Giffords Shooting – a propaganda battle in the culture war

January 14, 2011

Media coverage of the Giffords shooting far outweighed the magnitude of the event, even considering that one of the victims was a member of congress.  The excess represents coverage of the propaganda front of America’s left vs. right, culture war. 

Reporters and commentators were quick to associate the shooting with two issues:

  • Gun control
  • The Tea Party’s hysterical anti-government propaganda

The connections between the shooting and these two issues are both specific and general.

In terms of specifics, there is no evidence, and probably no connection.

  • To show a connection to hand gun access, you would have to prove that no attack could have occurred without a hand gun.  It seems likely that if a determined attacker like Loughner lived in Wisconsin, where carrying hand guns is illegal, he would have found another weapon, such as a bomb. 
  • Nothing in Jared Lee Loughner’s writing or actions suggests that Sarah Palin played the role of a radical cleric in recruiting Lounger into right wing extremism.  We do not even know that Longher ever saw Palin’s website, which featured a picture of Representative Giffords on which a telescopic rifle site had been superimposed.

However, in terms of general, indirect connections, which are important for political theater and gamesmanship, the shooting is linked.

  • The general linkage to gun control is unfortunate.  Even if you concede, as I do, that there is no evidence to support the claim that gun control is effective or that the right to carry guns causes an increase in violence, the shooting raises an important question. Should we not as a matter of policy attempt to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable?  Officials at his community college expelled Loughner because they deemed him unstable and informed his parents they would demand a certificate of Loughner’s mental health to be readmitted.  Most people will feel that certainly, a person who is expelled on suspicion of insanity should not be allowed to keep lethal weapons.   In reality, intervention is probably impractical, but in these high profile cases, the public is not equipped to consider issues of feasibility or cost effectiveness.
  • On the other hand, the general linkage to antigovernment propaganda is a bit of poetic justice. Tea Party leaders such as Palin are political opportunists who are seeking to mobilize a populist right wing movement and achieve national stardom and status by becoming leaders of it.  Unfortunately, for them the interests of most Americans (as distinct from the interests of the country) are better served by the agenda of liberal democrats than it is by the conservative Republicans, to say nothing of the Tea Party. The Tea Party therefore must rely on the sort of black-is-white rhetoric that we have not heard since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  They routinely demonize the President, portraying him as simultaneously a Muslim, a Socialist, and a would-be dictator, akin to Hitler.  They claim that the free market is the solution to all ills and that to quote Ronald Regan “the government is the problem.”

The Tea Party routinely goes far beyond Ronald Regan campaign rhetoric and portrays government as the main enemy of American freedom.  It does not strain credibility to believe that Jared Lee Loughner was striking at this imaginary enemy.  Furthermore, it is likely that propaganda that is designed to instill and incite hatred will prompt some of mentally unstable people to focus their rage and paranoia on the government and its representatives.  The situation is much like racist propaganda in the segregated South.  The constant barrage of hate-filled propaganda against blacks and against civil rights did fill people with fear, uncertainty and doubts.  It did its job of keeping segregation in place.  But it also did prod some of the mentally unstable into Klan violence and lynching.

Obama has consistently avoided not only incendiary rhetoric but even tough talk.  It was smart, especially during the campaign not to look like an angry black man.  But many Democrats have felt that, as President, Obama should emulate not Bill Clinton but Harry Truman. 

The shooting exemplifies the sort of situation that highlights the advantages of Obama’s stance as a reasonable man of good will.  In his speech at the University of Arizona memorial service for the shooting victims, the President capitalized on his advantage. While he said explicitly that the heated political rhetoric did not directly cause the attack, his speech did indirectly point the finger at the right wing for its anti-government propaganda.  The New York Times headline read “Obama Calls for a New Era of Civility in U.S. Politics.”   

At the same time, he made the Tea Party’s portrayal of him seem deceptive or delusional.  Instead of appearing as a ranting Muslim, Hitler-like villain, he look kind and capable, and every inch the President of the United States of America.  His speech laden with Christian religious references won a major battle on the propaganda front of the culture war.


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