First Comes Fear
By ROBERT WRIGHT
January 11, 2011, 9:09 pm
Robert Wright on culture, politics and world affairs.
People on the left and right have been wrestling over the legacy of Jared Loughner, arguing about whether his shooting spree proves that the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the world are fomenting violence. But it’s not as if this is the only data point we have. Here’s another one:
Six months ago, police in California pulled over a truck that turned out to contain a rifle, a handgun, a shotgun and body armor. Police learned from the driver — sometime after he opened fire on them — that he was heading for San Francisco, where he planned to kill people at the Tides Foundation. You’ve probably never heard of the Tides Foundation — unless you watch Glenn Beck, who had mentioned it more than two dozen times in the preceding six months, depicting it as part of a communist plot to “infiltrate” our society and seize control of big business.
Note the parallel with Loughner’s case. Loughner was convinced that a conspiracy was afoot — a conspiracy by the government to control our thoughts (via grammar, in his bizarre worldview). So he decided to kill one of the conspirators.
It’s not clear where Loughner got his conspiracy theory. The leading contender is a self-styled “king of Hawaii” who harbors, along with his beliefs about government mind control, a conviction that the world will end next year. But it doesn’t matter who Loughner got the idea from or whether you consider it left wing or right wing. The point is that Americans who wildly depict other Americans as dark conspirators, as the enemy, are in fact increasing the chances, however marginally, that those Americans will be attacked.
In that sense, the emphasis the left is placing on violent rhetoric and imagery is probably misplaced. Sure, calls to violence, explicit or implicit, can have effect. But the more incendiary theme in current discourse is the consignment of Americans to the category of alien, of insidious other. Once Glenn Beck had sufficiently demonized people at the Tides Foundation, actually advocating the violence wasn’t necessary.
By the same token, Palin’s much-discussed cross-hairs map probably isn’t as dangerous as her claim that “socialists” are trying to create “death panels.” If you convince enough people that an enemy of the American way is setting up a system that could kill them, the violent hatred will take care of itself.
When left and right contend over the meaning of incidents like this, the sanity of the perpetrator becomes a big issue. Back when Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people at Fort Hood, the right emphasized how sane he was and the left how crazy he was. The idea was that if Hasan was sane, then he could be viewed as a coherent expression of the Jihadist ideology that some on the right say is rampant in America. In the case of Loughner, the right was quick to emphasize that he was not sane and therefore couldn’t be a coherent expression of right-wing ideology. Then, as his ideology started looking more like a left-right jumble, and his weirdness got better documented, a left-right consensus on his craziness emerged.
My own view is that if you decide to go kill a bunch of innocent people, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re not a picture of mental health. But that doesn’t sever the link between you and the people who inspired you, or insulate them from responsibility. Glenn Beck knows that there are lots of unbalanced people out there, and that his message reaches some of them.
This doesn’t make him morally culpable for the way these people react to things he says that are true. It doesn’t even make him responsible for the things he says that are false but that he sincerely believes are true. But it does make him responsible for things he says that are false and concocted to mislead gullible people.
I guess it’s possible that Beck actually believes his hyper-theatrically delivered nonsense. (And I guess it’s possible that professional wrestling isn’t fake.) But in that case the responsibility just moves to Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch, its owner. Why are they giving a megaphone to someone who believes crazy stuff?
The magic formula of Palin and Beck — fear sells — knows no ideology. When Jon Stewart closed his Washington “rally to restore sanity” with a video montage of fear mongers, he commendably included some on the left — notably the sometimes over-the-top Keith Olbermann. The heads of MSNBC have just as much of an obligation to help keep America sane as the heads of Fox News have.
To be sure, at this political moment there is — by my left-wing lights, at least — more crazy fear-mongering and demonization on the right than on the left. But that asymmetry is transient.
What’s not transient, unfortunately, is the technological trend that drives much of this. It isn’t just that people can now build a cocoon of cable channels and Web sites that insulates them from inconvenient facts. It’s also that this cocoon insulates them from other Americans — including the groups of Americans who, inside the cocoon, are being depicted as evil aliens. It’s easy to buy into the demonization of people you never communicate with, and whose views you never see depicted by anyone other than their adversaries.
In this environment, any entrepreneurial fear monger can use technology to build a following. You don’t have to be the king of Hawaii to start calling yourself the king of Hawaii and convince a Jared Loughner that there’s a conspiracy afoot.
So I’m not sure how much good it would do if you could get a Glenn Beck to clean up his act. With such a vast ecosystem of fear mongers, his vacated niche might be filled before long. But I think Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch owe it to America to at least do the experiment.
Postscript: Encouragingly, Roger Ailes said in the wake of the Tucson shooting that “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.” So stay tuned. Also encouragingly, two journalists from liberal and conservative magazines — the American Prospect and National Review — had an extremely civil discussion about the Tucson shooting, about 24 hours after it happened, on my Web site Bloggingheads.tv.