Browsing around for reactions, and reactions to reactions, to the President’s reaction to the Tucson shootings, I ran across a commenter at one blog who offered a confession about his immediate response to the dreadful news:
I found myself (at times) wishing that there was a connection between Palin (or Limbaugh, Beck, Levin, et. al.) so I could say, “Do you see? Do you see what you stupid mother fuckers have been working on for the last 2 years?”
The President’s call for words that heal rather than wound led this commenter to some soul-searching: “I absolutely do not wish for a connection between Loughner and Republicans (or anyone) anymore–thankfully, that impulse withered quickly. But I’m holding on to a lot of shame for ever feeling that way.”
The commenter’s guilty conscience reflects an admirable intention, the one affirmed by the President, but all the same remains ill-founded. That “connection” is and remains real. That it is not causal in some legally accountable way, that some particular set of un-civil utterances did not cause the shooting rampage – “It did not!” exclaimed the President, ad-libbing – cannot erase facts that are so obvious it seems ridiculous to have to point them out: especially that, in short, the shooting expressed “incivility” itself, incivility in an extreme form. As incivility itself, as murderous violence against a politician and citizens exercising civic responsibilities, Loughner’s “acting out” naturally makes us wonder about the spectrum of civility. The connection to the far right and to Tea Party protests in particular arises not just because threatening words or images and murderous gunfire exist on a continuum of “violence,” but because both Loughner’s insanity and a certain type of far-right “Don’t Tread on Me” Tea Party-ism happen to be expressed on the same continuum of anti-statism.
For the far right faction of conservatives who rejected Obama in Tucson – and they are legion – or who are still nursing grudges over attacks made (or supposedly made) on the Tea Party or its representatives, any vision or validation of an integrated national community (much less an integrated transnational community) is suspect, if not anathematic. In the real world, the one the lunatic refuses even to visit except through violence, but which the ideologue acknowledges mainly through violent language, such a vision necessarily takes on the concrete character of government action or actions of public administration – of the only state we know. We all yearn for a human community. The lunatic reaches out with bullets, and his act ironically but at some level intentionally puts him firmly in the hands of the state: behind bars, grinning idiotically. The ideologue reaches out with self-contradictory sublimations: Those on the hard right compensate for their rejection of the liberal’s format for national community – institutions of the state – with affirmations of an imaginary state, a fraught pseudo-community built up from exaggerated patriotism, religiosity, militarism, ethnocentrism, etc., in diverse re-combinations.
Loughnerism is on one level the inevitable, eventual concretization of all of those opinion polls showing Congressional popularity in the range of 20%: Congress is supposed to represent us. Apparently, we hate ourselves. Tucson was the eventual recourse of the self-loathing national “individual” to self-mutilation, and Loughner’s actions were the typically exceptional eruption of ultra-libertarianism, an outlook so extreme that it could only persist in a disturbed mind, since even the structure of language is “oppressive” to it. Yet the form of its irrationality is easily recognizable, and was utterly and immediately intelligible to everyone even glancingly familiar with American politics – including both that ashamed blog-commenter and those responding to his suspicions as though to a dental nerve being probed.
The thrilled-tooth reactions were visible throughout the rightwing media from Saturday afternoon forward, and were visible again in the reflexive reactions of Limbaugh, Malkin, 95% of HotAir commenters, and others to the President’s speech. Many observers – I was one – were struck and even moved by the President’s evocation of a nine-year-old’s beliefs about government – about, in short, the state. At the Thought News blog, Conor Williams pointed to the passage where Obama conjured government, public service, and public servants themselves as the nine-year-old victim Christina Green must have imagined them:
[S]he saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model.
Predictably, the reactions from the “anti-tyranny” bloc, the faction to the right even of the National Review, were excessive and condemnatory. When its members hear a Democratic President call for “unity,” they immediately assume – and I think they may be right in a way – that he can only mean unity within statism, unity under a status quo of “government interference.” Put more philosophically, they react against any call for unity within a national/cultural state that includes a public administration and government obligated to seek the good however imperfectly. Having spent the last two years invoking (R)evolutionary sentiments against the liberal “ruling class,” they are not about to admit that a little blood in the street has made them re-consider the fundamentals of their worldview.
A reflexive and all-embracing hostility to the state/statism leads the far right toward the ultra-right (and ultra-left): It’s a self-contradictory and philosophically untenable position for anyone who aspires to be accepted within the mainstream of politics – which is a long way of saying that it is irrational, and, when pressed, must manifest as insanity. As with some other political pathologies, its superficial symptoms often include a kind of exaggerated hostility towards any form of disagreement, a foul meanness for which the polite and civil term is “incivility.” Its emotional evocation of libertarianism, its anarchistic energies, push it recognizably, palpably in the direction of Loughnerism, madness whose ideological expression is conflict with “standards” of any type.
Loughnerism also reflects an attitude toward language reminiscent of literary avant-gardism and salon-ready post-modernism, but also reminiscent of populist anti-intellectualism with its typical suspicion of “correct” speech, and its affection for leaders who are incapable of it, whose very incoherency speaks for their followership. Loughnerism in its non-violent form also speaks in sometimes bizarre, illogical or even anti-logical ways; is also obsessed with notions that no one outside the in-group much cares about; and also leaves the rest of us to scratch our heads, as we struggle to understand the motivations and intentions of their inappropriate, self-contradictory web-videos…
Especially those desperate to deny any conceivable association with the thoughts and actions of a depraved killer had all already made that same shameful connection made by the commenter – which is why from the first they scrambled and lashed out frantically, as though “caught in the act.” The scrambling and denial became even more desperate when it turned out that Loughner’s main target had left behind an “if anything happens to me” letter in our cultural safety deposit box. These connections are nothing new: The Tucson events merely re-confirm them. They also help explain a widespread alienation from politics so at odds with older American traditions. The only participants in our national culture who cannot recognize them would be those who rely on being totally insensate, or at least on maintaining the pretense.