Correlation or Causation? Did the Internet Cause Jared Loughner?

Glenn-beck-gunman

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 inall 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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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20 Responses to Correlation or Causation? Did the Internet Cause Jared Loughner?

  1. TomH says:

    Islam by itself didn’t lead to OSB. It required Charlie Wilson’s action and Saudi bankrolls and Wahhabi ideology.

    “The policies of Ronald Reagan caused the downfall of communism.”

    I would say that they contributed and were necessary to the economic mechanism that did it. Other mechanisms might have had the same result (e.g., invasion).

    “If you pray for the sick it increases the likelihood that they’ll get well.” Me personally, or some joker off the street?

    “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.”

    I don’t think that genocide is the right word, though, rhetorically, it is effective.

    “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).”

    You need to get out more. The democratic party is at its lowest historical levels ever in terms of voter identification. The repubs now actually outnumber the dems. Drudge reported on this poll.

    Immigrants tend to be less educated, so, of course, they tend to prefer democrats. Of course, some of them are entrepreneurial, so those will tend to favor republicans. Immigrants tend to be more in tune with social conservatism, so this works for republicans if they realize it and make these issues in avenues in which immigrants dwell (e.g., spanish news).

    The last election has caused more than a few left wingers to snap. Some have turned to the tactics of taxation without representation. For instance, Obama is seeking to implement the cap and trade tax system through the EPA, bypassing the presumably hostile republican-controlled House.

    I have changed my mind about Obama. I don’t think that he’s a socialist. I think that he’s a crony capitalist–as opposed to a free-market capitalist–in line with his Chicago roots.

    Immigration has always been changing America’s makeup. Hispanics tend to not be a monolithic voting block, unlike blacks, who tend to be captive to the dems.

    “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.”

    One’s view of causality as regards these questions depends on one’s view of Genesis, doesn’t it? Sounds a bit like you’re begging the question.

    • santitafarella says:

      Tom,

      For militant Islam to emerge you mentioned the Saudis, but there was somebody else bankrolling them in Afghanistan in the 1980s: the United States.

      —Santi

  2. santitafarella says:

    Tom,

    If Gallup is to be believed, over the last five years the American public has favored Democratic identification over Republican identification. When the public becomes dissatisfied with Democrats, they don’t flock to the Republican Party, but to declaring themselves independents. See here:

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/145463/Democratic-Party-Drops-2010-Tying-Year-Low.aspx

    The most obvious way for the dynamic to shift toward the far right is via fear (whether economic or security oriented). But you’ve given me no evidence to dispute my larger point: demographics are shifting toward greater education, urbanization, and diversity. If the demographics of the country as a whole are trending toward those of California (and they obviously are), then you are heading for the politics of California.

    —Santi

    • TomH says:

      Suburbanization is a more dominant trend, and this favors repubs. Legal immigrants may initially flock to the cities, but they move to the suburbs fairly quickly. The population is moving south, which also favors the repubs. California failed to gain a House district for the first time ever. Southern states gained several districts. Democratic strongholds in the industrial north lost representation.

      When times are relatively bad, illegal immigration drops, which hurts dems.

      Greater education favors nobody. Suburbanites tend to be well educated and are traditionally repub. Urban dwellers are typically not well educated and are traditionally dem. Country folk are also typically not well educated and are traditionally repub. Suburbs are growing, not cities. Are country folk moving to cities? I think that that trend stopped long ago and many cities are shrinking (e.g. Detroit).

      A bigger megatrend is emerging which definitely favors repubs. Asia is very competitive with the U.S. This means that our economy will continue to suffer because our wages aren’t competitive with theirs and neither is our regulatory environment. There will be more focus on the cost of over-regulation and this favors repubs. We simply can’t afford nanny-state policies any more and this realization will eventually hit the national consciousness. Even many left-wing intellectuals haven’t realized this, as they compare our current era with the Clinton era, ignoring our current hyper-competitive environment vis-a-vis Asia. Of course, we are still competitive with the western economies, most of whom are still stuck in nanny-state mode (except possibly Germany). When they begin to realize the megatrend, they will likely abandon nanny-statism and increase global competitiveness, which will further hurt our economy.

      • santitafarella says:

        Tom,

        Who do you suppose is moving into the South? More conservatives?

        No.

        Instead, it’s people who are more liberal than the current mix in those states. The future doesn’t belong to Alabama as currently constituted, but to states like California, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington. As people move into the South they are subtly turning those states more like blue states, not into redder states.

