Jared Loughner and the Paranoid Style
New Left Project
aul Street is an independent policy researcher, journalist, historian, and speaker. He is the author of several books, including 'Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11' and most recently 'The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power'. He spoke to NLPs Alex Doherty on the political meaning of the recent killings in Tuscon, Arizona.
In the wake of the killings in Tuscon the tea party and their fellow travelers have been attacked for their lack of civility and for constant use of military metaphors regarding their opponents in the Democratic Party. Is civility really the key issue here?
No, it isn't. Citizens have no special obligation to be gracious and polite – to show "good manners" on the model of an aristocratic tea party – toward politicians and each other in a democracy. Real civic democracy often involves rugged and passionate conflict. Egos get bruised. Harsh words are exchanged. Unpleasant truths are spoken to and against power, often in justifiably angry tones.
On military metaphors, they are nothing new. Factions and parties and activists have spoke of rallying troops, winnings battles, waging wars, targeting opponents, raising campaign (finance) "war chests" and the like – making militarized political analogies and metaphors – since the beginning.
The elite call for civility generally reflects and expresses the "better sort's" fear of "the rabble's" "populist rage" – of the non-affluent majority's legitimate popular anger. And ordinary people get understandably irate and "uncivil" when "representative democracy" translates into too much representation for powerful corporations and financial interests and little if any real democracy for the people. That translation is deeply entrenched in the U.S., where, as the American philosopher John Dewey noted a century ago, "politics is the shadow cast on society by business." U.S. policy now seems more captive than ever to the closet dictatorship of money. Lots of regular people are reasonably outraged by that. As the left liberal commentator William Greider put in (in a column titled "Obama Asked us to Speak, but is he Listening?") in the spring of 2009: "People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn't. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the [economic] catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it."
During the Iowa presidential Caucus campaign, the Democratic candidate John Edwards used to say that big progressive change could never be accomplished without "an epic fight with concentrated wealth and power" (whether Edwards actually wished to wage that fight is an open question). He openly and quite impolitely attacked Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as "corporate Democrats" and mocked Obama's "Kumbaya" notion that good results could come from "sitting down at a big negotiating table with corporations and Republicans." Obama scored points with corporate funders and the corporate media by rejecting Edwards' common-sense populist rhetoric as uncivil, arguing in a Des Moines debate that "we don't need more heat, we need more light." We have seen who his bringers of "light" are – the very same Wall Street and Pentagon overlords who ran the country into the ground under George W. Bush. Lecturing the masses on the need for civility while making policy on behalf of the rich and powerful is an ugly elitist game.
Still, the Tea Party's particular brand of incivility should be a source of concern. It has little to do with legitimate popular anger. The Tea Party is basically the fake- and rancid-populist right wing of an ever more reactionary, racist, plutocratic and authoritarian Republican Party. It is largely a corporate-funded, corporate-crafted, and corporate media-ted, top-down phenomenon, Its membership is disproportionately affluent and very predominantly white and its rage is directed primarily (and quite illegitimately) at the poor, blacks, Latinos, Muslims and at government programs that serve – or are perceived as supporting – the disadvantaged. Its anger often takes paranoid forms, including the widespread and highly moronic sense among Tea Partiers that Obama is some type of socialist and Marxist totalitarian who is scheming to steal American prosperity and freedom.
The Tea Party does include on its margins dodgy, hard-right, proto-fascistic elements who advocate violence against "government" (a third of "Tea Party activist" surveyed by CBS and the New York Times last April agreed that it is "justified for citizens to take violent action against the government"), immigrants, and "the left" (a category that for Tea Partiers seems to range from Angelina Jolie and Charles Schumer to the local natural foods coop, NBC, and Hugo Chavez.) Attachment to guns (including rapid- and repeat-fire assault weapons that are about killing large numbers of human beings) runs strong with many Tea Partiers, especially among its more extreme elements. So does a deep sense of persecution and powerlessness in the face of "big government" and other large forces. When we factor in ongoing economic insecurity, the deepening mental illness and even psychosis of many isolated and marginalized Americans, the absence of a serious mental health policy in the U.S. widespread deadly-gun ownership and lax gun laws (Arizona allows citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit) it becomes a cause for apprehension when:
# Tea Party chapters put up billboards telling citizens to "PREPARE FOR WAR" with a "Marxist" government (their openly idiotic take on the corporate-imperial Obama administration). This happened last year.
