What cost our caustic discourse
I, like much of the country, have been following the tragic news of the shooting in Arizona on Saturday with a sort of morbid fascination. The horrific act that led to the deaths of six individuals and the wounding of several others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is truly heartbreaking.
Experts and laypersons alike will spend the next several weeks trying to parse a motive and reason for 22-year-old Jared Loughner's shooting spree but the sad fact is that this wasn't about reason or sense; it was about mental illness.
Of course, the blame game began almost immediately after the news broke. Some on the left tried to pin Loughner to the Tea Party, to Glenn Beck, to Sarah Palin and her hastily removed website that had crosshairs over Gifford's district as a "target" for last year's elections.
But none of those groups or individuals pulled the trigger. None of them apparently planned the assassination of an elected official with whose policies and positions (and possibly religion) they disagreed.
Unless the investigation turns up evidence of collaborators, the responsibility for this utterly reprehensible act lies squarely on the shoulders of Loughner and no one else. Anyone insisting otherwise will find that they are only contributing to the toxic climate of political debate in this country they likely profess to hate.
This isn't about the "left" or the "right" and how wrong they are.
First and foremost, it's about a deeply troubled young man who was able to go unnoticed and untreated for far too long who was still able to legally purchase and carry a handgun despite a record of problems that seem to strongly indicate a longer history of illness. I sincerely hope that a serious discussion of the mental health system in this country happens as a result, though this has happened before: Seung-Hui Cho, the mentally-ill Virginia Tech student who killed 32 people before committing suicide, for instance.
Arizona was at the top of a list of states that made the biggest cuts in mental health services in 2010 compiled by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2010.
This isn't about whether or not people in general should be able to own handguns.
It's about the efficacy of the regulations we do have in place for gun ownership. If officials at the community college that eventually banned Loughner from campus for his disturbing behavior (or anyone along the way, really) had followed up by reporting it to his parents, mental health workers, or social services, the information would likely have ended up as part of his record and barred him from making the purchase in the first place. This might have also resulted in his getting the help he so clearly needed before any shots were fired.
I do agree, however, that we as a country are in dire need of a serious and heartfelt discussion of our aforementioned caustic political climate. The inflammatory rhetoric of the various right and leftwing pundits and politicians isn't directly to blame for Loughner's actions, but it certainly plays a role in nurturing the already extant paranoia of the ill.
It's also not healthy for the general, sane population.
Commentator Tim Wise has a great essay worth reading about this very issue (seriously, check it out here). Wise starts off with a right-on caveat:
Unlike some, I will not attempt to make murderer and would-be political assassin Jared Loughner, a poster-boy for the Tea Party. As it turns out, such a feat would do Mr. Loughner an injustice, ascribing to him a level of sane, if yet disturbing philosophical coherence that he apparently lacks, rather than recognizing him for what he is: a deeply disturbed, likely schizophrenic young man, whose attempt to claim the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was motivated by a bizarre and toxic stream-of-consciousness conspiracism, rather than a commitment to conservatism per se.
However, he then goes on to point out that the young man's acts cannot be entirely removed from the current political climate and certain extreme-right voices that contribute to its pollution (this would go, I should say, for anyone who went on a violent rampage and espoused extreme-left views, too). Wise notes, "...his paranoid lunacy, the contours of which one can explore thanks to the wonders of the internet, transpired in a nation where paranoia and its peddling have become common fare."
We have TV and radio hosts daily invoking the specter of (poorly understood) fascism, drawing links between elected leaders and Maoists, claiming that the government wants to kill your grandparents and steal your guns, that Latin American immigrants are attempt to retake southern parts of the U.S., that gays and lesbians are sexual predators bent on destroying the nation, and that our president is some Kenyan Muslim Socialist Nazi interloper.
Is it the commentator's First Amendment rights to espouse these ideas and beliefs? Yes, just as much as it is my right to call out their insane rhetoric for being incredibly detrimental to the health and long-term stability of our communities.
We should be having a substantial debate about the actual provisions of the health care reform act. We should be discussing our country's policy on how to curb global climate change in a way that helps our economy instead of hurting it. We should be talking about budgets and taxes and campaign finance reform and gun rights and access to mental health treatment and funding for the arts and education and NASA and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We can't actually do any of that and hope to reach real, viable solutions when the air is choked with willfully ignorant paranoid delusions, propaganda, bigotry and fear-mongering.
Especially when that toxic combination is helping to feed the crazy notions of people like Loughner and make them feel justified in taking violent action.
I sincerely hope that some good comes from this tragedy that we as a nation do a whole lot of soul searching about how we go about disagreeing with one another, about how we treat each other as countrymen and citizens of a truly interconnected world, and how we react when one among us goes so completely off the rails.
It's not about everyone falling in line or censorship or bans. It's about growing up and learning that we can have a rollicking good debate without resorting to extremes. It's about calling out those responsible for irresponsible rhetoric when it happens. It's about becoming just a little bit more evolved.
Wise again: "...what is saddest about our present condition, is that this ability to recognize our common humanity, and the decency of most folks, regardless of political philosophy, is seen by too many as a weakness, as compromise, collaboration, impurity, pathology, as evidence that one is no better than the evil on the other side. We have surrounded ourselves with amplified noise machines, which pump only those tunes we are already predisposed to hear, and in so doing we make enemies of our brothers and sisters. We turn politics and the larger, existential fight for justice into a blood sport. Kill or be killed."
Walker still off to a bad start
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Scott Walker doesn't represent real job creation or shrinking the deficit or really doing much that's actually financially and socially responsible. And now an analysis of his first proposals in office pretty clearly backs up that assertion:
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ran on the promise of balancing the state's $3 billion budget shortfall and putting people back to work, but his first proposals will only deepen the state's fiscal woes.
Ouch. The article goes on to explain that the bills include tax cuts that would actually add at least $80 million a year to the deficit, and take several years before any positive economic benefit might or might not become apparent.
Meanwhile, governors in other states have already taken steps like cutting their own salaries in order to chip away at deficits. Walker used his own salary reduction as a campaign point both when running for Milwaukee County Executive and again for governor (though what he actually did wasn't quite as advertised) so would he be willing to actually see it through now?
GOP's cozy ties with lawyers and law firms
Last week I touched on Republican control of redistricting in Wisconsin and how the party had retained two law firms, Michael Best and Friedrich and Troupis Law Office, to help them with the process while disallowing Democrats to do the same.
It seemed slightly fishy to me that Michael Best enjoyed such strong ties to the GOP state chairman Reince Priebus works for them, and James Troupis worked for years at Best before starting his own firm but I left it at that.
Chris Liebenthal over at Cognitive Dissidence picked up on yet another tie, however:
Michael Best and Friedrich is also the employer of former US Attorney Steven Biskupic, who Walker's campaign has retained to defend itself (and Walker) from the growing investigation into campaign law violations and Walker's campaign.
Per the above link, "In a widening probe, Milwaukee County prosecutors are pushing forward with their two-prong criminal investigation into campaign activity by county staffers for Governor-elect Scott Walker and questionable donations by a Walker supporter."
I'll echo Liebenthal's sentiment, then, and ask exactly when does all of this become a conflict of interest?