Friday, January 21, 2011

The Last Post You'll Ever Need to Read about the Tucson Shooting

Summary:

The only thing the Tucson shooting tells us about U.S. political discourse is that it is stupid - violent rhetoric is a subset of that stupidity, but it didn't cause the shooting. The only actionable lessons we can draw from this tragedy are:
  • the mental health system in this country sucks. Everyone who ever met this kid Jared Lee Loughner knew that he was extremely unbalanced and probably needed mental health help, but for some reason he didn't get the help he needed.
  • as a country, we have decided that citizens should have access to practically unlimited quantities of assault weapons and ammunition. We don't even regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys.
If you combine those two lessons, it is not hard to conclude that massacres like this are inevitable. We are a big country with lots of people, and a tiny fraction of those people are batsh*t crazy. If you give batsh*t crazy people access to assault weapons, this country will occasionally face massacres like that in Tucson - it's a statistical inevitability. So, unless the U.S. wants to completely change its approach to mental health and/or assault weapons in the hands of citizens, we are just going to have to get used to paying the price of the occasional massacre. Since the U.S. is a pretty violent society, I'm guessing that we'll just stick with the status quo and act "shocked, shocked I tell you" when things like this happen, even though a quick analysis demonstrates that massacres like this are inevitable.

Discussion:

I've been thinking about the shooting in Tucson a good deal the past few weeks, and at the risk of hubris, I'm pretty sure that I synthesize below the most intelligent things that can be said about the shooting below.

First off, the problem with political discourse in the U.S. today is not violence - the problem is stupidity (granted, violence is a subset of stupidity, but the core problem is stupidity, not violence). A depressingly high percentage of what U.S. politicians and U.S. news personalities say is stupid (and some of this stupidity manifests itself in the form of violence). For example, this now-famous map that Sarah Palin put up on her PAC website did not cause the shootings in Tucson, but it is stupid:


Similarly, Sarah Palin saying "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!'" was stupid, but it didn't cause the shooting in Tucson.

And yet again, Palin saying that Obama is "hell-bent on weakening America" is stupid and ridiculous. You can disagree with Obama's policies and think that his policies are bad for America - this is, after all, a free country, but to say that his is actively, consciously trying to weaken America from his position as President is the apex of stupidity, and it demonstrates everything that is wrong with the political discourse in this country.

When Palin finally said something about the Tucson shooting, she continued saying more dumb things, in particular, "blood libel." She could have taken either of two other approaches: 1) "This is a terrible tragedy, but this guy was obviously crazy and political rhetoric had nothing to do with it; freedom of speech makes this country great," or 2) "This is a terrible tragedy, this guy was crazy and rhetoric had nothing to do with it, but I am sorry that the political discourse in this country has gotten so stupid, and I'm going to work to make it smarter." Instead, she tried to make herself the victim instead of honoring the Tucson victims, and she managed to be insensitively anti-Semitic while doing so. In fact, she seemed to imply that the mere act of criticizing conservatives would lead to more violence. Then a number of prominent right-wingers rushed to defend her use of "blood libel" and redefine the term. More stupidity in the U.S. political discourse.

And some Tea Partiers are trying to pin the shootings on the left - this is also stupid, just as stupid as trying to argue that the tea party was somehow directly responsible for the shootings.

Even stupider - the Tucson Tea Party founder blamed Giffords for getting shot, saying that "the real case is that she had no security." Anyone else want to step up to blame the victims as well?

Also stupid - the UFC fighter who said he wanted to "knock some sense" into Obama.

Even stupider - Glenn Beck fantasizing about killing Michael Moore with his bare hands:



The text of Beck's quote: "I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out of him. Is this wrong?"

Yes, Glenn, we as a society have generally accepted that murder is wrong. And what you said is stupid.

This, however, is by far the most ridiculous Beck stupidity I've ever come across:



Yes, that was Glenn Beck calling for the assassination of Democratic politicians and public servants on June 9, 2010 - the super-incredible apex of stupidity. Why is this man on TV, preaching this unparalleled stupidity?

Unlike Palin's rhetoric, there is evidence to suggest that Beck's violent speech has motivated threats and assassination attempts.

The American Family Association said that "We are looking into the face of Satan himself" when Sarah Palin is attacked - also stupid.

Sharron Angle floated the idea of using "2nd Amendment solutions" to "cure" the "Harry Ried problems" - also quite stupid, as I don't know how else to interpret that other than she's suggesting that someone should assassinate a U.S. senator.

