Sarah Palin’s Not to Blame

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

When news of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords came through on Twitter Saturday, it was immediately clear that it was going to be a banner day for breaking-news journalism and all the hype and overstatement that goes with such situations.

Most egregious was the NPR flash that Giffords had died, amplified by CNN and other outlets. Those were quickly corrected, and the narrative has shifted to the debate over who’s to blame for what will go down as one of the bloodiest days in American politics.

As could be expected, Sarah Palin and Tea Partiers are taking much of the heat. Keith Olbermann excoriated them and others for their hints of violence and their adoration of firearms as a symbol of a conservative take-back of American politics and culture. Radio hosts came in for special criticism from Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik for their “vitriol.” Dupnik said Arizona has become the nation’s “mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

Such is standard practice in American media, politics and culture: They are to blame. We are not.

Or, at least in this case, conservatives are making sure we understand that they’re not to blame. David Frum writes at his blog:

Conservatives have been quick to repudiate – to brand as offensive and disgusting – any suggestion that the Tucson shooting was somehow inspired by the extreme anti-Obama political rhetoric of the past 2 years.

In this, conservatives have the facts on their side. By all reports, the Tucson shooter was a very mentally disturbed person. Even if Jared Lee Loughner was aware that Sarah Palin’s PAC had posted a gun sight next to Congresswoman Gifford’s name, that awareness cannot be translated into a motivation. It makes no sense to talk of the “motive” of someone who is fundamentally irrational.

Frum’s right, kind of. It’s too easy for liberals to blame conservative thought for this shooting. But the rantings of Loughner on his social media sites show him to be obsessed with fear of the “other.” And exploiting that thinking is exactly what conservatives do to build an electoral base and governing majority.

But it’s still not that as simple as that. The question is why we fear others, and that’s too easily dismissed as being the product of right-wing rantings. To his credit, Olbermann took some share of the blame Saturday night. Here’s his Special Comment from MSNBC:

But not even Olbermann hits the point: Sarah Palin and her gun-worship rhetoric are not to blame. Neither are Glenn Beck, Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or — as excessive of a right-winger as there can be — even Michael Savage. They don’t create the anger and resentment we see reflected in the screeds of people like Jared Loughner. They merely reflect and amplify it.

So where do anger and resentment come from? Not from individuals or even social institutions such as the media. It comes from social processes. Dominant social groups in any culture, when they perceive their control of the culture is endangered, will use rhetoric first to lash out against the threat to the order. In a capitalistic culture such as ours, it’s a white-male-Christian worldview that has controlled our discourse and our institutions for centuries. Sometimes the rhetorical exercises are cynical, designed to mobilize bases of support that might otherwise be silent. Sometimes the rhetoric is honestly believed.

Whatever its rhetorical motivation, anger and resentment are first directed toward legitimate public action — campaigning for political candidates, winning elections, “taking back” institutions. When House Republicans opened the 112th Congress last week by reading the text of the Constitution on the House floor, apparently for the first time in the nation’s history, they were pandering, ultimately, to the anger and resentment that gave rise to the Tea Party in the first place.

Fair enough. Elections, as they say, have consequences.

But what’s remarkable about politics in media culture is this: The more legitimate power the anger-and-resentment crowd gains, the more angry and resentful they become. As I noted earlier in the week with a post based on my overhearing a strategy session at a local coffeehouse on the impeachment of the justices of the Iowa Supreme Court, there is a sincere belief that any compromise is a sign of weakness not to be tolerated.

That, at root, is the poison of our system: The irony of living in the most powerful nation on Earth, with it’s people enjoying the world’s greatest share of material resources, is that it makes us fearful, angry and resentful.

Simply because Sarah Palin placed crosshairs on an electoral map, including one aimed at Giffords’ district, as a way of encouraging donations doesn’t mean that Loughner took her message literally.

What the Palins, Limbaughs and others on the right do accomplish is this: They legitimate anger and resentment. They give it an outlet, an organizing principle. They insist there is a world of us (God-fearing, pro-family, patriotic) against them (pro-immigrants, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, etc.). They insist that there is no room for them if America is to survive.

We have no idea whether Loughner’s ever heard of Rush Limbaugh, seen Sarah Palin or can even identify them. For all we know, he could turn out to an archetypal Rebel Without a Clue.

So rather than blame this polarizing figure or that, what we have to do is understand the way that media work in a marketing-oriented capitalistic culture. The media are but a platform for the content of others, and the content that is expressed is that which will generate an audience.


  1. How long you had this site, Brian? Very cool.

    I must confess I don’t really get your point. The observation that media commentators operate within a larger cultural context seems a bit obvious. So how does that reality impact what we should do?

    1. This is why I need an editor for this blog. Here’s what I’m trying to say: What I find amazing is that people living in the most powerful, most prosperous nation on Earth are so hotheaded in so many cases. And, in extreme cases, explode in fits of violence such as what we saw Saturday. It’s not Palin, Limbaugh, etal, to blame (although those of us on the left would certainly love to tag them with it). It’s a systemic problem in the American culture: We blame a tyrannical government while presuming that a tyrannical economic system exists in nature and can’t be changed.

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