# Tea Party inspirational leader and neo-John Bircher Glenn Beck uses his widely viewed prime-time far right Fox "News" television show to compare American progressives to Osama bin Laden and to say the following to the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress: "Shoot me in the head if you try to change our government—I will stand against you. And so will millions of others." This happened last June.
# Beck advances on air a hypothetical scenario where the government is considering taking his children because he refused to let them receive a mandatory flu vaccine and tells the audience that his response to the government would be "Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson." This happened last October.
# Beck regularly screams at callers-in, condemns his detractors as dangerous anti-Christian socialists, and calls for armed rebellion to "take the country back" from horrid leftist "progressives" and the "big government" they support.
# Fox "News" host Bill O'Reilly fantasizes on air about killing a Washington Post reporter and tells co-host Megyn Kelly, "I think you and I should go and beat him up" (this happened last November) - a comment that is consistent with O'Reilly's regular practice of verbal bullying, coupled with hints of physical coercion. O'Reilly and Beck regularly interrupt and "out shout" opponents. O'Reilly cuts guests off, yelling "I don't want to hear it."' He calls his critics "pinheads" and orders them to "shut up!" O'Reilly has physically threatened those on "the left" on more than one occasion. His latest bestselling book is titled "Pinheads and Patriots" – a title meant to question the Americanism as well as the intelligence of liberals and leftists.
# 24 percent of Tea Party supporters and 32 percent of Tea Party activists believe that political goals can be legitimately pursued through "violent action against the government." This opinion was registered in an April 2010 CBS-New York Times poll, which also found that more than three in four of those activists get their television political news from Fox
# Rick Barber, a Tea Party candidate seeking the Republican nomination in Alabama's Second Congressional District, runs a campaign advertisement in which he compares taxation and "the tyrannical health care bill" to slavery and the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany. "We live in perilous times ... We are all becoming slaves to our government," Barber warned. The "army of voters" depicted in his ad included a number of openly armed individuals. This happened last June.
# Katherine Crabill, a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates in the state's 99th District, calls on Americans to resist the "radical" course Obama was supposedly setting for the country. Appearing at a "Tea Party" rally, Crabill says that "We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box." This happened in July of 2009.
# Gabrielle Giffords' hard right 2010 Congressional opponent Jesse Kelly holds a gun event that is billed as follows on the Pima County Republican website: "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M-16 with Jesse Kelly." This happened last June.
The problem with all these thuggish, gun-slinging and violence-threatening right-wingers isn't incivility as such. It's a toxic mixture of elite-sponsored arch-authoritarianism, nationalism, paranoia, and racism – all connected to the advance and defense of "gun rights" (including the right to brandish a semi-automatic Glock pistol at your local coffee shop) and a culture and discourse of physical coercion and violence. With Fox "News" and the right-wing talk radio network, the ugly brew is quite ubiquitous now in the reigning media-politics culture. Its like constant background chatter now.
The president, the media and much of the political class are on this big civility kick. They are using the Loughner atrocity to quell citizen anger as such – to marginalize real and legitimate popular discontent. I have nothing but uncivil contempt for those who posit a moral equivalence of "incivility" between an armed rightist who uncivilly attacks a federal official or structure and an unarmed antiwar marcher who uncivilly chants "Hey Obama, what do you say, how many kids did you kill today?" And that reminds me, it is a bit nauseating to get Gandhian lectures on nonviolence and the need for a New Era of Civility from a president who rains deadly bombs and drone-launched missiles on wedding parties, children, and villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Somalia. I am reminded of Bill Clinton waxing eloquent and teary-eyed about the need for love and healing in the wake of the Columbine school shootings (April 20, 1999) while he was criminally bombing Serbia (between March 24 and June 11, 1999) and continuing the "economic sanctions" that killed more than a million Iraqis during the 1990s.
