Paranoia as Prelude: Conspiracism and the Cost of Political Rage

Unlike some, I will not attempt to make murderer and would-be political assassin Jared Loughner into a poster-boy for the Tea Party. As it turns out, such a feat would do Mr. Loughner an injustice, ascribing to him a level of sane, if yet disturbing philosophical coherence that he apparently lacks, rather than recognizing him for what he is: a deeply disturbed, likely schizophrenic young man, whose attempt to claim the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was motivated by a bizarre and toxic stream-of-consciousness conspiracism, rather than a commitment to conservatism per se.

That said, his acts cannot be fully divorced from the current political moment either, and specifically that part of said moment dominated by reactionary and right-wing voices, among which are many whose speakers adhere to Tea Party thinking. It is not that Loughner is, literally, a devotee of the right or its organizational edifices. In all likelihood he is not. Rather, it is pertinent — and should not be ignored by those who are trying to de-politicize his crimes — that his paranoid lunacy, the contours of which one can explore thanks to the wonders of the internet, transpired in a nation where paranoia and its peddling have become common fare. In such a place, the Jared Loughners of the world become ever-more dangerous. And it is this about which we should be rightly concerned.

For while Loughner would never have likely contemplated political assassination in a culture where the most pressing issue was, say, a simple philosophical disagreement over tax policy, or the proper balance between interest rates and full employment, or the percentage of GDP dedicated to debt service as opposed to long-term infrastructure investment, that is not the culture in which he (or any of us) lives. Rather, we live in a nation in which it is commonplace, and considered completely rational, for elected officials to believe the President is a foreign interloper. We live in a culture where the nation’s most powerful Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, cannot bring himself to condemn the maniacal derangement that is birtherism, but is reduced instead to a mere acknowledgement that since Hawaii says the President is a citizen, that’s “good enough for him.”

We live in a culture in which it is utterly normal, to a degree that has sadly made it nearly banal, to hear multi-million dollar, best-selling authors and talk show hosts suggest that the nation is on the verge of total fascism, death panels for the elderly, door-to-door gun confiscation, and the reconquest of the American southwest by Latinos bent on ethnic war. In short, in a society where paranoia is the daily currency of mainstream commentators, and pseudo-schizophrenic ramblings are elevated to the level of persuasive argument, we ought not be surprised that such a tragedy as occurred on Saturday might happen.

After all, there are many people in any society who suffer from mental illness. Many, indeed, who battle the kinds of demons that appear, from all evidence, to afflict Jared Loughner. Yet hardly any of them act upon their delusions by lashing out at political figures. Most often, when mentally ill individuals become violent, their rage is either focused on persons close by in their lives whom they feel have hurt them (family, colleagues, fellow students, a therapist, a former boss), or it is entirely random and without any seeming pattern or purpose (think Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966, or Mark David Chapman shooting John Lennon). That Loughner’s derangement led him to kill a judge and attempt the same with a lawmaker is unlikely a mere coincidence. Events such as this happen at particular times for a reason. There is a reason that Tim McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building happened in 1995, amid the last national bout with reactionary paranoia: a time in which the right was bubbling with theories about black UN helicopters planning midnight raids on patriotic Americans, gun grabs, and a supposedly liberal president who was gearing up for the mass persecution of tax protesters and Bible-believing Christians, among others.

It is not necessary to show that Loughner is a follower of Glenn Beck, or Michael Savage, or any of a hundred or more local variants of the same. It is not, in the end, all that important whether he spent time on right-wing websites, or is (as a Department of Homeland Security memo seems to suggest) a follower of the white nationalist group, American Renaissance, or whether he believes (as some of his internet postings hint) that the Constitution is being usurped by the current government because of its reliance on paper money: a prominent meme among the far-right. What matters is that Loughner, like all of us, has been exposed day in and day out, for several years, to the unhinged and paranoiac ravings of persons who believe America is in its “end days,” and that the sky is falling, at least metaphorically — and not because of global warming, which is just one more piece of the left-wing conspiratorial plot to confiscate all wealth in the name of nature-worship — but because of the communist/socialist/fascist/Marxist/Nazi/Muslim/Kenyan/terrorist/anti-Christ who occupies the White House.

