The rhetoricat bobbing and weaving responding to the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a federal judge and more than a dozen others, has already been transformed into dizzying nonesense. It reminds me of just how difficult it was to face the obvious fact that nicotine is addictive and smoking causes cancer. It just didn't serve the interest of big tobacco and all those grown dependent upon it to admit the truth.
From the left comes quick and convenient denunciations of familiar targets: Sarah Palin is to blame. Her interest group's decision to use symbolic cross hairs on a map "targeting" congressmen for defeat is tantamount to inciting a person to kill. I've not yet heard anyone call for Palin's actual prosecution for aiding and abetting murder. But give the lunatic fringe a little time to catch up with events. The instinct is there; all that is lacking thus far is a prosecutor creative enough to sign the writ; incitement is, after all, one way to prove aiding and abetting a crime.
But we call know that Sarah Palin did not cause Jared Loughner to kill anyone. Sure, her speech was incendiary, but banning robust speech won't make the world a safter place. It will just bury resentment a little deeper beneath the surface.
From the right comes equally fantastic claims: Senator Jon Kyl, the Arizona Senate Republican, was on national news yesterday decrying any suggesting that tart and sometimes violent speech had anything to do with Mr. Loughner's rampage. "There is no evidene to suggest this," he said. David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, echoed similar sentiments. There is no evidence to support the fact that hate speech causes violence, he said.
But we all know that Jared Loughner, no matter how mentally ill he might be, draped his actions in the form of speech that is convenient and common on the right. Pour enough gasoline into a room and any spark will ignite a fire.
So we endure another debate about mere association of events and proof of causation. Call this the political equivalent of the tobacco wars. The right wants to sell hateful nicotine to consumers, but deny any responsibility for the consequences. The left wants to make the world safe for idiots everywhere: If we could all just make nice and be good to one another, why what a world we would have! Norman Vincent Peale is now a national saint; politicos are salesmen now, plain and simple.
Both left and right make much of the distinction between two events' occurring in close proximity to one another, a claim of association, and the inexorable temporal relation of events we call causation. Thus, we don't say it rains every year just after the last game of the World Series. In those years bringing rain, we call it coincidence. But we do say that the presence of certain types of clouds can cause rain. The difference matters a great deal.
In the case of Jared Loughner we will never know to a certainty what caused his actions. But denying that hate speech and a low-brow, knuckle-dragging political culture had anything to do with his actions seems a lot like calling cigarettes health food. Denying the relation of speech and acts is a sign of something far worse than cancer, however: The denial is a form of declaring meaningless the very concept of culture or political society.
A republic, the Roman orator Cicero told us long ago, is not any random collection of people; a republic is a group of people bound together by joint interests and a common conception of right. Put another way, intellectual historians speak of climates of opinion, general boundaries defining collections of ideas and concepts that define an era. No one has ever parsed the connection between words and deeds to the satsifaction of a neurosurgeon: indeed, one of the last scientific frontiers to conquer is the boundary between mind and body. The genius who deciphers this link, if can be deciphered, will lend his or her name to the pantheon of intellects to whom all cultures owe a debt.
Denying a link between words and deeds betrays a sort of moral schizophrenia that is as twisted as Mr. Loughner's decision to kill. It is a species of moral madness that denies the reality of consequences. When the right cries no proof of causation, it engages in a species of nihilism almost as frightening as the left's instance that feeling good is enough.
Suddenly, the world of Immanuel Kant seems at once urgently necessary. The eighteenth century knew that the physical world was one bounded by laws, and that the demanding logic of cause and effect drove all ghosts from the machine. But Kant also knew that the human spirit was incapable of being compressed into the variables on a physicist's chalk board: we act according to moral imperatives. We speek of God, freedom and immortality as though they were real. For Kant, they were indeed real, a world of the unseen whose reality defined the concept of what is possible for the mind to conceive as in confronts the imperatives of living.
We are poorer in the United States than we ought to be. We are poorer because we have turned out back on the very concept of culture. We've grown evasive, drawing silly distinctions between causation and association in the world of morals. We can never prove our assertions about the good life; we can merely test them one life at a time and draw practical consequences. Statistics can teach, but only humans can choose.
What is lacking from discussion of Mr. Loughner is any real sense that his individual acts took place on a stage set by a social and historical setting. The right wants to say he killed because he is insane; the left wants to say he killed because hate sppech led him to it. Neither right nor left seem willing to discuss the general sense of rage and malaise that arises from a material situation in which the lives many people live do not match the rhetoric we use to discuss those lives. I've said it before and I will say it again: The American Dream is at risk, and many Americans know it. Yet both right and left cannot acknowledge this. They play at what Marx called ideology: papering over a world of hurt with speech that bears the same relation that flatulence does to a wound: we can speaof a foul scent without ever healing the sore.
Jared Loughner killed. He is probably insane, or, at the very least, suffers a diminished capacity. His disconnected rage was mobilized and given focus by hate speech. That speech is made possible and popular by the fact that it mobilizes the sentiments of many Americans whose lives don't resemble the dream they were taught to expect. The political classes, and the high-priced pundits who serve it, like things the way they are. No revolution serves the interest of the fat and sassy. I say there are far more Jared Loughners out there than we realize. You want to talk ticking time bombs? One just exploded in Tucson.