Saturday, February 26, 2011

February 26, 2011

A postscript to the second paragraph of yesterday’s note: if reporters don’t consider plausibility, they need at least to listen carefully. Here’s an example from World Wide Words:20 “During the devastating floods in Queensland, Australia, the front page of the Morning Bulletin of Rockhampton on 6 January included the headline ‘30,000 pigs swept away in flood’.” The next day, the paper featured this correction: “What Baralaba piggery-owner Sid Everingham actually said was ‘30 sows and pigs’, not ‘30,000 pigs’.”

20. See “Sic!” at

February 25, 2011

I have just finished reading a book entitled Flat Earth News, by a British newsman, Nick Davies. It’s a critique of the news media, here as well as in the UK. He argues that they publish and broadcast many stories which are false, misleading or incomplete, but are as resistant to correction as the ancient belief about the shape of the earth. (In the age of Limbaugh, is that an old notion?)

He offers several explanations, including the commercialization of television news departments and the obsession of newspapers with the bottom line, both leading to understaffing and the consequent reliance on various types of PR. He also cites the practice of reporting what people say, however illogical or suspect, on the ground that the statement is news. There is the strong tendency to take whatever line is currently fashionable and therefore safe. Stories, regardless of merit, spread because each news agency copies the others. Finally, the selection and presentation of news caters to the interests, beliefs and intellectual limitations of the audience.

We are witnessing a prime example of flat earth news: the widespread claim in articles, columns and editorial cartoons that reducing the deficit requires tinkering with Social Security. The kindest explanation is that this originated in an honest misunderstanding. The Social Security system will need some adjusting in the next few years because outlay has caught up with income. It is not a problem requiring an immediate solution, because the trust funds will cover outlays until about 2037. However, because both Social Security and the government’s general fund need attention, the latter because of a huge deficit, the two become confused, and people think that “fixing” Social Security is necessary to a reduction of the deficit. In fact, the only contribution SS has made to the deficit is to make it look smaller. Government reports long have shown a composite number, combining the SS surplus with a general account deficit, burying the former and making the latter look less awful.

Attempts to point out the fallacy haven’t had much impact. One who has tried is Rep. Pelosi, who said recently, “Whatever we do for Social Security is not about reducing the deficit, it is about strengthening Social Security — the solvency of Social Security. Those are two separate, different questions." She made the same point some months ago:“When you talk about reducing the deficit and Social Security, you’re talking about apples and oranges.”

However, there is too much chatter on the other side, and some of the confusion is intentional, coming from those who want to eliminate, privatize or cut Social Security. One ploy is to treat Social Security and Medicare as one, even though they are separately funded. Since general fund revenue provides about three quarters of Medicare B and D funding, they have a direct impact on the deficit. Leaving funding sources aside, Medicare poses a more serious long-term problem because of the increase in the cost of medical care. Treating the two programs as one serves to mislead people into thinking that SS is in trouble too. Paul Krugman has pointed out that fallacy more than once, with an equal lack of success.

The Health Care Act will improve the financial status of Medicare,19 but conservatives want to repeal it. That too seems to be a mix of misunderstanding and ideology.


19. On this and other points, see the Social Security Trustees’ Report,

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

February 21, 2011

One of a city’s functions, it seems to me, ought to be to provide reasonably smooth road surfaces, on which one could drive without worrying about blowing a tire, ruining the suspension or — here I am being demanding — not having a jarring ride, with the car dropping into a hole or hitting an obstruction every ten feet. Alas, a vain hope.

There should be a pothole test for elected officials. When the percentage of the pavement covered by potholes exceeds a certain level, say 20%, recall should be automatic. The arterial nearest our home is approaching the critical level. Recently, someone drew white circles around each hole. This has the effect of making them easier to see and therefore easier to avoid, so it may have been a gift from a public spirited citizen. I’m hoping though, that it was the work of a city crew, and that repair might follow.

Many of the potholes are depressions around small metal plates. Exactly what the function might be of openings that small escapes me, but presumably they are important to someone. The major annoyance is the massive number of larger plates, the manhole covers. Like the smaller ones, many are poorly leveled, but at best they create a washboard surface. Even the relatively well-leveled ones cause a constant succession of bumps, so that the modern street is about as smooth as cobblestones, although less durable. Progress.