It is that daily stream of poisonous vitriol from which it is nearly impossible to escape.

In a culture where Glenn Beck plays “Six Degrees of Chairman Mao” every night on his chalkboard, uncannily managing to convince his flock that even the most moderate of Democrats likely hums the Internationale to his or her children rather than regaling them with bedtime stories, we can truly say that paranoia has become not only the prelude to something deadly, but sadly a form of pedantry so everyday in its appearance that we write it off as entertainment, rather than the poison it truly is.

In a culture where political rallies attended by thousands feature prominent speakers who suggest the President might well be Satan in the flesh, and marchers who carry signs suggesting “Taxpayers are the Jews for Obama’s Ovens,” or that the President intends to put whites into slavery, nothing should surprise us anymore.

In a media environment where highly paid commentators can keep their jobs even as they insist that those who call for the shooting of government agents so as to stop a world government takeover are “beginning to have a case,” or that a national service initiative is just a run-up to the implementation of a literal stormtrooper corps like the Nazi SS, or that “multicultural people” are “destroying the culture of this country,” or that Latino migrants are an “invasive species,” that seeks to undermine the nation, or that the President is intentionally “destroying the economy” so as to pay white people back for slavery, or that, worse, he and other Democrats are vampires, the only solution for which is a “stake through the heart,” to feign shock at the acts of a Jared Loughner is a precious and naive conceit that we can no longer afford.

Whether or not Loughner was influenced directly by any of these words, these verbal daggers aimed at civil discourse, is quite beside the point. For these words, these daggers, are the very ether of the political culture in which he has come of age. They comprise the fabric of the larger ideological tapestry to which he has been exposed. And they are, like any toxin, bio-accumulative in the cells of the human animal, even more so for those whose chemical balance is already dicey at best. Especially when such persons have the misfortune of living in a society that has so completely stigmatized mental illness as to guarantee that most who suffer will receive no treatment.

In such a place as this, to claim that Americans may need to turn to “Second Amendment Remedies” for political change — as defeated Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle did in Nevada — or that Americans should be “armed and dangerous” to resist policies aimed at reducing climate change — as another Tea Party Republican, Michele Bachmann has — or that perhaps liberal politicians should be beaten to death with shovels — as Glenn Beck said about Congressman Charlie Rangel in 2001 — is to invite chaos. It is to invite murder, whether by loners like Loughner or someone else down the line. It is inevitable. To insist, as Congressman Boehner did, that health care reform is tantamount to “armageddon” — not merely a matter of philosophical difference but the literal end of the world — is to all but invite the unbalanced to start slaughtering the forces of presumptive evil.

That full-grown adults should require a reminder that words have consequences — something even most five-year old children can understand — is pathetic. It would be humorous were the reasons for its present import not so tragic and heartbreaking. Sadly, for those whose entire careers hinge on the hurling of rage-filled pathos, and who have indeed grown rich on the waves of hate for which they have become famous, no lesson is likely to be learned. Because for them, the cost of the lesson is too high. Better to ignore it, to deny that there is any connection between the apocalyptic verbiage to which their lives and livelihoods have become tethered, and the crazed violence of those upon whom their miasma of misanthropy descends.

But if we are to survive as a nation, a culture — or as a planet, ultimately — we’d best begin to demand better of ourselves and others. We’d best commit to a recognition that most of us are just trying to do the best we can, in a world that can be tough and unforgiving. Trying to raise families, keep our heads above water, and do what we think is right. Occasionally we get it wrong, and so do our neighbors. But that doesn’t make us, or them, terrorists, or zombies, or stealth Stalinists, or baby-killers, or gun nuts, or Klansmen, or whatever. It makes us, and them, human.

And what is saddest about our present condition, is that this ability to recognize our common humanity, and the decency of most folks, regardless of political philosophy, is seen by too many as a weakness, as compromise, collaboration, impurity, pathology, as evidence that one is no better than the evil on the other side. We have surrounded ourselves with amplified noise machines, which pump only those tunes we are already predisposed to hear, and in so doing we make enemies of our brothers and sisters. We turn politics and the larger, existential fight for justice into a blood sport. Kill or be killed. Or perhaps both.

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