New Speaker of the House John Boehner is also not immune to stupidity, and can't apologize for it:
Another Ohio Democrat, Steve Driehaus, clashed repeatedly with Boehner before losing his seat in the midterm elections. After Boehner suggested that by voting for Obamacare, Driehaus "may be a dead man" and "can't go home to the west side of Cincinnati" because "the Catholics will run him out of town," Driehaus began receiving death threats, and a right-wing website published directions to his house. Driehaus says he approached Boehner on the floor and confronted him.
"I didn't think it was funny at all," Driehaus says. "I've got three little kids and a wife. I said to him, 'John, this is bullshit, and way out of bounds. For you to say something like that is wildly irresponsible.'"
Driehaus is quick to point out that he doesn't think Boehner meant to urge anyone to violence. "But it's not about what he intended — it's about how the least rational person in my district takes it. We run into some crazy people in this line of work."
Driehaus says Boehner was "taken aback" when confronted on the floor, but never actually said he was sorry: "He said something along the lines of, 'You know that's not what I meant.' But he didn't apologize."
In fact, many media personalities have problems admitting the stupidity of what they say, and they accuse others of violent rhetoric if others happen to point out their own stupidity. Well, I am here to declare that pointing out stupidity is not a violent act; it's a patriotic one.

Lots of other dumb things have been said recently - for the last time, Obama is not a socialist, communist, or Nazi (see the definition of socialism, communism, and Nazism for help), nor is the health care reform a government takeover of the U.S. healthcare system - if you say any of these things, you are contributing to the stupidity of political discourse in this country.

And then there's this guy, photographed armed outside of Obama's health care town hall in NH in 2009:


In case you're puzzled, it's a reference to the following Thomas Jefferson quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

I'm not sure how you take that, other than as a threat against the life of the President.

And some on the left have called for stupid responses to the shooting, such as making cross-hairs on maps illegal. Now, I don't think that this is as stupid as Beck suggesting that people should shoot Democratic politicians in the head, but it's still stupid.

So, why is the U.S. political discourse so stupid?

One of the reasons is a freedom that we hold most dear - free speech. People are free to say dumb, distorted, inaccurate things, and that's fine. My problem is that we have equated money with free speech and corporations with people, which is a perversion of the First Amendment. I should be free to say whatever I want to say - but ABC or CBS or NBC or Fox should not have the same right to say dumb, distorted, and inaccurate things as I do, because they are news organizations, not people. It also seems that many of the people that these organizations employ as pundits just aren't that intelligent. Furthermore, corporations should not have the same rights to free speech as individuals, because they are not individuals, and money is not free speech. These problems will require a constitutional amendment to fix, as the Supreme Court has for years been hellbent on giving soulless, lifeless, immortal corporations the same rights as living, flesh-and-blood people and on equating money with free speech.

The other main reason that U.S. political discourse is so stupid is economic efficiency - if I am trying to get elected, it is far easier and cheaper for me to demonize the other guy and convince you to vote against him than for me to make a convincing, nuanced argument of the superiority of my policy positions. Or better yet, some anonymous third-party group can make completely false accusations against you, so I can keep my hands clean while my allies tarnish your reputation with lies. Unfortunately, a constitutional amendment is also the only way to solve this problem - something along the lines of 100% public funding for political campaigns, only candidates are allowed to run campaign ads, and candidates are only allowed to talk about their own positions, not their opponents' - the only time the candidates can attack their opponents' positions is face-to-face, in debates. I don't expect for these things to happen, as they would entail a substantial redefinition of the understanding of free speech and the political process in this country, but it would make U.S. political discourse far less stupid.

So, if the only thing we learn from the Tucson shooting about U.S. political discourse is that it's dumb, and if these problems can only be solved by constitutional amendments, what actionable lessons can we take from this tragedy?

Unfortunately, I think we can only draw two lessons from this shooting:

1) The mental health system in this country sucks. Everyone who ever met this kid Jared Lee Loughner knew that he was extremely unbalanced and probably needed mental health help, but for some reason (I don't know what reason - lack of access to mental health services, lack of a feeling of responsibility among the people around this kid, lack of authority or willingness to commit him against his will, etc.) he didn't get the help he needed. If we want to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future, we need to get mentally unbalanced people the help they need (against their will, if necessary), regardless of their ability to pay.

2) As a country, we have decided that citizens should have access to practically unlimited quantities of assault weapons and ammunition. We don't even regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys. Even the shootings in Tucson don't seem to have changed the American public's mind about gun control. I get it, the NRA won - a sizable chunk of the U.S. public and much of Congress wants for U.S. citizens to have unrestricted access to assault weapons and ammunition. I'm not sure that's such a good idea myself - the hero who disarmed Loughner was almost shot by a would-be vigilante who arrived on the scene just after Loughner had been disarmed, demonstrating the dangers of "give everyone guns" as a public safety strategy - but I guess that's the will of the people.

If you combine those two lessons, it is not hard to conclude that massacres like this are inevitable. We are a big country with lots of people, and a tiny fraction of those people are batsh*t crazy. If you give batsh*t crazy people access to assault weapons, this country will occasionally face massacres like that in Tucson - it's a statistical inevitability. So, unless the U.S. wants to completely change its approach to mental health and/or assault weapons in the hands of citizens, we are just going to have to get used to paying the price of the occasional massacre. Since the U.S. is a pretty violent society, I'm guessing that we'll just stick with the status quo and act "shocked, shocked I tell you" when things like this happen, even though a quick analysis demonstrates that massacres like this are a statistical inevitability.

It sucks, I know, that massacres like this are inevitable - but since we know they're inevitable, can we at least stop pretending to be so shocked when they happen?

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