It’s amusing how, when those on the right find their political ox is being gored, that they are, all of a sudden, highly attentive critical thinkers attuned to every hint of a lurking correlation-causation fallacy (as in “Sarah Palin’s gun rhetoric caused Jared Loughner’s gun usage”). Given their logical carefulness on this matter, it makes you wonder why they don’t bring equivalent skepticism to other causally linked (and similarly suspicious) claims, such as these:
- Islam qua Islam led to Osama bin Laden.
- The policies of Ronald Reagan caused the downfall of communism.
- If you pray for the sick it increases the likelihood that they’ll get well.
- When a rainbow appears after rain it is a sign that God will never again use a global flood, as in the time of Noah, as an instrument of genocide.
With regard to the last claim, we all know that God will wipe out collective humanity with fire next time. (We do know this, right?)
In any event, the New Republic’s John McWhorter, reflecting on Jared Loughner, has also come up with an interesting theory of causation, but it’s one which may itself be just another curious correlation. Nevertheless, it sounds pretty interesting to me. McWhorter asks what has lately made for—how shall we put this nicely?—a less elegant atmosphere for national discourse. And this is his answer:
The actual cause of this new national temper is technology and its intersection with how language is used. Language exists in two forms in modern times: speech and writing. Writing is a latterly invention only some thousands of years old, produced and received more slowly than talk. It encourages reflection, extended argument (something almost impossible to convey amidst the overlapping chaos of conversation), and objectivity. Writing is, in the McLuhanesque sense, cool. It once mediated much more between people in politics. Even speeches were couched in writerly prose. Most were expected to engage them on the page, as technology didn’t allow all Americans to see politicians speaking live at the press of a button. Plus, without amplification, public language had to be more careful and explicit. One could not stand before a crowd and “just talk.” Public language had to be like the public dress of the period: effortful. Even Millard Fillmore’s inaugural address reads like Virgil. It is no accident that the shrillness of political conversation has increased just as broadband and YouTube have become staples of American life. The internet brings us back to the linguistic culture our species arose in—all about speech: live, emotional, unreflective, and punchy. The slogan trumps the argument. Anger, often of hazy provenance but ever cathartic (“I want my country back”) takes fire. All of this is reinforced by the synergy of on line “communities” stoking up passions on a scale that snail mail never could.
So the Internet leads to “stoking up passions” and those passions are picked up on by sensitive maniacs with broadband, like Jared Loughner. It follows that political and religious passions—accompanied by hysterical, paranoid, and aggression-laden rhetoric—give the unstable emotional permission to seriously contemplate dramatic acts of violence—and to maybe even go forward with them. This sounds like a more than plausible chain of inferences to me. Better, anyway, than the supposed link between rainbows and why we don’t suffer from global floods.
But I would add two other plausible causes for the increase in rhetorical temperature on the right (and its potential for making crazy people even more crazy, and sometimes violent):
- Demographics. The reality is that America’s demographic profile is changing dramatically, and in ways not obviously favorable to Republican constituencies (like rural and blue-collar white males). For now, Democrats are swimming with the demographic tides and Republicans are swimming against them (as this woman’s sign makes abundantly clear):
Democrats can be less hysterical in their rhetoric because they can afford to be less hysterical. Every year the dice load a little bit more in their favor: greater levels of education, urbanization, and diversity tend to produce more Democrats than Republicans (as a state like California demonstrates). And so the next one hundred million Americans—the ones who will bring America’s population from 300 million to 400 million over the next 50 years—are not likely to come to the Republican Party “naturally.” They will be more educated, more urbanized, and more diverse than traditional Republican constituencies. This means that Republicans themselves will have to either moderate their politics or dig in and fight head-on the broader demographic changes—hard. This leads right wingers to feel besieged, and unstable right wingers who feel besieged can snap.
- Crazylands. It’s not just passions that the Internet stirs: it is irrational passions. You can be possessed by rational passions (such as a strong desire that good science prevails in debates over climate change), but a good deal of what the Internet trucks in is “passionate intensity” (think of Yeats’s famous poem here) linked to stupidity (think of 2nd Amendment hysteria, birther narratives, UFO cults, and catch-all conspiracy theories here). Jared Loughner, for example, prior to his shooting of a congresswoman in the head, had obviously dropped down into the Internet-and-talk-radio-rabbit-hole of the right-wing goldbugs. Here’s Loughner:
No! I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver!
Notice those exclamation points. Loughner seems to speak with the Red State enthusiasm of a real Sarah Palin fan. Go anti-dollar team! Screw the feds! Go rogue! Lock and load! But that, of course, doesn’t mean that there’s a connection of any sort—not even the tiniest bit—between Sarah Palin, the far right, and Jared Loughner. None. Not one iota. Not even a touch.
But the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and death? Or the Tower of Babel and the diversity of human languages? Now these are causal links to take very, very seriously indeed.