I assume that undergrounding of utilities has contributed to their proliferation, but there is an incredible number of them. If we must have that number, at. least they could be placed so that one could avoid them: at the edge of the lane or in the middle where they could be straddled. Perhaps their placement may be an exact science, and they need to be exactly where they are. That would be the only excuse for spreading them all over the roadway, so that avoiding them would require levitation. However, I suspect that placing most of the manholes exactly where one’s tires must go is less a matter of science than of total disregard for effects, or of simple incompetence.

Yes, there are far more important matters, and I’ll return to complaining about them soon.

February 18, 2011

In 2004, Washington voters adopted, through Initiative 872, the “top-two” primary election system, which sends to the final election the two candidates receiving the most votes, regardless of party label. The constitutionality of that system was challenged by the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian Parties in 2005, and it has been in litigation ever since. The Initiative was defended by the State, and by the Washington State Grange, which had sponsored it.

The constitutional principle at issue is whether the new primary infringes on political parties’ associational rights, which the U.S. Supreme Court has decided are protected under the First Amendment. Included is the right not to associate. The format allows candidates to state a party preference on the ballot, in the form “prefers ______ Party.” The question is whether that statement implies a connection of some sort and therefore amounts to an involuntary association. The Parties claim that it does, and that it forces them to associate with people they have not endorsed, have not chosen to associate with, and might not approve of.

The Parties prevailed in U.S. District Court and in the Court of Appeals but, in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the law was not void “on its face,” i.e., void under any set of assumptions. There remained the possibility of its invalidity “as applied” which, in the Supreme Court’s opinion, became an issue of disclosure and disclaimer: has the State made it clear to voters that the declaration of party preference does not imply association or endorsement? Stated otherwise, will voters be confused by that declaration? On remand, the District Court allowed the Parties to amend their complaints to add allegations based on the forms and procedures in use under the new law.14

There also was a secondary issue regarding Precinct Committee Officers, officials of the Republican and Democratic Parties, who have been listed on the primary ballot. Anyone voting in the primary could vote for a PCO, and the Parties argued that such an arrangement also violates their associational rights.

Trial was set for November 15, 2010, continued to January 18, 2011. Motions for summary judgment were filed by the State and the Grange in support of the initiative, and by the Democratic and Republican Parties challenging it.

On January 11, the District Court granted the State’s and Grange’s motions as to the principal issue, and dismissed the Parties’ complaint to that extent,15 holding that the ballot and information distributed by the State eliminate the risk of misunderstanding. (The court’s exact language, which may have created a problem, is discussed below). Therefore, except for Precinct Committee officers, the new ballot and system are valid.

The Republican and Democratic Parties’ motions were granted as to election of PCOs. Not surprisingly, the District Court found that the Parties’ associational rights were infringed by allowing unaffiliated voters to help select a party official. “The system allows non–party members to vote for officers of the political parties, and the First Amendment does not permit Washington to impose that type of membership when the parties have not so consented.” Including PCOs on the ballot always has been an anomaly: why should party officials be chosen in a public election? It remains to be seen how the State will deal with this, but the most logical solution would be to drop PCOs from the ballot.

A judgment formalizing the result was entered on January 20. I assume that the Parties will appeal (they have until February 19).16

Will the decision as to the principal issue survive? Unfortunately, the District Court’s opinion increases the risk of reversal. Its ruling is as follows:

“The Court concludes that I-872 as implemented in partisan elections is constitutional because the ballot and accompanying information eliminate the possibility of widespread confusion among the reasonable, well- informed electorate” (emphasis added).

Its rationale cites the Supreme Court’s decision for the following proposition, which is a slightly different statement of the same principle:

The standard by which the Court must evaluate the possibility of widespread confusion is from the perspective of a reasonable, well-informed electorate. See Wash. State Grange, 552 U.S. at 456 (emphasis added).