The tea party has pointed to the mental instability of Jared Loughner and his interest in leftist literature to deflect criticism of themselves. Can the Tea Party really be blamed for this atrocity?
Well, not really. Jared Loughner is not a Tea Partier and I doubt that he has been personally influenced by the Tea Party phenomenon much if at all. Technically insane or not, he is a type of lethal rightist that has been around in the U.S. for some time, since before the rise of the Tea Party phenomenon. As professor Zoltan Grossman recently noted on ZNet, Loughner is a particular kind of American fascist - a "constitutionalist fascist,"cut from the cloth of the Posse Comitatus," a survivalist militia founded in Wisconsin during the 1970s. I'll quote Grossman at some length because he gets to the essence of Loughner's world view and helps explains the confusion (which right wing media is predictably advancing) between Loughner's ideas (articulated rather clearly on a YouTube video posted last year) and leftist ideas:
The Posse threatened judges, killed a number of people, and outgunned police SWAT teams at the time. It has since spun off into a variety of 'plenipotentiary judges' (affiliated with the Sovereign Citizens Movement and other 'common-law' groups) that issue their own liens, and refuse to pay taxes or apply for identification. Like Loughner, they deny the worth of U.S. currency as not backed by gold or silver, which they claim the Constitution requires.
The motivations of constitutionalist fascist movements are quite different than the current Tea Party conservative populists. They tended not to follow Christian fundamentalism, but promoted their own brand of 'Christian Identity,' heavily racialized and driven by global conspiracy theories dominated by Jews (or euphemisms thereof, such as bankers or the Federal Reserve System). They may be mentally unbalanced, but somewhat rational in how they emulate and follow the example of earlier far-right militants such as Tim McVeigh."
Much like McVeigh or the followers of Lyndon LaRouche, they do not defend the capitalist status quo, but pose themselves as a right-wing revolutionary alternative to it. They often oppose the same things as leftists—such as military interventions, trade deals, corporate power, and government surveillance—but for entirely different reasons. Their goals are to 'protect U.S. sovereignty,' cut off contact with foreign peoples and the United Nations, and attack the global financial conspiracy.
Loughner repeated another hallmark of most fascists, by declaring in his video that the government is practicing 'mind control' and brainwashing citizens through the educational system—even through the structure of English grammar itself. Some of these views are promoted in American Renaissance, a magazine that describes itself as "America's premiere publication of racial-realist thought.
…Loughner's views on grammar closely reflect those of David Wynn Miller, a Milwaukee-based far-right activist, and founder of the Sovereign Citizens Movement. Miller himself admitted that Loughner's 'argument sounded familiar,' and 'He's probably been on my Web site, which has been up for about 11 years. The government does control the schools, and the schools determine the grammar and language we use. And then it is all reinforced by newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and everything we do in society.'
