Tucson Shootings + Projection + Epistemic Closure = Reality Fail

Gregory Rodriguez, writing in the LA Times op-ed section today: Politics’ dark passions.

In the 1960s, Swiss psychiatrist Marie-Louise von Franz theorized that rather than face their defects as individuals, citizens or supporters of a particular cause, people project their worst flaws onto their political opponents. When a congressman yells “You lie” at the president, maybe hes revealing his own failings. “Political agitation in all countries,” Von Franz wrote, “is full of such projections, just as much as the backyard gossip of little groups and individuals.”

I’ve definitely noticed that tendency to project one’s own failings onto one’s political opponents. When combined with the tragic events in Tucson and an epistemically closed conservative-media echo chamber, the result is really kind of shocking.

Take this opinion piece by Charles M. Blow from the NYT: The Tucson Witch Hunt.

Immediately after the news broke, the air became thick with conjecture, speculation and innuendo. There was a giddy, almost punch-drunk excitement on the left. The prophecy had been fulfilled: “words have consequences.” And now, the right’s rhetorical chickens had finally come home to roost.

The dots were too close and the temptation to connect them too strong. The target was a Democratic congresswoman. There was the map of her district in the cross hairs. There were her own prescient worries about overheated rhetoric.

Within hours of the shooting, there was a full-fledged witch hunt to link the shooter to the right.

“I saw Goody Proctor with the devil! Oh, I mean Jared Lee Loughner! Yes him. With the devil!”

The only problem is that there was no evidence then, and even now, that overheated rhetoric from the right had anything to do with the shooting.

Except that the “giddy, almost punch-drunk excitement on the left” didn’t actually happen. Believe me; I pay attention to left-leaning chatter. And at least in terms of reasonably high-profile voices, there was nothing even remotely resembling a “full-fledged witch hunt to link the shooter to the right.” There were some irresponsible attempts to link the shooter to a particular political persuasion, but they were attempts by people like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to raise the possibility of links between Loughner and the left.

As described in an item at by Brian Beutler at TPM (How Glenn Beck And Fox News Successfully Painted AZ Shooter As Hitler, Marx Devotee), here’s Beck, speaking on his Fox News show the night of the shootings:

This kid thinks the Mars rover, the landing, was faked. He thinks George W. Bush was behind 9/11. He believes in big government solution. His favorite books include ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and ‘Mein Kampf’…. I could tell you right now this guy is a textbook study of everybody I’ve warned against. But I’m not going to do that.

Here’s Hannity a few hours later:

On YouTube, Loughner’s profile listed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ among his favorite books.

Here’s Sen. Alexander, the day after the shooting:

What we know about this individual, for example, is that he was reading Karl Marx, and reading Hitler, and burning the American flag. That’s not the profile of a typical Tea Party member if that’s the inference that’s being made.

I’m not saying that those statements are untrue in their specifics, or even that they’re necessarily beyond the pale in terms of misleading listeners in support of a particular agenda. But where are the equivalent statements from the left offering evidence of specific reasons to think Loughner was a Tea Party adherent? As far as I can tell, no one was actually saying that. On the contrary, all the lefty voices I saw were essentially unanimous in saying two things: 1) there is no reason to think Loughner was motivated by any particular political ideology, and 2) notwithstanding, the killings were still a chilling reminder of the worst-case scenario of violent political rhetoric taken to the extreme.

Steve Benen responded to Blow’s column with this: Where was Charles Blow getting his news?

The great irony of Blow’s column is his emphasis on supporting one’s assumptions with “evidence.” He argued, “[P]otential, possibility and even plausibility are not proof.” Those who hope to “score political points,” Blow added, did so “in the absence of proof.”

The problem, of course, is that Blow is guilty of his own allegations. He sees a “giddy” left, where none existed. He sees “punch-drunk excitement” among liberals on a “witch hunt,” but offers literally nothing by way of support.

Within the tightly contained maelstrom of self-reinforcing opinion represented by right-wing TV, radio, and blogs, any excess on the part of the capitalized “Left” and the evil Obama seems credible, I guess. Witness right-wing blogger Jim Hoft writing in his Gateway Pundit blog: If White House Was Surprised by Applause at Tucson Pep Rally… Why Did They Ask For It On Jumbotron? Hoft saw an image of the Jumbotron at the arena where Wednesday’s memorial event was held, in which closed captioning mentioned “[APPLAUSE]” (as closed-captioning is wont to do when an audience applauds), and misinterpreted it as stage direction from the Obama team (as in, “Okay, everybody. Applaud now!”). More at Media Matters: No, Jim Hoft, The White House Did Not “Ask For” Applause On Jumbotron.