However, that standard is not set forth on that page of the Supreme Court’s opinion, either in terms or in substance, nor does it appear in terms anywhere. Here are the passages in which the italicized words appeared (emphasis again added):

. . . We are satisfied that there are a variety of ways in which the State could implement I-872 that would eliminate any real threat of voter confusion. And without the specter of widespread voter confusion , respondents' arguments about forced association and compelled speech fall flat.” (Majority opinion)

If the ballot is designed in such a manner that no reasonable voter would believe that the candidates listed there are nominees or members of, or otherwise associated with, the parties the candidates claimed to “prefer,” the I-872 primary system would likely pass constitutional muster. (Concurring opinion of Chief Justice Roberts)

There is simply no basis to presume that a well-informed electorate will interpret a candidate's party-preference designation to mean that the candidate is the party's chosen nominee or representative or that the party associates with or approves of the candidate. (Majority opinion).

It isn’t clear whether the two statements by the majority were intended to be combined into a single standard. Certainly the three cannot be merged, at least as stated; Justice Roberts’ requirement that no reasonable voter be misled is more demanding than the majority’s “absence of widespread confusion,” with or without the “well-informed” qualification. 17 Linking the three, as the District Court has done, makes the State’s burden lighter than that proposed by the majority or by Justice Roberts: it need only prevent widespread confusion among reasonable, well-informed voters. The Supreme Court’s failure to articulate a clear test may have led the District Court into devising one. Perhaps the Supreme Court will accept it or, goaded by Justice Scalia, it may reconsider its decision.

In his dissent, Scalia pointed out that the analysis by the majority was incomplete: “association” is a two-way process. The majority only dealt with the question of whether the ballot implies that the Parties have associated with the candidate, in the sense of endorsing, approving, accepting, or whatever it is that parties do. Justice Scalia pointed out that the connection can run the other way: “it seems to me quite impossible for the ballot to satisfy a reasonable voter that the candidate is not ‘associated with’ the party for which he has expressed a preference. He has associated himself with the party by his very expression of a preference . . . .” That is undeniable and, to Scalia, unacceptable: ”The views of the self-identified party supporter color perception of the party's message, and that self-identification on the ballot . . . impairs the party's advocacy of its standard bearer.” I think that the entire association argument lacks merit, for reasons stated elsewhere,18 but that isn’t the law. In any further appeal, the Court will subject the ballot language to scrutiny and a majority may adopt Justice Scalia’s view.

However, there is a flaw in his argument. It is doubtful that the right of non-association prevents an unblessed candidate from declaring a party preference, at least in most contexts. As Justice Roberts put it, “there is no general right to stop an individual from saying, ‘I prefer this party,’ even if the party would rather he not.” Scalia argued that making that statement on a ballot is different than making it elsewhere: “The ballot comes into play "at the most crucial stage in the electoral process — the instant before the vote is cast.". . . It is the only document that all voters are guaranteed to see, and it is the last thing the voter sees before he makes his choice. . . . " In making that argument, Justice Scalia relied on California Democratic Party v. Jones , in which he wrote the majority opinion, and which struck down a blanket primary on the ground that it violated parties’ right of non-association. However, the issue there was different: whether the election format forced the parties to associate with voters they hadn’t accepted. That is applicable to the PCO issue — selection by voters at large — which the District Court distinguished and decided as Scalia would have, but not to the party-preference declaration.

In addition, Justice Scalia’s argument seems to me to be internally inconsistent. His concern is that the “electorate's perception of a political party's beliefs is colored by its perception of those who support the party,” but his focus is on the ballot: “When the state-printed ballot for the general election causes a party to be associated with candidates who may not fully (if at all) represent its views, it undermines both these vital aspects of political association.” If we accept Justice Roberts’ view that there is no general right to forbid statements of association, then throughout the campaign any candidate is free to state his party preference while saying things the party disapproves. However, the candidate’s party preference on the ballot states no views. If the voter has paid attention during the campaign, he already has been influenced by what the candidate says, and the party has had no remedy. All that the voter sees on the ballot is a name and a party preference, which can’t mislead him as to what the party believes. At worst, he will vote for a candidate that the party doesn’t like but, had he followed the campaign, the voter could have done that with malice aforethought. According to Scalia, the ballot is crucial but, taken alone, it has no effect on voters’ perceptions; only permitted communications have that effect.

