11 January 2011

Post-Tucson Partisanship and Pathology

From the way some Republicans write and talk, you might think that they were the victims of Saturday's shootings in Tucson. Their outrage over the attempted assassination of a Representative and the murder of six other people is dwarfed by their horror at the thought that anyone is blaming them for what happened. As a result, columns on the Arizona amoklauf become but more occasions to condemn Democrats and liberals, this time for their alleged cynicism and opportunism in politicizing the crime for partisan advantage. This backlash only perpetuates the partisanship, of course. In our office, Mr. Right has been predictably defensive against the admittedly misplaced attempts to hold Republican opinionators responsible for the killings. But he can't make a reasonable defense without making an unreasonable charge himself. If the accused shooter was not a creature of the right, then he must be a creature of the left. Mr. Right assumed him to be a "Marxist" because he had read or heard that the suspect's favorite book was The Communist Manifesto. He seemed to step back from that when I called up the accused still-standing YouTube channel and read through his complete list of favorite texts, which includes both Mein Kampf and Ayn Rand's We The Living as well as the Marx-Engels tract, Brave New World and numerous children's books. Later, however, Mr. Right was again insisting that the suspect was a leftist. Anyone who examines those YouTube postings will realize that this character can't be plotted anywhere on the conventional partisan political grid, but people like Mr. Right have a bipolar view of the world that requires them to conclude that if someone isn't one of "us," he must be one of "them."

David Brooks is a more subtle thinker and writer than Mr. Right, but while he doesn't attempt to link the suspect to the left he still condemns liberals' "opportunistic" response to the Tucson massacre in his newest column. He condemns "a news media that is psychologically ill informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leans toward political explanations" of events like this one. Two separate ideas seem to be grappling for supremacy in Brooks's article. On one hand, liberal opinionators are opportunistic, which presumably means that they're consciously calculating the political gains to be won by associating Republicans with the suspect's likely guilt. On the other, their impulse to blame Republicans looks like a knee-jerk reaction predetermined by their partisan and ideological biases. So is their blaming of Republicans a premeditated strategy or a pathological outburst? What about Mr. Right's insistence that the suspect must be a leftist?

In the near future, psychologists will debate whether the accused assassin acted reasonably upon a set of premises or merely responded impulsively to a mental disorder. Right now, politicians and pundits are debating whether the suspect was persuaded to kill by partisan propaganda or driven by impulses to which party ideologies were irrelevant. Republicans argue that theirs is a reasoned discourse that couldn't drive even an unreasonable person to kill, while Democrats would have us infer that theirs is a more reasonable discourse than the "hate" or "intolerance" that must have inflamed the suspect. But given how little reasoned discourse has emerged from the partisan camps since Saturday, shouldn't we question any distinction that privileges partisan ideology as rational in order to exempt it from association with the accused's mania? To put it differently, both factions of the Bipolarchy insist that the suspect isn't one of them because he's not a rational person -- but who says the Bipolarchy itself is rational? The Bipolarchy itself does: each side gives the other the benefit of the doubt by attributing to it opportunistic cunning or dark powers of persuasion. The conditions of their enmity set the terms of reasonable political discourse. While it'll be difficult to argue that the suspect himself is a product of partisan bipolar disorder, our readiness to refute his alleged syllogisms should be extended to the syllogisms of the Bipolarchs who've tried to blame each other for the terror in Tucson.

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