Sigh. Is this really what self-styled “punditry” has come to? Look: Everyone has an opinion. But not all opinions are created equal. When you choose information sources based on a desire to confirm what you already know, rather than a desire to actually learn the truth, you can end up looking really foolish. There’s a lot of that going around lately.

6 Responses to “Tucson Shootings + Projection + Epistemic Closure = Reality Fail”

  1. NorthernLite Says:

    This is an excellent summary of the pissing match that took place immediately after the shootings, thanks.

  2. NorthernLite Says:

    Here’s another good item from mmfa which summed up a lot of what I felt.

    A Message To Sarah Palin from Media Matters CEO David Brock


    “But I know what you do. We are just off a campaign cycle in which you and the Republican candidates you supported raised the prospect of armed revolt if Washington did not change its ways. Much of your message centered — like the Tea Party moniker itself — on imagery of armed revolution and existential clashes in which the freedom of our country is at stake. This is a lie.

    You and Beck and Limbaugh pander to the margin of the margins, employing whatever words win you contributions or ratings, the consequences be damned.

    Promoting anti-government extremism is your business. Without it you are nothing. And you know it.

    Instead of posting videos in the dark of night, I challenge you to have the peaceful debate you say you want — with me — at the time and place and in the venue of your choosing.”


    Give it a full read, its good.

  3. Craig Says:

    The following disclaimer will, no doubt, get lost in the predictable responses that some people will give to my post. However, I will still try to make it clear that the following information is in response to the specific idea that there was no connection being made in the media between the shootings and either the Tea Party or Palin. (The argument isn’t that the media was connecting Loughner himself (as his profile became clear) to the Tea Party. The point being made was that in the hours and immediate days after the shooting, the shooting was often assumed to be the result of, and motivated by, the right-wing political rhetoric, with little regard for understanding who the shooter was.)

    If you want to discuss the level of heated rhetoric going on, or the appropriateness of Palin’s “target map”, that is a seperate issue.

    So, here goes…..

    Markos Moulitsas tweets “ Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin”

    Paul Krugman writes….
    “We don’t have proof yet that this was political, but the odds are that it was……”
    “For those wondering why a Blue Dog Democrat, the kind Republicans
    might be able to work with, might be a target,” said Krugman, “the answer is that she’s a Democrat who survived what was otherwise a GOP sweep in Arizona, precisely because the Republicans nominated a Tea Party activist. (Her father says that ‘the whole Tea Party’ was her enemy.) And yes, she was on Sarah Palin’s infamous ‘crosshairs’ list.

    Regarding CNN’s coverage……
    After reporting that Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik had condemned what Dupnik called “the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer turned to congressional reporter Jessica Yellin for analysis. The sheriff “singled out some of the political rhetoric, as you point out, in creating the environment that allowed this kind of instance to happen,” Yellin told Blitzer. “Even though, as you point out, this suspect is not cooperating with investigators, so we don’t know the motive. President Obama also delivered that message, saying it’s partly the political rhetoric that led to this.* So that’s why we want to bring up one of the themes that’s burning up the social media right now. On Twitter and Facebook, there is a lot of talk, in particular, about Sarah Palin. As you might recall, back in March of last year, when the health care vote was coming to the floor of the House and this was all heating up, Palin tweeted out a message on Twitter saying ‘common sense conservatives, don’t retreat — instead reload.’ And she referred folks to her Facebook page. On that Facebook page was a list of Democratic members she was putting in crosshairs, and Gabrielle Giffords was one of those in the crosshairs.”

    Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who represents a district adjacent to Gabrielle Giffords’s, said that Saturday’s shooting is a consequence of the vitriolic rhetoric that has arisen over the past few years among extreme elements of the Tea Party.
    “The climate has gotten so toxic in our political discourse, setting up for this kind of reaction for too long. It’s unfortunate to say that. I hate to say that,” Grijalva said in an interview with The Huffington Post.

    In many cases, the pundits and media were careful to state something to the effect of, “well, we can’t really say right now that the shooter had a conservative connection, but….”, and then proceeded to discuss Palin and/or the Tea Party and political rhetoric, and how this is the result.


    Its an old manipulation trick to put two thoughts together in the same statement often enough in order to get people to assume that one thing is connected to the other.

  4. Craig Says:

    Interesting discussion between writers from Salon.com:


  5. shcb Says:

    So in this new age of political kindess and peace is Salon going to rename that site?

  6. jbc Says:

    Heh. Touché, shcb.

    Also, thanks Craig for those data points. I think a big part of this is arising out of the willingness of each side to focus on the narrowly constructed truth of the things they are saying as part of defending their position in the pre-existing debate.

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