        As for the key to success in globalization for Americans, that lies in our mind wells (our universities), and in people becoming generally better educated. The kinds of blue collar jobs you imagine Americans competing for by simply dropping environmental standards and the minimum wage are not coming back. And educated people don’t want to live in states where the environment is messed up. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley, Stanford, Berkeley, Cal Tech etc are all in California—the quality of life is high; it’s attractive to live in California. The liberal ethos is a draw for smart people.

        By contrast, Kentucky builds Noah’s ark and young earth creationist museums, not great universities. I’ll never forget, back in the 1990s, visiting relatives in Kentucky accompanied by my (then) Mexican-American girlfriend, and being whispered to that I mustn’t let her walk alone along the road to nearby stores. It wasn’t clear to them that she would be safe or treated decently alone as a nonwhite. And there were no black people in the part of Kentucky that I visited (not far from Lexington). Not one. My cousins went to all white high schools and never even knew a black kid growing up.

        Do you suppose that the founder of FaceBook (for example) would ever want to live in a state like Kentucky or in countries like Saudi Arabia or China? When his idea started taking off, he came to California. And if he ever put any of his operations in the South, it would be within a few blocks of the most liberal university in the region, clinging to it as an island in a storm. All the great engines—the mind wells—for the U.S. economy are clustered in liberal areas—near liberal cities or in liberal cities. There’s a reason the nation’s Howard Roarks live in places like Seattle and not Boise.

        As for urbanization, it’s a global trend, and the U.S. is not bucking that trend.

        —Santi

    • TomH says:

      Oh, I don’t see how adding more hispanics in southern California increases diversity. It only increases the size of cultural enclaves.

      • santitafarella says:

        You know zip about Hispanic immigration and behavioral patterns to say that. I live in the county of Los Angeles—a majority Hispanic county. My neighbors to one side of me are Hispanic; the neighbors across the street are Asian; the neighbor to the other side moved in as a mixed race couple (white and Hispanic). Los Angeles is beautiful; it’s not scary or alien feeling to live here.

        —Santi

      • TomH says:

        Santi,

        There are lots of hispanic enclaves in California:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_named_ethnic_enclaves_in_North_American_cities#Latin_America_and_Caribbean http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_named_ethnic_enclaves_in_North_American_cities#Mexico
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_named_ethnic_enclaves_in_North_American_cities#Central.2FSouth_America
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_named_ethnic_enclaves_in_North_American_cities#West_Indies_and_Caribbean

        Of course, this list isn’t complete as many enclaves are too small to list. Illegals (as well as legals) of a nationality tend to form enclaves.

        We have a couple of hispanic enclaves where I live, too. The inhabitants of one of them speak English exclusively and are descended from migrants who settled long ago.

      • santitafarella says:

        Tom,

        I’m not sure I understand what you draw from these lists. These “enclaves” are quite pourous, actually. Take Olvera Street in Los Angeles. It’s a touristy Mexican “enclave,” and the people who work there are likely to get on the freeway after work, or onto a subway, and live throughout the city. The same is true, say, of “Koreatown”, etc. And their kids will end up dispersed throughout the college system when they reach college age. It’s not like you go into these areas of Los Angeles and feel you’ve dropped off a cliff into another country or world. It’s still America. It’s still Los Angeles. Most people know how to navigate English and their native language.

        Did you know, for example, that the largest Buddhist community outside of Asia is in Los Angeles? And it just adds to the mix. It’s not cut off from interaction with the larger organism of the city. No big whoop.

        —Santi

      • TomH says:

        Well, I took you to mean that cultural enclaves don’t exist. And I took you to deny that illegals tend to associate almost exclusively with their own fellow illegals of their own nationality. In soccer, you’ll see many adult teams most of whose members are of one nationality. There’s a little fraternization with members of other groups, but not that much. Mexicans and Central Americans often don’t fraternize much. It takes second generation to get much change and sometimes not even then. There are parts of Miami where English isn’t spoken despite the fact that the majority of members are second gen. Cubans. You’ll even find non-hispanic whites in Dade County whose preferred language is Spanish. Furthermore you’ll find lots of govt. pamphlets printed in Spanish and court-appointed interpreters in Cal., Texans, and Florida. The father of a good friend is a Spanish interpreter for the courts in Texas.

        Second generation hispanics tend to not go to college, from what I have seen. Rather, they go into their family business. Asians, of course, tend to value a college education whether first gen. or not.

        I’m not surprised about the large number of buddhists, what with the substantial number of southeast asians who settled in LA. Still, they are swallowed up by the hispanic horde in LA.

