Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Meanness in This World


“They want to know why I did what I done?
I said there’s just a meanness in this world.”
— Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In a better world, I’d be writing in this space about the repeal — or at least the beginning of the process of repeal — of the U.S. military’s hateful “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that for 17 years has forced Queer Americans to lie about who they are in order to fight, die and kill for their country. Or I’d be writing about how the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress batted .500 on civil rights, passing “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal but denying the common decency of the DREAM Act to give the children of undocumented immigrants the right to earn legal U.S. residency through serving in the military or going to college.

Or I’d be writing about the latest bizarre twist in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger (soon, likely, to be renamed Perry v. Brown), in which a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals bounced the case back to the California Supreme Court to determine whether the proponents of Proposition 8 have legal standing to challenge Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, which is bad news in the short term (it means the case will drag out longer than it would otherwise, and in the meantime Proposition 8 remains in force) but good news in the long run (if we can get the appeal thrown out on grounds of lack of standing, we’re a lot more likely to have marriage equality in California than we are if the proponents get to argue the case on the merits before a U.S. Supreme Court with a hard-core Right-wing majority).

Instead I’m writing about America’s latest public bloodbath, the assault on U.S. Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” meeting in Tucson, Arizona that left Giffords in critical condition, fighting for her life, and killed six people, including a federal judge, John Roll, who had displeased the radical Right and got 200 threatening phone calls the day he ruled to allow 12 undocumented immigrants to sue an Arizona rancher they claimed had harassed and threatened them. I’m writing this on January 15, just one week after the attack happened, during which there’s been a crazy reaction in which, like the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, the Tucson bloodbath has become a blank slate in which partisans on both the Right and the Left are writing whatever points they think they can make out of the tragedy — and the radical-Right media are essentially doing damage control, trying to convince us that the shooting was the act of one lone nut and they shouldn’t be held responsible in any way.

In direct terms, that’s probably true. The alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was a 22-year-old who seems to have shown all the classic signs of schizophrenia. By the accounts that have come out so far, he was normal and even charming until he turned 16, when he started hearing voices in his head and became more and more detached from conventional notions of reality. He’s supposed to have hated Congressmember Giffords ever since 2007, when he went to a previous “Congress on Your Corner” and asked her, “What is government if words have no meaning?” The question so perplexed Giffords she ignored it and went on to the next audience member, but it may or may not have been inspired by a weird Web site Loughner may or may not have visited. Set up by someone calling himself “:PLENIPOTENTIARY-JUDGE: David-Wynn Miller,” this site has apparently been used by several ultra-Right anti-tax activists who seem to believe that if they festoon their names with odd punctuation marks the way Miller has, they can avoid being subject to U.S. jurisdiction and therefore won’t have to pay U.S. taxes.

It’s not known for certain whether Loughner ever logged on to that site, just as it’s not known whether he ever saw Sarah Palin’s Web page listing 20 incumbent Democratic Congressmembers she was targeting for defeat in last November’s election, including Giffords, and containing a map which showed cross-hair target symbols over their districts. Nor is it clear whether Loughner either knew or cared that Giffords’ office was vandalized immediately after she voted for the Democrats’ health-insurance bill, or that Giffords’ opponent in the last election was a Tea Party Republican who hosted a fundraiser that gave attendees a chance to fire an M-16 rifle in exchange for a campaign donation. But it is clear that Loughner’s obsessions with tax avoidance, returning the U.S. to the gold standard and opposing the so-called “Second Constitution” — the post-Civil War 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that ended slavery, gave African-Americans the right to vote and authorized Congress and the federal courts to protect minorities’ civil rights — are causes near and dear to the Right, not the Left.

That, too, may just be an accident of history. If he’d been born in the 1940’s and become a symptomatic schizophrenic in the 1960’s instead of the 2000’s, Loughner may have found a more progressive inspiration for a crazy killing spree — the way Charles Manson is supposed to have read the Beatles’ “White Album” as an instruction to him and his followers to kill white celebrities in a way that the blame would fall on Blacks and an apocalyptic race war would start. Instead, both Loughner and his madness came of age in a reactionary era in which the loudest voices on the political and media landscape are those of talk radio and Fox News — and thus the actions of which he’s accused took the form of an attack on a politician and a judge America’s radical Right had “targeted.” What’s more, though America’s “mainstream” (or “lamestream,” as Sarah Palin calls them) corporate media are trying to reassure us that Loughner was just a free-lance nut with no political agenda at all, the U.K. Guardian has quoted no less than FBI director Robert Mueller as saying that the official investigation will include a look at the role Right-wing organizations and their propaganda may have played in bringing about the killings. “The ubiquitous nature of the Internet means that not only threats, but hate speech and other inciteful speech is much more readily available to individuals than quite clearly it was eight or 10 or 15 years ago,” Mueller told the Guardian.