Justice Scalia’s remedy is to convert the ballot into a campaign document, by permitting parties “to disclaim on the general-election ballot the asserted association or to designate on the ballot their true nominees.” This doesn’t entirely make sense; on the general election ballot, the disfavored one(s) and the party’s “true nominee,” of any, may not appear. Perhaps he meant to refer to the primary ballot. In any case, let’s hope that the Court does not follow his lead.


14. The events to this point are summarized in my note of June 18, 2010.
All of the documents in the case are available on the web site of the Secretary of State,
16. Apparently an appeal was filed February 11. The records of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit are not a model of clarity. The Secretary of State’s website does not mention an appeal.
17. However, Justices Roberts and Alito joined the majority opinion, so perhaps they did not see any conflict.
18. See my note of April 19, 2002.

February 11, 2011
An article in the Washington Post pointed out that a Palin nomination would be a gift to Obama and quoted a Republican consultant: "She is the Obama White House's secret weapon to wipe out the GOP on election day 2012." Palin hardly is a secret nor is the expectation that she would be a weak candidate. However, the article and the quote lead to the more general point, that Obama’s chances of reelection are enhanced by the putative GOP field. Those who have been mentioned as contenders comprise an impossibly large field, and some will fade early, but the list is interesting: Pawlenty, Romney, Huckabee, Palin, Barbour, Jindal, Gingrich, Giuliani, Huntsman, Pence, Thune, Santorum, Daniels, Bachmann, Trump, Perry, Ron Paul. Some, including Jindal, Perry and Trump simply are difficult to take seriously (Jindal and Perry deny that they are running). Some have so much baggage as to warrant being eliminated at the outset: consider the frequently-demonstrated ignorance of Palin and Bachmann, the marital histories of Gingrich and Giuliani, Gingrich’s ouster as Speaker, Barbour’s gaffes on race, Santorum’s thumping defeat in 2006.

These folks already are throwing bricks at one another. Trump offended at least part of his audience at CPAC by stating that Paul can’t be elected. Perry has denounced Romney’s Obama-like health care plan. Santorum speculated that Palin skipped CPAC because she’s more interested in appearances that pay big fees; Palin suggested that Santorum is a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal, not only an unusually insulting charge but an odd reference coming from one not notably progressive. Intramural warfare is a new and risky departure for Republicans. Democrats often have fallen into that mode, and sometimes have survived, but the GOP, especially in recent years, has owed its success to tight control of the message, and a more contentious model may be fatal.

Of course, Republican policies also should be fatal. The GOP rails against the national debt but insist on tax cuts, and vow to repeal the health care law even though it will lower the deficit. Virtually no one in the country admires big-business CEOs, but Republicans advance their interests. At a time when the country faces serious challenges and many problems are technically daunting, they disparage scientific findings and wallow in ignorance. They attack not only the administration the people chose, but American government as a concept, and denounce various aspects of the culture, while professing patriotism and extolling American exceptionalism. They praise the Constitution but introduce bills to gut it. Faced by problems of the twenty-first century, they yearn to return to the nineteenth, if not earlier. Even their youngest members sound old.

Logically, the only question for 2012 should be the margin of the Republican defeat. If only.

January 29, 2011

The President’s State of the Union speech was artful and quietly assertive. It not only defended his policies of the past two years but treated them as achievements. It proposed new government initiatives. At the same time, it promised cooperation with the opposition, tied some of the initiatives to business expansion and even nodded toward conservatives’ illogical fixation on medical malpractice reform. Assuming that any future success depends on the President’s reassuring conservatives that he’s not an alien and liberals that he’s not an apostate, it probably was well designed.

However, it may have been too artful, too much a mixture of themes. The comments above are based on reading the text.9 When I listened to it live, it struck me as being tilted too far toward business. It may be that conservatives made the opposite misreading; if so, some haven’t bothered to give it a second look.

