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Print view: David Brooks seemed to take his own side as he limned the disaster in Tucson
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CITIZENS TAKE THEIR OWN SIDES! David Brooks seemed to take his own side as he limned the disaster in Tucson: // link // print // previous // next //

Bringing the eternal note of whimsy in: There’s nothing wrong with Professor Joanne Freeman’s guest op-ed column in today’s New York Times. For our money, Freeman’s historical approach to last weekend’s Tucson killings is perhaps a bit tangential at this point. But her column ends with sensible words about our sad situation:

FREEMAN (1/12/11): Today, in the wake of an episode of violence against a member of Congress, we’re again lamenting the state of political rhetoric, now spread faster than ever via Twitter, Web sites, text messaging and e-mail. Once again, politicians are considering bearing arms—not to use against one another, but potentially against an angry public.

And once again we’re reminded that words matter. Communication is the heart and soul of American democratic governance, but there hasn’t been much fruitful discourse of late—among members of Congress, between the people and their representatives or in the public sphere. We need to get better at communicating not only quickly, but civilly.

There’s nothing “wrong” with Freeman’s column. But we were struck by the tone-deaf way the New York Times chose to present it. (Note: The on-line presentation doesn’t match the presentation in the hard-copy Times.)

The column is given massive, banner treatment across the top half of the op-ed page. Dominating that space is a very large cartoon presentation, in which a comical figure is shown pointing his finger as if it were a gun. To our eye, this cartoon seemed to bring a tone of whimsy to the subject of the killings in Tucson. The headline made the problem worse. “When Congress Was Armed And Dangerous,” it rather jauntily said.

Does Michelle Bachmann write the Times’ headlines how? It was Bachmann who dumbly said, in 2009, “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax.”

Given that massive, whimsical presentation, we almost didn’t read Freeman’s column. When we did, we saw that the tone-deafness lay with the Times, not with the paper’s guest columnist.

CITIZENS TAKE THEIR OWN SIDES (permalink): “Did harsh political tone have anything to do with Arizona shootings?”

Speaking a scaled-down version of English, CBS News seems to claim that it posed that mumble-mouthed question to 673 adults (click here). Among those respondents, 32 percent said yes; 57 percent said no.

This leaves 11 percent who may understand that they really don’t know if the political tone had something to do with Jared Loughner’s conduct. Meanwhile, in a tragi-comical episode, Salon’s Steve Kornacki hailed the 57 percent who said no—who judged that the political tone didn’t have anything to do with last weekend’s events.

“There's just no evidence of any connection between Loughner and Palin, the Tea Party and conservative movement,” Kornacki wrote, perhaps overstating the lack of connection a tad. For whatever reason, Kornacki failed to see that this alleged lack of evidence doesn’t establish the lack of connection. Instead, he praised The Forthright 57 for stating the correct conclusion, even as he failed to establish the basis for any judgment about the CBS query.

Was Loughner influenced by his country’s pitiful, gruesome political tone? Granted, Loughner seems to be mentally ill—but might he have acted differently in a saner, milder, more intelligent climate? Like Kornacki, like the 89 percent, we have no way of dreaming such things. But we humans rush to conclusions—always have. And the conclusions to which we leap will often tend to support our pre-existing preferences.

We humans love to take our own side! Consider the letter in today’s New York Times in which a reader wants to insist that Loughner’s act was “inescapably political.” The writer is criticizing yesterday’s column by the Times’ David Brooks:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (1/12/11): I take exception to David Brooks’s efforts to separate the climate of political hate from the shooting rampage in Tucson. If Jared L. Loughner had staged his rampage at his workplace, or in his neighborhood or in some other place devoid of political implications, Mr. Brooks would be right—another senseless mass killing by a man in need of treatment in a country in need of better gun control.

But Mr. Loughner was not, as Mr. Brooks contends, “locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it.” Mr. Loughner, even if mentally disturbed, chose his venue—a political gathering—and chose his victim, a Democratic congresswoman.

Furthermore, he made these choices in an atmosphere fired by hate speech, much of it explicitly directed at Democrats. Mr. Brooks is correct that we don’t know whether the Tea Party or Sarah Palin’s targeting of Gabrielle Giffords using cross hairs played any explicit role in influencing Mr. Loughner’s choice of victim, but his heinous act, however irrational, was inescapably political.

Loughner act was “inescapably political,” the writer insists. By this, she seems to mean nothing more than the obvious; she seems to mean that the person Loughner targeted was a political figure. (And a Democrat!) Brooks had made no attempt to deny this obvious fact, of course; the writer is asserting a fact which everyone understands. But once we permit ourselves to say that Loughner’s act was “inescapably political,” faulty logic lets us move elsewhere. Loughner committed a political act, in which he tried to murder a Democrat! Having drawn ourselves this warm bath, we may soon treat ourselves to other dreams about his motivations and influences.