There’s no reason to believe that Sarah Palin and her Webmaster put that target symbol (which she now lamely says was just a “surveyor’s mark” — an excuse whose credibility ranks right up there with “the dog ate my homework”) over Gabrielle Giffords’ Congressional district with any intent other than to remove her from office with ballots — not bullets. But in a broader sense, the radical Right has created a culture of meanness in this country that, if it didn’t actually put the gun in Jared Loughner’s hand and direct him towards a Congressmember and a judge that had displeased them, certainly created a climate that led his murderous rage in the direction it took. With their stated goal of even-handedness and “objectivity,” the mainstream corporate media — the center-Right media, as opposed to the far-Right media of talk radio and Fox News — and establishment politicians are trying to play a pox-on-both-your-houses game and blame “extremists” on both the Left and the Right for “coarsening” this nation’s political discourse and ending “civility” in American politics.

Bullshit. The coarsening of political debate and the end of “civility” in this country are the work of the Right, not the Left. First, it’s the Right, not the Left, that has the media power: talk radio and Fox News beam forth vicious, scurrilous attacks on their political enemies 24/7 over a wide variety of media outlets. Leftists, progressives and even liberals have virtually no media access — just a couple of shows on the least-watched cable news outlet, a public-radio network of no discernible ideology and a carefully cultivated and exquisite dullness, and a handful of small-circulation magazines that continually have to beg their readers for money to survive. Progressives like to hold out the forlorn hope that the Internet will somehow equalize their access to media — but the most visited news sites on the Web are those run by the corporate media, and with the near-certain end of “Net neutrality” it’s likely that within five to 10 years the Internet will be just as totally controlled by the radical Right as most of America’s other communications channels.

What’s more, the vision of America’s future the radical Right uses their media empire to push is a mean, vicious one in which the only rules are those of dog-eat-dog lassiez-faire capitalism. Economically, their vision is that of the late author Ayn Rand, in which the people who make the most money not only have the power but the moral right to run the world as they see fit, and the rest of us have no opportunity to complain. It is a world in which corporations can destroy jobs, communities and even entire countries, while workers are systematically prevented from organizing to protect themselves and told that even thinking about doing so is immoral and will get their livelihoods taken away. It is a world that will need to build the barriers between the haves and the have-nots ever higher — more gated communities, more border fences — just in case the have-nots dare to defy the system and rebel against the haves. And while the Right has women and people of color among their leaders and spokespeople, they paradoxically preach a vision of the social order in which women exist only to give birth to the next generation, sex is only justifiable to make babies, and therefore abortion, homosexuality and even birth control must be suppressed.

It’s also a vision that regards the earth, not as a limited resource to be husbanded and protected, but as territory to be strip-mined and trashed for the immediate bottom line. It’s a vision that has to deny the reality of global warming because any truly effective program of stopping global warming will have to challenge the slash-and-burn ethos of capitalism itself. It’s a vision that regards the primary function of this country’s military not as defense, but as unchallenged imperialist rule, intervening in nation after nation to prevent any competing ideology to lassiez-faire capitalism from even being tried, much less actually working. It’s a vision whose two priorities are to ensure that the United States continues to use and control a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and that the wealthiest one percent of Americans keep and increase their disproportionate share of our nation’s resources and economic production. And it’s a vision that, thanks to the relentless propaganda of talk radio, Fox News and the other media outlets of the radical Right, millions — probably a majority — of Americans today believe in, even if they’re personally suffering from the policies being pursued to implement it.

Listen to talk radio or watch Fox News for any length of time, and the mystery is not why Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords got shot and Judge John Roll got killed, but why there aren’t more such assaults and more such victims. Listen to the airy talk of people like defeated Nevada U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle about “Second Amendment remedies” in case they and their ideological brethren and sistren lose at the polls, and the only surprise is that there aren’t more nuts out there taking her literally and buying arsenals to do what she’s advocated. So far, at least, most of the radical Right media’s audience has been able to control themselves and confine their political activism to legitimate avenues — especially since the hosts of talk radio and Fox News sell not only their vision but an arrogant certainty that it will prevail and it will be only a matter of time before liberals, labor, immigrants, Queers, Hollywood actors and all the people on their ever-growing shit lists are pounded into oblivion without the necessity of violence or bloodshed. But how much longer will that last before America’s streets are filled with tens, hundreds or thousands of Jared Lee Loughners, all armed to the teeth and with brains twisting the hate-filled messages of talk radio and Fox News into calls for immediate and brutal action?