Even without careful study, the address should have convinced any rational listener that Mr. Obama is not a socialist — well, let’s say any listener who knows what socialism is. Unfortunately, few conservatives do. Paul Broun, a Republican member of the House, offered a timely illustration. On Tuesday night, apparently during the address, he tweeted, "Mr. President, you don't believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism." (One might ask whether those are mutually exclusive beliefs, but no matter). Given an opportunity the following day to amend, Dr. Broun doubled down: "I stick by that tweet," he said, and added his definition of socialism: "Mr. Obama believes in central government where the federal government controls everything in our lives. That's socialism."10 Actually, that describes neither socialism nor Obama’s program. As to the definition, the Congressman might consult a dictionary.

1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.11

Mr. Obama hasn’t advocated abolishing private property or nationalizing the means of production.

However, let’s ignore the misuse of the term and look at what the Congressman and so many others claim is happening. Democratic leaders, he said, “believe the government should do everything for everybody and take care of every human endeavor, whereas Republicans. . . overwhelmingly believe in freedom [and] the free market." Republican commitment to the free market is not absolute, but in general he’s right about that point, and belief in the merits of the market hardly is illogical. However, the President’s address virtually was an ode to business — “No country has more successful companies;” “We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business;” “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation” — so it’s difficult to see what the issue is. A conservative reasonably could believe that the federal government regulates too much, but to claim that it will “do everything for everybody and take care of every human endeavor” is nonsense. The Congressman added that the "philosophy of big government" that Democrats promote is "killing the free enterprise system," a bizarre claim given the state of corporate profits and the stock market.

I’m all for a discussion of what government should do and how it should do it, but that discussion will be useless if we merely bandy labels and misrepresent the facts. It’s difficult not to conclude that conservatives argue as they do out of fear that a rational discussion of what needs to be done and how best to do it would not go their way.

There were a few progressive proposals in the address. The President recommended ending tax breaks for oil companies; he hinted that the Bush tax cuts for the rich should expire, but he needed to say that only because he wouldn’t stand firm last year.

Paul Ryan, Congressman from Wisconsin, gave the Republican response. (Perhaps we should say the official response; Michelle Bachmann, who is suffering from a severe case of self-importance, offered another). Ryan, who was concerned mainly with economic questions, began on a conciliatory note: “Tonight, the President focused a lot of attention on our economy in general - and on our deficit and debt in particular. He was right to do so, and some of his words were reassuring.” Ryan conceded that the fiscal and economic mess has developed over many years: “Our debt is the product of acts by many presidents and many Congresses over many years. No one person or party is responsible for it. There is no doubt the President came into office facing a severe fiscal and economic situation.”

Nevertheless, the present mess is Obama’s fault: “Unfortunately, instead of restoring the fundamentals of economic growth, he engaged in a stimulus spending spree that not only failed to deliver on its promise to create jobs, but also plunged us even deeper into debt.” The Congressman seems unaware that deficits are both unavoidable and useful in a recession, and impugning stimulus as mere spending doesn’t change that.

He’s a little harsh, and disingenuous, on the jobs issue. Total private employment in January 2001, the beginning of the Bush first term, stood at 111,634,000. (I’ll follow the practice in presenting the tables,12 and drop the last three digits, so that becomes 111,634). Employment dropped through July, 2003, when it stood at 108,231. It then rose through December, 2007, reaching 115,574. Then it fell again, so that at the beginning of the Obama presidency, it was 110,961. It fell further, to 107,107 in December 2009. The preliminary figure for December, 2010 is 108,453. Mr. Obama claimed, in his address, that “more than one million private sector jobs [were] created last year, which is correct (108,453 - 107,107), but employment is down 2.5 million during his term (110,961 - 108,453). However, President Bush saw the number drop by 4.6 million during his last two years in office (115,574 - 110,961). That leaves little room for accusations by Republicans.

