Normalizing Crazy

While I’ve been working on this, it has already been done better here and here. But if you like, feel free to keep reading.

Pretending that rhetoric doesn’t involve a measure of culpability is a wonderfully convenient fiction, isn’t it? “I was just giving orders.”

When emotions are running hot and the situation is complicated, is any medium more perfectly suited to making things worse than Twitter? I think not. The point I tried, and largely failed, to make on Twitter yesterday wasn’t that Sarah Palin told Jared Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Giffords. She didn’t do that, clearly, didn’t buy him a gun or tell him who to point it at.

But, of course. I’ve talked about this before.

The distinction between “issuing an order that somebody be killed” and “fostering the rhetoric of violent reprisal, thinly-veiled threats and demonized opponents” may well be one you can rely on to keep you out of jail, but you shouldn’t pretend that it leaves you with clean hands and a clear conscience. You can’t talk about “death panels”, “FEMA concentration camps” and “Second Amendment remedies” and then pretend when it’s far too late that you didn’t at all mean what you very obviously meant the whole time.

Glenn Beck has fantasized on air about choking Michael Moore to death. G. Gordon Liddy has said, on his radio show, that when ATF agents knock on your door, you should shoot them in the head. Ann Coulter’s address to CPAC included the line that her “only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.” Sarah Palin’s PAC has painted crosshairs over the district of Congresswoman Giffords, among others. These aren’t people talking about video games or Fight Club, or any obvious fictions; these are real examples from real people who continue to be supported by their institutions and echoed by their colleagues. They have been legitimized and normalized by the institutions that support, fund and enable them, and the message is unambiguously that what they’ve said is perfectly acceptable.

That’s the space this happened in, where somebody with a tenuous grip on their sanity was told over and over again that these specific people were the enemy, that this is a war and that violence is acceptable. That’s the context. Is that the same as culpability? Of course not.

But the context matters. And the people who’ve done their best to shape and feed that context into the monster it is now understand that. The Glenn Becks and Michael Savages and Ann Coulters and Tea Partiers of the world have been extremely well-served by fostering violence, racism and fear, and tragedies like this one don’t exist in a void.

4 Comments

  1. janice
    Posted January 9, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been watching the various new facts being uncovered in the shooting that has been in the news this weekend. It’s far too early, IMO, to impute accountability for the shooter’s motivations.

    An opinion expressed in another space where the shooter’s youtube videos were described (most of them contain text easily dissected online) was that his communications seemed consistent with a possible mental illness, conjectured to be paranoid schizophrenia which can involve a break with reality.

    If true, there would be no way to connect rhetoric he may have heard and his ultimate decision to act. The timing could possibly be a tragic but simple coincidence.

    All my opinion, mind you.

  2. Tyla
    Posted January 9, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, while I don’t think Palin or others are “to blame” exactly, I still kinda hope they feel some… guilt? shame? over their casual use of violent or militant imagery or rhetoric. I mean, if I joked that I hoped someone would drop dead and then they did, I would probably feel pretty sobered by it, despite the two events being unconnected. Stuff like that is a wake up call that life is short and a chance to examine whether we really meant what we said. (Which, hopefully not.)

    As for the mental illness perspective, yeah, from what I’ve read of his YouTube rants, the guy did not have a great handle on reality. And obviously no one can measure every word against the possibility that somebody psychotic will run with it. But I have read some interesting arguments that a lot of elected officials are either buying into or refusing to decry conspiracy theories lately. Obama-was-born-in-Kenya, death panels, and elimination of the U.S. dollar all have been taken seriously by federal politicians. (Michele Bachmann, Bill Posey, Richard Shelby, Charles E. Grassley, I’m looking at you.) Are the inmates running the asylum these days? It just seems so paranoid, and coupled with the violent rhetoric, irresponsible. I’m not sure where these politicians are going with it other than deliberately creating anger that has nowhere productive to focus itself. I mean, what is their implied remedy to having a non-citizen illegally in office?

    I don’t think cross-hairs on a map are tantamount to an order to kill, but I feel like things are edging a bit too close to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

  3. Majken "Lucy" Connor
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    A break with reality isn’t necessary a break with, you know, reality. They see things, but misinterpret them. Things don’t necessarily get made up entirely, things in the real world get distorted or transplanted. Think of all the alien abduction stories we heard about in the 80′s and 90′s, but don’t hear about now. It has to get into the brain first, somehow.

    I agree with Mike’s point. It’s the difference between saying “I never said to shoot anyone” and “I didn’t really _mean_ you should actually shoot someone.”

    Forget how I found this link, but it’s worth reading – http://www.csgv.org/issues-and-campaigns/guns-democracy-and-freedom/insurrection-timeline

  4. Jeff
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    The news that the shooter appears to have been known to be floridly mentally ill casts a spotlight on another issue — just how someone so floridly mentally ill could have been left without treatment.

    The answer, of course, being that, in Arizona, because it is unacceptable to impose a 1% raise in state taxes (to a whole 5%) for those making > $500,000 / year, so the state is instead denying life saving transplants to the less-well-off. (In contrast to a Blue state like Oregon, where to preserve medical care and education, they raised their taxes on $500,000 / yr incomes by 2%, to a new total of 11%.)

    And if the state Republicans see fit to let people die of *medical* illnesses, they sure as hell aren’t going to lift a finger to do anything about helping poor people with *mental* illness. And if some of those floridly mentally ill take their guns and do something terrible to someone other than them, well, that’s hardly *their* problem, is it?