I doubt very much that Loughner needed to be exposed to Sarah Palin's now infamous map – the one that used gun-sight imagery online to target "liberal" congresspersons, including Gabrielle Giffords, for removal –to be motivated to go after Giffords (against whom he seems to have held some personal grudge since 2007). Still, it's pretty repellent to listen to Tea Party big shots claim pure innocence. They and the broader resurgent right wing led by FOX News, right wing talk radio and much of the Republican Party (for which "the Tea Party" is a loud and obnoxious front) are a big part of the noxious mix – the hard-right poisoning of public discourse, the savage misdirection of personal and popular anger, and the high-decibel legitimizing of violence and guns. They are not directly or legally culpable but they have some moral responsibility for the shootings just like the "anti-government" right wing congressional Republicans of the 1990s (Gingrich and Dick Armey – both key Tea Party leaders today) had some real moral responsibility for Timothy McVeigh's assault on the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
More than "the Tea Party," I would blame (a) the absence of a serious mental health policy in this country and (b) lax U.S. and Arizona gun laws– the pathetic ease with which Loughner was able to obtain and use deadly weaponry calibrated for unspeakable carnage. Loughner was deemed too mentally unstable to attend community college or join the U.S. Army, but he had no difficulty purchasing a Glock handgun and a 33-round magazine. These two factors are particularly worrisome in a period when the investor and governing classes seems to have no use for masses of American citizens (15 million of whom are now officially unemployed [the real number of involuntarily jobless is much higher] – the biggest number since the Great Depression) and as the right wing media empire (anchored by Fox) keeps up a steady drumbeat of vicious misinformation and hysterically instructs shattered people with fragile psyches and damaged mental faculties to "act now" (before its too late) against "socialist tyranny" (the right's absurd take on Obama's state-capitalist neoliberalism)...through the "bullet box" if necessary.
Of course, the Tea Party agenda – really just a loud and extreme version of the right-wing Republican agenda – would further advance the economic and social ingredients of rising toxicity. Its vision of America would turn the U.S. into an "Armed Madhouse" (the title of one of Greg Palast's books – for Palast its already an accurate description), suggested in the following chilling post-slaughter comment from Tea Party state representative Jack Harper (R-Arizona): "when everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim." Yes, let us all – women, men, boys, and girls (one of Loughner's murdered victims was a third grader named Christina Taylor Green) strap on weapons and ammo before every trip to the supermarket or coffee shop. Last year Harper submitted a bill to the Arizona state legislature that would allow faculty members to carry guns on university campuses. Welcome to the wild west.
Of course the Democrats have proved fairly useless when it comes to helping ordinary Americans avert economic and personal decline. They have done little to overcome the disastrous consequences of epic recession, to restrict guns, and to bring about a sane mental health policy in this country. The Democratic Party is controlled by an amoral business elite that has been ruining American lives and driving untold numbers of working and middle class people out of their minds for more than three and a half decades now. According to recent reports, Loughner had not received a paycheck in six months. He'd been fired from at least five jobs, and had filed unsuccessful employment applications at more than 60 low-wage retail outlets.
What do you make of Loughner's interest in conspiracy theories and the wide interest in such theories across the political spectrum in the United States?
Loughner is one of many U.S. citizens caught up in what the American historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics. By Hofstadter's account in 1964, reflecting on the far-right Goldwater movement, this style was an old and recurrent phenomenon amongst U.S. public. Notable for extreme and badly misdirected anger, the paranoid style is characterized by "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy"—a sense that mysterious and nefarious forces have infiltrated and subverted the land, including the highest reaches of government and politics, threatening to enslave the republic. Paranoid-style groups and individuals tend to speak, think, and write in chiliastic and melodramatic terms, claiming to have discovered—and urging militant opposition to—powerful elitist forces of darkness. Examples past and present include mid-nineteenth-century nativist claims that "the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions;" late-nineteenth-century Populist warnings about "the secret cabals of the international gold ring;";1950s McCarthyism's crusade against communists "high in this government;" and the 9/11 "Truth movement" (which insists that the al Qaeda jetliner attacks of September 2001 were an "inside job" conducted by the Bush administration to justify U.S. occupations in the Middle East and South Asia). These and other examples of paranoia in American history are a fairly predictable outcome of the contradiction between the nation's ubiquitous claim to be a model democracy and the harsh authoritarian political and policy realities imposed by the deeply entrenched, structurally empowered super-citizenship of concentrated wealth and empire. It also reflects the pronounced absence from American political life of commonsense class-based structural analyses of the aforementioned underlying conflict between capitalism and democracy. As Hofstadter noted, Americans afflicted by the paranoid tendency are often "shut out of the political process" and "hav[e]no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions" and thus "find their … conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery."