Actually, Ryan’s criticism is still further off. The job losses under Obama happened prior to the stimulus plan’s taking effect some time in late 2009; there have been gains every month since December 2009. In addition, job losses would have continued without the stimulus; the CBO estimates that at least 1.4 million jobs were saved.13

Rep. Ryan continued to stress that the fiscal danger is a new one: “A few years ago, reducing spending was important. Today, it's imperative.” “What was a fiscal challenge is now a fiscal crisis.” In a sense, that is true, although again the facts aren’t flattering to Republicans nor, in this case, to Rep. Ryan. President Bush inherited a surplus, so Rep. Ryan’s vote for the tax cut in 2001 might be considered merely imprudent. However, by 2003, the surplus was gone, and we were at war, so his vote for another tax cut that year was, by any standard, irresponsible. His vote in favor of the resolution which led to the invasion of Iraq was, solely from an economic point of view, also disastrous. Those cuts and the war are major contributors to the debt he now worries about. Does he now acknowledge past error? Does he suggest bringing the troops home and otherwise restraining “defense” spending, or letting the tax cuts for the rich expire at the end of the present extension? Hardly. In the strange world which Republicans inhabit, neither war nor tax cuts contribute to deficits.

His view of the national debt is apocalyptic: “We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy, and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead. . . . No economy can sustain such high levels of debt and taxation. The next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country.” The level of debt indeed may be unsustainable, and many of us tumbled to that before a Democrat was elected President. The problem with the level of taxation is that it is too low relative to the deficit and the debt.

Most of the rest of his address was ideology, some of it posing as analysis, not surprising from a fan of Ayn Rand. For example, “Health care spending is driving the explosive growth of our debt. And the President's law is accelerating our country toward bankruptcy.” The former has an element of truth, but the latter does not. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that “the President’s law” will lower the deficit by $143 billion over ten years, but Speaker John Boehner has dismissed the CBO report, and Rep. Ryan simply ignored it.



January 15, 2011

In Tucson on January 8, six people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, were killed and fourteen were wounded, including a Congresswoman. Not surprisingly, the shooting has generated a great deal of comment. Apart from expressions of shock, grief, sympathy, and praise for those who came to the rescue, those comments have followed five main themes (which, for simplicity, I’ll refer to by number): (1) gun control is too weak; (2) violent language and images coming from the right are part of the background to such attacks; (3) in reply to the second, it isn’t fair to blame the right; (4) mental health programs are not adequate; (5) we should forgive and forget the ugly rhetoric, and use the tragedy as an opportunity to come together and move on as better people.

The easiest argument to make is (1), that the shooting illustrates the need for stricter control on possession of firearms. To many of us, the flood of guns and the weakening of controls is as insane as the killer could be. However, even if one rejects the leftist call for severe limitations, there can be no rational argument in favor of allowing obviously disturbed people to carry guns, nor for the sale to the public of assault weapons, including the oversized clip used in this case. The federal law prohibiting such clips was allowed to expire, and Arizona, identified in a timely article 1 as revealing the future of the GOP, has gone almost to the permissive extreme, not even requiring a permit to carry a gun. Of course, calls for more control have been denounced by pro-gun conservatives, but their position is insupportable.

Some of the opinions which advocated gun control rejected theme (2), the indictment of violent rhetoric. The Washington Post house editorial produced a nice twist on an old slogan: “metaphors don't kill people - guns kill people.” Richard Cohen, in the same paper, offered a similar formula: “Six people are dead and 14 wounded in Arizona not just because a man went crazy or political rhetoric has gotten too raw, but because they were shot. It's the gun that did it.”

Theme (2) has generated the most heat, in part because of misconstruction of the liberal argument. The debate began with statements by the Sheriff of Pima County:

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government — the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. . . .

I think that when the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with.2

In an interview by an incredulous Diane Sawyer, the Sheriff seemed to draw a causal line from right-wing agitation to the shooting, and much of the counter argument (3) has focused on the supposed illogic of making that connection. Pointing out that there is no evidence of a direct connection is a fair response to the Sheriff’s version, but it is only a partial response, and most of the criticism under (2) has been more nuanced.

Keith Olbermann offered the most earnest denunciation 3 of vicarious violence: “We need to put the guns down. Just as importantly we need to put the gun metaphors away and permanently.” He denounced Sarah Palin for her gunsight map (which she referred to in a tweet urging followers “Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!”)4, along with Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sharron Angle, Jesse Kelly and Rep. Allen West (see below). His view of the causal connection was ambiguous, but still valid:

. . . Even if . . .Loughner was merely shooting into a political crowd because he wanted to shoot into a political crowd, even if he was somehow unaware who was in the crowd, we have nevertheless for years been building up to a moment just like this.

