we can survive politicians being rude to one another; that is simply not the issue. The issue is crossing the line into delegitimization of the democratic process itself, of winking at or even glorying in reckless talk of violent extra-legal action, of excusing and even condoning or justifying actual threats and violence against government officials (as understandable "anger"), of palliating despicable acts by charging off the blame onto the victims, of legitimizing the idea that extra-legal resistance to government authority has become justifiable on the grounds that government is itself illegitimate, in the hands of illegal usurpers, and that the outcome of democratic elections therefore need not be respected.

3. You have to go back to the 1960s to find any even remotely comparable legitimization of anti-government violence on the left as we have today from Republican elected officials and party candidates, not to mention the chorus of right-wing talk-radio demagogues. It is simply nonsense to assert, as many right-wing commentators and Republican politicians have in the last 48 hours, that "there are extremists on both sides," and to speak as if political violence is a random natural phenomenon, a meteorite falling from the blue sky. I defy you to point to a single Democratic member of Congress or comparable official or candidate who has used the kind of rhetoric we have been bombarded with for the last two years from the right —  Sharron Angle explicitly suggesting that if conservatives did not prevail at the polls they would be justified in "Second Amendment solutions" to "protect themselves against a tyrannical government"; Michele Bachman telling her supporters she wants them to be "armed and dangerous" on the issue of a federal energy tax and describing Washington as a city "behind enemy lines"; the barrage of conspiracy theories about the President's supposed foreign birth and his being the agent of a socialist plot to destroy America; the waves of talk-radio-driven death threats against judges and Democratic congressmen over immigration, health care, taxes, abortion, and other reliably demagogic issues of the right.

4. For as long as I can remember, I have heard conservatives blaming everything that is wrong in the universe, from violent crime to declining test scores to teen pregnancy to rude children to declining patriotism to probably athlete's foot  . . . upon Dr. Spock, Hollywood liberals, the abolition of prayer in school, Bill Clinton, the "liberal 1960s," the teaching of evolution — in other words, upon symbols, rhetoric, cultural norms, and the values expressed by political and media leaders. Yet from the moment when someone gets a gun in their hands, apparently, society ceases to have any influence whatsoever on the outcome and individual responsibility takes hold 100%. Something is driving the tripling of death threats against congressmen (and the concomitant rise in threats against Federal judges and other villains of the right, from Forest Service rangers to climate scientists) and it isn't the sunspot cycle.

5. Political leaders have a special obligation — which no one else can fill — to counter extremism in their own camps, for the simple reason that that is what is called leadership. It is not encouraging that the first recourse of those most culpable in whipping up and profiting from the culture of violent anti-government talk has been to go on the offensive once again. But I suppose it is unsurprising that those who bluster the most about morality and personal responsibility believe that such notions apply to everyone but themselves. I see one bloviator of this camp, furious at the merest suggestion that the right's halo has even lost a hint of its luster in all of this, says we need to speak more about "evil" as an explanation. Evil to me is precisely that kind of grotesque moral abdication.