Powerful political actors who are not shut out of the political process exploit and sometimes fan the paranoid style to win support from those who are and/or feel powerless in the face of existing social and political forces. The paranoid style draws heavily on mass ignorance about "the actual machinery" of power, which is rendered un-mysterious in the commonsense class analysis that is so sadly taboo in the United States, where left thought is largely shunned by dominant educational and media institutions and left institutions are amazingly scarce. The right wing version of the paranoid style is currently experiencing a return to the center of American politics like no time in more than five decades – a return that is intimately linked to the disappearance an actual left, the death of mainstream liberalism, and the rise of the right wing media empire.
Many outside the United States are mystified by the determination of Americans to bear arms. Can you explain why events such as just occurred in Tuscon do not cause Americans to rethink the gun laws?
This is a nutty country whose violent essence was nicely captured in the following Rage Against the Machine lyric: "rally 'round yo family with a pocketful of shells." The U.S. was founded and expanded as a militantly expansionist settler-imperialist "Gunfighter Nation" (Richard Slotkin) and gun-brandishing is no small part of the American mythology. We've had numerous recent mass gun killings, from Columbine high school (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, April 1999) to Virginia Tech (Seung Hui Cho, April 2007) to Northern Illinois University (Steven Kazmierczak, February 2008) and so on and it's always the same. We get the tearful speeches, the terrible funerals and memorials and the horrid profiles of the killers, with stories on the signs they showed, the treatment they didn't receive, and the ease with which they obtained the instruments of mass butchery. The "armed madhouse" doesn't change its guns laws and we just wait for the next outburst, chalking it up the dark side of human nature and the randomness of fate. This was the basic White House theme after the Loughner shootings. Obama turned to the Bible, telling mourners in Tuscon that "Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding." Quoting from the Book of Job, the president informed his fellow Americans that "Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations afterward. None of us can know what triggered the attack or what could have been done to prevent it." It doesn't get much more insipid and watery than that.
I could probably go online and find a fair bit of public opinion data showing that many, maybe (who knows) most, Americans support stricter gun control laws and that U.S. support levels go up after incidents like these. But they have numerous majority progressive policy opinions that never seem to go anywhere in the narrow-spectrum U.S. political system. The gun lobby is very powerful in Washington DC and in state capitals across the country and not many back-on-their-heels ordinary Americans are likely to engage in a prolonged struggle against it – or against the oil lobby, the insurance lobby, the finance lobby, big media, etc. Then they get demoralized, dumbed-down, diverted, and otherwise deactivated by the sort of vapid, hope-killing drivel that Barack "None of Us Can Know" Obama puts out. For what its worth, Obama has been very respectful of the gun lobby (even with the carnage at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois universities during the last presidential election cycle) throughout his political career.
What are the implications of the Tuscon killings - do you think we should expect more political violence in the US?
Well, they are going to tighten up security around congresspersons. It should become much tougher to speak (civilly or not) to our local House representative this year. If rightists are planning more and bigger attacks, keep an eye on April 19th – it's a big proto-fascist day in the U.S. April 19 marks the anniversary of the first shots being fired in the American Revolution at the Battle of Lexington/Concord, the fiery conclusion to the 1993 siege (of far right evangelicals by the federal government) at Waco, and McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Last April 19, gun activists celebrated with two rallies in the Washington, D.C. area to demonstrate their opposition to an "oppressive, totalitarian government" run by supposedly radical Democrats who (according to Larry Pratt, the Executive Director of Gun Owners of America) are "coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property." If I was at Homeland Security, I'd put April 19th in my cross-hairs.
These violent fascists and proto-fascists aren't going away in the name of civility (or anything else) under current U.S. social, economic, and political conditions. In his Tuscon memorial speech, Obama repudiated progressives who point to the role of right-wing ideology in inspiring the Tucson massacre. The civility president called for "a good dose of humility, rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame." He counseled Americans to "sharpen our instincts for empathy," to show greater "kindness and compassion," and to ask "whether our priorities are in order."
