Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tucson & Political Culture -- More Signs of Trouble

I have been waiting a couple days to comment on the Tucson tragedy to let the facts come out and absorb the commentary. There are many issues that interconnect with the Gridlock concept which are raised by the event itself and then the reaction to the event. To my mind, all of them point to a defective political culture. Maybe the event will shock us into beginning to heal ourselves.

First, the shooting. The policy question is what to do about the mentally ill getting access to guns. It appears that we are no closer to addressing this issue now than we were following the Virginia Tech incident, which is really the closest recent parallel to what occurred on Saturday. The fact that virtually everyone would agree that the mentally ill should not have access to semi-automatic weapons but there is no consensus about how to solve this policy problem is a reflection of our broken political culture. There is such a lack of trust in government and political institutions that even narrowly tailored measures directed at preventing mass shootings are perceived by many as a threat to what they believe are personal rights to own a gun for recreation or self-protection. This absolutism frustrates our ability to govern ourselves.

A second widely discussed issue is whether the increased use of vitriolic rhetoric, some of which contains allusions to violence, contributed to this incident. David Brooks insists that there is no evidence of direct causation since the shooter was clearly psychogically disturbed and his writings reflect a garbled, incoherent philosophy, not right-wing, anti-government ideology. Paul Krugman points out that there is a difference between hot ideology, which is an accepted part of our political dialogue, and "eliminationist" rhetoric, which labels political opponents as enemies that need to be distinguished. Both arguments have merit, but are incomplete. Brooks is correct that causation cannot be proven and Loghner had no identifiable ideology, but he seems to downplay that the shooter engaged in an overtly political act -- the attempted assassination of a member of Congress. Just as no one can prove that Loughner acted out of anti-government sentiment, likewise it cannot be proven that public dialogue saturated with eliminationist language and images did not contribute to a climate, absorbed in some way by Loghner's distrubed mind, that made assassination the vehicle for him to express his paranoid delusions. Given this possibility, now is a perfectly opportune time for leaders to increase civility and monitor their inflammatory rhetoric.

Unfortunately, this may not take place due to the immediate politicization of the reaction to the shootings. The Pima County sherrif kicked this off by blaming the event on hate speech and intolerance and, as Brooks points out, our fractionated, no holds barred, media dove head-first into the story before many facts were known. The counter-counter reaction has been just as bad, with conservatives somehow claiming that those calling for heightend civility and less violent rhetoric are somehow trying to silence those with conservative viewpoints, as if there is no space between criminally enforced speech codes and self-imposed restraints on characterizing political opponents as mortal enemies.

If now is not the time to candidly discuss these pathologies in our political culture, with a child, innnocent bystanders, and public servants slain, and a congresswoman laying in the hospital after being shot in the head at point blank range, I don't know when is.

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