Despite the You Tube videos of what appears to be Loughner referring specifically to the 8th Congressional District of Arizona, Gabby Giffords’ district— assume the details are coincidence. The violence is not. The rhetoric has devolved and descended, past the ugly and past the threatening and past the fantastic and into the imminently murderous.

There were predicable reactions to Olbermann’s comment, one underscoring his point by suggesting that he be assassinated. While his speech was characteristically sententious, the notion that violent acts arise from a violent culture is neither novel nor groundless. By a tragic irony, Rep. Giffords noted the danger well in advance. Last March the door of her Tucson office was smashed, possibly in retaliation for her vote for the health care bill. Interviewed afterward, she pointed out that "We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list . . . the thing is that the way she has it depicted has the cross-hair of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action."

Another counter-argument is that violent images are not found only on the right, so it is unfair to criticize it. Olbermann admitted that nasty rhetoric could be found on the left as well, including a remark of his. However, this predominantly is a phenomenon of the right, and there is no shortage of examples. In June, 2010 the Pima County Republicans posted an announcement of a fundraiser, held at a shooting range, for a tea-party candidate running against Rep. Giffords. The notice invited supporters to “Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly” (lack of punctuation in the original).5 Or consider the political philosophy of Sharon Angle: "If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are going to start looking for Second Amendment remedies. . . . The first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.” Olbermann criticized West for telling his supporters that they should make his opponent afraid to come out of his home. He went beyond that: drawing a parallel to Nazi Germany, West said,”You must be well-informed and well-armed because this government that we have now is a tyrannical government.”6 Others are worse; these are notable for being mainstream Republican.

Some of those who made the counter-argument, theme (3), were not content to point out that there is no evidence of a connection between this event and such provocations as the Palin map. They seemed to deny any possibility that inflammatory rhetoric ever could have a negative effect. One such argument came from the former psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer. Dismissing the causal argument, he said:

A climate of hate? This man lived within his very own private climate. "His thoughts were unrelated to anything in our world," said the teacher of Loughner's philosophy class at Pima Community College. "He was very disconnected from reality," said classmate Lydian Ali. "You know how it is when you talk to someone who's mentally ill and they're just not there?" said neighbor Jason Johnson. "It was like he was in his own world."

His ravings, said one high school classmate, were interspersed with "unnerving, long stupors of silence" during which he would "stare fixedly at his buddies," reported the Wall Street Journal. His own writings are confused, incoherent, punctuated with private numerology and inscrutable taxonomy. He warns of government brainwashing and thought control through "grammar." He was obsessed with "conscious dreaming," a fairly good synonym for hallucinations. This is not political behavior. These are the signs of a clinical thought disorder - ideas disconnected from each other, incoherent, delusional, detached from reality.

These are all the hallmarks of a paranoid schizophrenic.

Psychiatry is high on the list of fields I know little about, but it strikes me as odd that he is prepared to diagnose based on the second-hand reports of laypeople. It is odder that a psychiatrist would ignore cultural influences and declare that someone simply is crazy. Loughner, as noted, spoke of government brainwashing; was that concept self-created or might it be floating about?

Loughner posted several text videos; they include the comment about brainwashing and grammar.7 Most of his arguments are nonsensical, although often presented in the form of syllogisms.8 They certainly could be interpreted as revealing a considerable degree of detachment from reality, but they include political references (including “don’t trust the current government”), and a theory of a new currency which is only marginally goofier than others on the web. As Olbermann conceded, this all may be coincidence, but rushing to dismiss the cultural element and to relegate the event to an otherworldly realm of mental disturbance is more political argument than psychiatry.

George Will, another contributor to the Post op-ed page, offered an analysis which is a cross between Krauthammer and Glenn Beck:

A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.

This goes several illogical steps beyond the point at issue. Will mocked an implication by the New York Times of an indirect connection between the shooting and comments by Republicans and Tea Partiers; here is the relevant comment from the Times editorial:

. . . [Loughner’s] paranoid Internet ravings about government mind control place him well beyond usual ideological categories.