Was Loughner influenced by the political climate? It’s certainly possible—and if he wasn’t, the next deranged killer may be. Sadly, this is a problem which Brooks chose to skirt in his column, in which he too seemed to pick and choose his conclusions and points of concern based on his own tribal leanings.

Without any apparent attempt at irony, Brooks’ column was titled “The Politicized Mind.” He made many points which were perfectly valid—but he ended with this passage, in which he lists the questions which have emerged from these gruesome events:

BROOKS (1/11/11): I have no love for Sarah Palin, and I like to think I’m committed to civil discourse. But the political opportunism occasioned by this tragedy has ranged from the completely irrelevant to the shamelessly irresponsible.

The good news is that there were a few skeptics, even during the height of the mania: Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast, James Fallows of The Atlantic and Jonathan Chait of The New Republic. The other good news is that the mainstream media usually recovers from its hysterias and tries belatedly to get the story right.

If the evidence continues as it has, the obvious questions are these: How can we more aggressively treat mentally ill people who are becoming increasingly disruptive? How can we prevent them from getting guns? Do we need to make involuntary treatment easier for authorities to invoke?

Torrey’s book describes a nation that has been unable to come up with a humane mental health policy—one that protects the ill from their own demons and society from their rare but deadly outbursts. The other problem is this: contemporary punditry lives in the world of superficial tactics and interests. It is unprepared when an event opens the door to a deeper realm of disorder, cruelty and horror.

In that passage, Brooks names three “skeptics”—writers who were supposedly skeptical about the connection between Loughner’s act and “the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin.” But alas! In at least one instance, Brooks—taking his own side—makes The Kornacki Blunder. Chait wasn’t a “skeptic” on this point at all; he did in fact state a conclusion, in this post, which bears this headline: “The Arizona Shooting Is Not A Product Of Right-Wing Rage.”

The emphasis there would be on the word “Not.” For the record, Chait may be right when he draws this conclusion. But how can he possibly know this?

How does Chait know that Loughner wasn’t affected by “right-wing rage?” We have no idea, and his reasoning was notably weak. “I don't believe that analogizing politics to combat encourages anybody, even the mentally ill, to take up violence,” he says at one point. That is fine, but mere “belief” can’t establish a fact—and he plainly claimed a fact in his headline, which appeared in very large print.

Back to Brooks: In the highlighted passage, he lists three questions he says have been raised by Loughner’s conduct. The three questions he lists are perfectly valid—but he doesn’t think that this incident even raises a question about this country’s “harsh political tone.” And Brooks does know that such a tone exists. In this passage, he takes his latest veiled swipe at Paul Krugman—and he names three other alleged malefactors:

BROOKS: Mainstream news organizations linked the attack to an offensive target map issued by Sarah Palin’s political action committee. The Huffington Post erupted, with former Senator Gary Hart flatly stating that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric. Keith Olbermann demanded a Palin repudiation and the founder of the Daily Kos wrote on Twitter: “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” Others argued that the killing was fostered by a political climate of hate.

These accusations—that political actors contributed to the murder of 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl—are extremely grave. They were made despite the fact that there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these movements or a consumer of their literature. They were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.

The use of that phrase, “climate of hate,” seems to be a reference to Krugman’s latest column, which carried that headline. (In recent months, Brooks has taken to quoting Krugman’s words without stating his name. Presumably, this represents a nod to standards of decorum among Times colleagues.) In today’s Times, Gary Hart rejects Brooks’ criticism, saying he was guilty of no “political opportunism.” More directly, we would agree that Hart did not lodge any “vicious charges.” But for the record, Hart plainly did “flatly stat[e] that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric.” We don’t know how he could know that. (To read Hart’s post, just click here.)

The commentary has been widespread this week—but pundits and other citizens have often tended to take their own pre-existing sides. And given the waze wee humanz reesun, logic has often flown out the door as we take our own sides.

By the way: At some point, some unbalanced or mentally ill liberal (or apparent liberal) will presumably decide to shoot at some conservative political figure. If such conduct ever occurs, it will be hard to determine if his or her decision was influenced by “harsh political rhetoric” on the part if prominent liberals. But the charge will be lodged.

When that happens, will liberals rush to declare that this conduct was “inescapably political?” More constructively, can’t we all agree that our current discourse is extremely harsh, and monstrously stupid? And by the way: Will we ever decide to adopt a new, and obvious, category of thought? Will we ever decide to agree that The Stupid is deeply destructive too? That incivility isn’t the only problem? That our endless, unchallenged use of The Stupid violates a citizen’s obvious duty as well?

Tomorrow: Stupid kills