      • santitafarella says:

        Tom,

        Like has always networked with like. We live in the Facebook Age where, even on the Internet, people enter enclaves. I suppose you could easily argue that Los Angeles is dotted with white Protestant enclaves as well. These are places where you see mostly white people and they all talk about the world and see the world in a similar fashion. They’re called megachurches. John Macarthur has one in the San Fernando Valley. There’s nothing alarming in this. The whites who enter such an enclave blend in with the larger Hispanic community around them as they go about their jobs in the city.

        As for Spanish, well, yes, of course, you can find areas all over Los Angeles where people will default to Spanish among Spanish speakers. What’s the problem here? Should you need them to, they revert to English in a snap because they tend to be bilingual.

        My grandfather came to America from Italy and never did well with English. He worked as a musician in the entertainment industry in Burbank. He could play music, write music, conduct music. And his sons went to college and one of his grandsons teaches English at a college. You yourself admit that only some 2nd generation children of Hispanics don’t become proficient English speakers. My guess is that the number approaches zero.

        And Spanish is a European language (if you’re worried about Western cultural dilution). Hell, Columbus, though Italian, knew Spanish. It’s good to have people in our country who know a romance language like Spanish. It facilitates trade with Spanish speaking countries. It forges social links for exchange. It’s also good to have Chinese speakers in America. That too facilitates trade and cultural exchange. Why would you ever not want that? What zero-sum game are you presuming is in operation here?

        —Santi

      • TomH says:

        Santi,

        I don’t find anything necessarily alarming about immigration. I don’t know why you suppose that I would. I’m married to an immigrant.

        I merely challenge the question that immigration necessarily leads to diversity.

  3. cause him??? what about free-will.. what about him making poor choices?

    He could have been on some psychiatric drug in which aggression/and/or violence is a side effect… if that were the case would the tv internet or whoever be responsible for HIS actions?

    this country should emphasis personal responsibility as much as it emphases liberty.

    yikes.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Oh, and Obama’s job approval numbers are looking pretty good:

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/145442/Obama-Job-Approval-Reaches-First-Time-Spring.aspx

    —Santi

  5. Paradigm says:

    Human behavior is usually caused or enabled by many factors. But we are all exposed to the internet and other media as well as the tone of the political debate. There’d be way more shooters if these were major causes. The thing that puts this guy aside from us is that he is rambling in a way that suggests schizophrenia. That said most schizophrenics do not become violent. So it may be a complicated set of factors that led up to this tragedy. Generally speaking most of our personalities are dictated by genes, but there is a fairly big environmental factor as well. The interesting thing about that factor is that researchers have not been able to find what it is. They do know that it is not shared environment, meaning family. Some guess that it might be your friends growing up – but no one knows. So maybe we’ll never know what compelled Loughner to shoot.

  6. There is a lot in this thread on what favors Dems or what favors Reps. It seems to me that you are both right and wrong because it is more about issues than specific parties. Most people slightly favor a party, but cross party lines regularly based on specific issues. Personally, I think anyone going straight ticket for either party to be dogmatic and lazy and not really concerned with paying attention.

    The economy is hosed. Both D and R are to blame. America is at a swing point. If Americans view the government as a big part of the problem, then they will head Rep. If they view free market economics as the problem, then they will swing Dem. I can make a very compelling case that government is the problem, BTW, so you know where I fall.

    Moral issues. The number of agnostic, atheist or non-religious people is on the rise. Even those identifying themselves as Christian are more leaning to a deism style rather than orthodoxy. In this aspect, Dems get the favor. Although many of these issues will become moot shortly, so this many not really favor anyone.

    Social programs is a derivative of the economy, but most people seem to slice it differently. As SS approaches insolvency over the next 50 years, people are going to realize just how screwed up this entire aspect of government is. I did the math the other day and by the time I retire about $500K will have been contributed into SS for me (I self employ too, so it is a real bitch). If I live to 90, I get back between $400K and $600K. Compare that to a conservative IRA/annuity/whatever. I would be cashing out for over $1M. And yes, that includes market crashes that we have seen lately and me using a conservative portfolio. As education increases, social programs like SS are doomed. Chalk another up for Reps.

    Foreign policy. It is unclear to me how this will go. I would have thought that the abject failure of Bush foreign policy would be enough to deter the chickenhawks. Sadly, just as Dems are myopic in dealing with social programs, most Reps are myopic in dealing with foreign policy. History makes it crystal clear what DOES NOT WORK. yet Rep policy is the same as ever. Hopefully, as education increases, so to will this realization. Chalk 1 up for Dems.

  7. TomH says:

    Did anyone notice how Jared Loughner looks like Uncle Fester on the Addams Family?

    Da-da-da-dun, da-da-da….

    • santitafarella says:

      Tom,

      I hate to say it, but I see Glenn Beck, and plan to do a post on it today. Separated at birth?

      —Santi

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