But he is very much a part of a widespread squall of fear, anger and intolerance that has produced violent threats against scores of politicians and infected the political mainstream with violent imagery. With easy and legal access to semiautomatic weapons like the one used in the parking lot, those already teetering on the edge of sanity can turn a threat into a nightmare.


It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman’s act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge . . . .(emphasis added).
Will quoted only the italicized words, adding “The ‘directly’ is priceless.” But it is priceless only if the suggestion of any connection is absurd. What is so outrageous about the suspicion that demonizing people leads, directly or indirectly, to violent acts against them? Even the direct-indirect dichotomy is largely beside the point. We aren’t sitting as a jury in a tort action; proximate cause isn’t the issue. It’s whether a violent political culture increases the likelihood of violent acts.
To state that the gunman was disturbed hardly makes the conservative case. It is, after all, the already unbalanced who are most likely to turn rhetoric into action.
Even if we knew nothing of Mr. Will’s work, it would be surprising that someone who makes his living offering opinions would denigrate the power of ideas, and indeed he does not always do so. In the Post, on January 27, 1998, he offered, as an excuse for impeaching President Clinton, the suspicion that the Democratic Party "is the incurable carrier of the 1960s virus of disdain for the civilized restraints and values of normal Americans." Disdain for civilized restraints is a viral disease: one couldn’t ask for a better refutation of his present position.
The issue is not whether this shooter heard and acted on the hints by Palin, Kelly, or any other specific ranter. It is that, whatever the trigger in any given case, the background — the atmosphere, the culture — is not irrelevant. The point is not that the babblers are responsible specifically, but that they are irresponsible generally.
The responses under theme (3) have offered another argument, that the rhetoric liberals have condemned is a form of protected speech, and that denouncing it is an offense against the First Amendment. However, to my knowledge, no one has proposed a ban on speech, and pointing out that violent rhetoric has consequences probably won’t prevent its recurrence.
Theme (4) is made up of comments pointing in different directions. Some have references to mental health issues seem to be attempts to turn the discussion from themes (1) and (2). Some argue, perversely, that liberals are to blame because mental health programs didn’t prevent this shooting. Others, such as the Post editorial, sensibly advocate more outreach and treatment for people like Loughner. Unfortunately, budget cuts make that unlikely
The final theme is exemplified by the President’s speech at Tucson on Wednesday.
If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate -- as it should -- let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

It was the right note for the occasion, and is good advice independent of the context. However, civility is a mutual undertaking. We can but hope.


3. .
The proliferation of college bowl games is good for two constituencies. First, weak teams are invited which otherwise would celebrate the holidays at home. Our Washington Huskies, with a six and six record, are a good example, although the Dawgs redeemed themselves and justified the bid by upsetting a Nebraska team which had humiliated them in September.
The other beneficiaries are companies we’ve (I’ve) never heard of, who are recruited to sponsor bowls, some of them traditional, some new: unrove Humanitarian Bowl, R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Beef 'O' Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl, San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl, New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, TicketCity Bowl, BBVA Compass Bowl. A few sponsors are known companies, but less than household names, producing the Bowl, AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Valero Alamo Bowl, MAACO Las Vegas Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl. Chick-fil-A is known, at least here, only because it has been in the bowl-sponsorship business for a few years.
Judging from the probable size of some of the companies, naming rights must be pretty cheap.
The number of games doesn’t reflect an increase in interest in football, at least on the part of those who broadcast them. Both the camera and the announcers spend much of the time focused on something other than the field. The camera wanders over the stands and the sideline or shows a replay or an interview and, if we are lucky, returns to the field just as the ball is snapped. It’s fourth down; will the offense go for it, punt or try a field goal? Who knows? The announcers are babbling and we’re looking at somebody in the stands in a weird getup. Increasingly, broadcasts resemble real-time highlight films.
It’s tempting to see this as an exemplar of our short-attention-span culture, in which discussion of important issues is reduced to slogans that fit on bumper stickers or Tea Party signs.
Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day