Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ben Smith on Jared Lee Loughner

Ben Smith manages to put his fingers on three interesting topics in two sentences, and spin them all the wrong way:
Jared Lee Loughner's YouTube and MySpace pages don't offer much evidence that he was drinking from the main streams of American politics. The obsession with the gold standard and the hostility to the federal government resonate with the far right, the burned American flag with the left, but the discussion of mind control and grammar sound more like mental illness than politics.
Diagnosing the psychological, political, and personal (like their separable anyway) states of someone from their social media footprint is like trying to diagnose the health of a coma patient via video. (Not that it stops even The Silly Season from trying.) Attempts to explain a distant patient are more likely to reveal truths about the speaker than the subject.

Ben Smith's basic point is quite right: partisans are likely to see their opponents in the motivations and actions of the deranged. That's why partisans fight against the opposition; the enemy is deranged and is likely to hurt the American public. Any serious threat is categorized alongside the imagined or hyped threat in order to justify the partisan rancor. More importantly, the left-right divide as the media likes to analyze politics does not explain the motivations of normal voters, much less mass murderers. Aberrant violence definitionally does not fit into established narratives about mainstream political thought.

In clumsily getting to that point, Ben Smith offers us a fascinating picture of either his world view or how he believes a journalist must behave. These are the three interesting points that he touches on:

1) The Left hate America. When someone advocates burning or defacing American symbols, they can be categorized as being on the Left. In fact, only someone with Leftist political ties would ever think to burn American flags. Want to burn American flags? You're a liberal, now go sit on that side of the spectrum.

Besides that (and the word of an estranged classmate who hasn't spoken to Loughner in 3 years), there is so far little to tie Loughner to the Left unless you count Brave New World or the Phantom Tollbooth or whatever his list of books includes. But then again, he's also Ben Smith, serious journalist, probably only includes that weak connection in order please the Journalistic gods.

2) Seek balance at all costs. People have drawn the connection between the gold standard stuff and right-wing thought because unlike flag burning, the gold standard is a live issue with a defined group of politicians and their supporters. There are no liberals who want to return to the gold standard. There are conservatives who want to return to the gold standard. There is a visible group of people who supported Ron Paul and run a lot of the internet infrastructure for the tea party who support the return of the gold standard. It would appear very odd to me for a person to independently develop an interest in the gold standard without contact with right-wing thought. A huge chunk of Glenn Beck television and a broader range of talk radio programming is also dedicated to a return to the gold standard. The individualist creation of your own currency, as Loughner's video suggests, is in response to the government making "a secret currency" to undermine the normal economy. The paranoia over the gold standard is ripped from the pages of Glenn Beck's book. But of course, he also wants to burn American flags, so it's probably equal money that he's a pro-health care liberal.

3) Ignore all evidence and context. "... But the discussion of mind control and grammar sound more like mental illness than politics." I agree with Mr. Smith here. Those are outlandish claims that sound like the ravings of a lunatic. But they also sound exactly like Conservative rhetoric over the last three years. Remember when President Obama gave a televised address to school children urging them to focus on their studies and do well in school? And do you remember when conservatives claimed it was indoctrination, brainwashing, and fascist? FOX News advised parents to keep their kids out of school that day. No sane person could believe that American schools are brainwashing children, so Ben Smith's point is well taken. The Right has been espousing sentiments "more like mental illness than politics." The Right has been engaging in high-visibility, publicized mental illness, becoming indistinguishable from Loughner. For what it's worth, the opening paragraph of Glenn Beck's book:
“They're changing the books so that in a generation from now almost nobody will remember what this country used to be. They've got the economy set up to fall like a house of cards whenever they're ready to tap the first one at the foundation. They've got the controlled media all lined up and ready to carry out their PR campaign. And they've got people so indebted and mind-controlled and unprepared, they'll turn to anybody who says he's got the answer…They're going to stage something soon to get it all started.”
Ben Smith is right. That does "sound more like mental illness than politics."

The paranoia and anti-centralization sentiments that are evident in Loughner's writing are, however, not unique to the modern Conservative tea party crowd. Hysteric paranoia is as American as apple pie. The original silver-standard populist, William Jennings Bryan, almost rode a wave of anti-banker-Washington paranoia into the White House in 1896. That's what makes the American Political Tradition such a great read. The explicit calls to arms from all corners of the political spectrum (though, honestly, have you heard any calls to arms from the Left in the past thirty years?) are unacceptable. They normalize violence, inviting a gunman to bring a pistol and two loaded extended clips with him to a political gathering, indiscriminately firing into a crowd of fellow citizens. By the way, news reports now suggest that as heroic men tackled Loughner to the ground, he wasn't retreating; he was reloading.

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