This was an attempt to cloak deepening social tensions in America and present a sugar-coated picture of US political life. He made no reference to the real and deep problems confronting the American people—mass structural unemployment, extremes of great wealth and mass poverty, worsening ecological catastrophe, the ongoing deterioration of social infrastructure, a vastly expensive military empire that continues to conduct criminal wars both overt and covert, and more. He deleted recent federal tax cuts for the wealthy, passed while the administration and congress have refused urgently needed action to provide jobs for the unemployed, alleviate poverty, and bail out state and local governments. The U.S.-based World Socialist Web Site puts it very well:
Contrary to [Obama's] invocation of America as one big family, it is a society with an unbridgeable class divide between the financial aristocracy and the working people….The political response to the Tucson massacre has unfolded in a completely predictable manner. The Republicans and the ultra-right media are in attack mode and don't back down, proceeding, instead, with ever greater arrogance and hysteria….The Democrats are cowardly and evasive, forswearing or quickly abandoning any suggestion that the right wing should be held responsible for the direction of Jared Lee Loughner's attack….But on a more fundamental level, both parties and the entire ruling elite come together to cover up the social context of this crime. The title given to the memorial service, 'Together We Thrive: Tucson and America,' could serve as a monument to the complacency being spread by the entire political establishment. If there is one thing that is not happening in Tucson—or in America—it is 'thriving.'
"The city and the country are both mired in the deepest economic slump since the Great Depression. A few figures suffice to indicate the scale of the crisis. Tucson has an unemployment rate that topped 9.2 percent during the summer, with more than 40,000 people currently out of work….Arizona has the second highest poverty rate among the 50 states, 21.2 percent, and Tucson has the highest poverty rate of any city in the state. The median household income in Tucson is 28 percent below the national average, while the per capita income is 26 percent below the national average….Barely 45 percent of the people of Arizona have private health insurance, with 20 percent uninsured, 20 percent on Medicaid and 13 percent on Medicare. Twenty percent of the population of Arizona, more than 1.3 million people, have no health insurance coverage…More than 70,000 homes were foreclosed in Arizona in 2010, up from only 1,000 five years ago.
Under conditions of a capitalist social order that deals with the unemployed—and the mentally ill—in cold and inhuman fashion, and a ruling class that glorifies violence and practices it more widely and brutally than any other on the planet, events such as those which took place January 8 in Tucson are inevitable.
I'm not the biggest fan of the party behind the WSWS, but that's very well said.
Speaking of getting "our priorities in order" (Obama), a recent report from the National Priorities Project contained the following information
New York state has 128,128 Head Start [federally subsidized pre-school]-eligible children, yet only 48,013 Head Start places. For New York's share of this year's Afghan War spending, the state could fund Head Start places for all eligible children for 21 years.
Wisconsin has 527,000 uninsured residents. For Wisconsin's cumulative Afghan War spending, the state could provide insurance for all uninsured for 3 years.
The state of Washington consumes 1,168,531 Billion British thermal units (BBtu) of non-renewable energy and only 881,676 BBtu renewable energy. For Washington's share of cumulative Afghan and Iraq war spending, it could pay 23% of the cost to convert all non-renewable energy to all solar energy or 79% to convert to all wind energy.
At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the North Carolina share of total war spending ($34 billion) would fund all in-state expenses of a four-year education for each incoming freshman class for the next 135 years.
To date, $815 billion dollars has been allocated for the war in Iraq since 2003 and $445.1 billion dollars has been allocated for the war in Afghanistan since 2001. With this latest update, total cost of war funding is $1.26 trillion.
I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King's warning from New York City's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967: "a nation that spends more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
Should we expect more political violence in the U.S? To quote Sarah Palin: "You Betchya."