Let me see if I get this straight: Jared Loughner is an unhinged loner, a madman who, inspired by voices only he could hear, erupted in a destructive rampage, killing a child, a federal judge and attempting to kill a Congresswoman. Hence, we need to be more civil in our political discourse. Let’s work together to feel better about the world.
I am not quite sure who is nuttier: Jared Loughner, or the politicians spewing this nonsense. If Loughner was so insane, civility doesn’t matter. We could have sung Kumbaya in unison every night at nine; the voices in Jared’s head weren’t going to be part of the chorus.
I saw precious little commentary this week about why anger sells in the marketplace of ideas. There was plenty of finger pointing about overheated rhetoric. We heard about Sarah Palin’s use of gun sights to target Congressional districts. Then there was the furor about her use of the term "blood libel." Rage was the rage, but no one seemed to ask what makes rage possible?
Could it be that angry political rhetoric sells because people are angry? Wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer people’s hands; more than a million homes are in foreclosure; plenty of Americans lost their pensions when the real estate bubble burst; wages are low as we out-source the American dream; many feel oppressed by the influx of immigrants anxious to fuel dreams of their own using our table scraps. These aren’t exactly the signs of a society at peace with itself. Rather, the world seems scary. I suggest anger sells because it mobilizes fear.
You wouldn’t know that reading Time magazine. This week’s lead essay opined that Jared Loughner had declared war on normal. Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords is the sort of moderate fitting squarely in the mainstream, the magazine declared. Normal? Mainstream? This isn’t journalism; it’s Norman Vincent Peale preaching about the power of positive thinking.
Are there any Marxists left in the world? I am not talking about the wild-eyed dreamers who thought that reason and will could create a world in which human need was satisfied. All I am looking for are a few cleared-eyed realists who realize that political ideas do not arise in a vacuum. There is a material reality out there. That reality restricts and confines the limits of what is possible; it serves as the context in which our ideas and ideals arise.
The emerging record about Jared Loughner suggests that he is a young man suffering from acute mental illness. But the rhetorical devices he used to mobilize this fury seemed torn from the pages of disaffected right-wing ideologues. And when he went on his rampage, he didn’t head to just any mall and open fire on strangers. His first and primary target was a Congresswoman. However insane the triggerman, there is no denying that he was oriented enough to act out in a way that was far from random.
Could it be that the rhetoric guiding him reflects the material reality facing far too many Americans, Americans losing their homes, their hopes and their sense of belonging to a political community characterized by citizens who share common ends?
The Roman orator Cicero long ago said that a republic was not simply a collection of people, it was a group of folks bound together by common interests and a shared conception of justice. Interests speak of people’s stake in the status quo, and their vision of how to maintain a good and decent life. We are well passed the point in this country in which there is a consensus on the good life. As for justice, my hunch is that far more Americans place their hopes in an apocalypse of one form or another than we care to admit. These folks have lost faith in the American dream because the rhetoric of that dream doesn’t meet the reality of their lives. Singing the national anthem. pledging allegiance to the flag and preaching civility won’t staunch wounds caused by hopelessness.
Sure, Jaren Loughner is mentally ill. If it were that simple, we’d mourn the dead and move on. Instead, we beg one another to be civil while ignoring the underlying reality of what makes anger and rage so attractive. My hunch is that we preach civility because we’re too frightened to admit a larger truth: the center no longer holds. All the pretty speech in the world won’t change the fact that for many Americans the dreams they have sometimes resemble waking nightmares, and when this sort of darkness becomes normal the future terrifies.. Civility? In your dreams.