Structural Violence (and a prediction)

President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.

-Gov. Sarah Palin

Much though I despise what she has come to stand for as a public figure, there is no question that Governor Palin is able to grasp and articulate the zeitgeist in a way that resonates.  While I disagree with her conclusion, I agree that individual versus collective causality and responsibility is the axis around which the discussion of Jared Loughner’s action will hinge.  Unfortunately, our justifiable desire for certainty must here be frustrated, because the answer to who was responsible, the individual or the society in which he lived, must be both.

Loughner is mentally ill ex post facto by virtue of his actions.  Irrespective of whether they contained an internal coherence or articulable logic, anyone who chooses to do such things has a functional impairment, and clinically significant symptoms.  This position is a prerequisite for any coherent community to exist.  And while, as President Obama said in Tucson last night, his actions epitomize the extent to which many things in the world are unknowable, I do not think leaving the inquiry at the bounds of individual reason does any of us credit.

In the wake of Columbine anti-bullying programs in schools have grown many-fold.  While few people hold the peers of Harris and Klebold directly responsible for their evil acts, so to do few question the direct logic of anti-bullying programs growing out of such a tragedy.  We admit, however reluctantly, that larger social conditions must necessarily influence the development, thoughts, and actions of individuals.  Where else would those thoughts and choices come from?  Just as our collective identity and consciousness emanates from the multitudes which form it, so too must that collective zeitgeist, our national identity, emanate from the people of whom it consists.  The two evolve in concert, because one could not exist without the other.

The President admits as much in his speech, saying:

For the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack.  None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.  Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy.  We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence.  We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.  But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.    That we cannot do.  That we cannot do.

This is where I take issue with Sarah Palin.  For her to condemn (in a polysyllabism new to her public discourse) the “blood libel” that is suggesting that her rhetoric and mode of political thought may have contributed to the structural violence which underpins Loughners actions is too much.  Those words from the woman who invented the death panels lie and injected it into the health care, those words from the woman who has become a master of capitalizing on the basest fears of citizens to gain attention, those words go too far.  They are, among other things, too rich in contradiction and irony.

At the very least we’ve seen this week, clearer than ever, the setup for the 2012 election.  It will be, in voice and tone if not directly person v. person, Obama against Palin.

On that basis, and on the strengths and weaknesses revealed in their respective speeches this week, I make a prediction: Not that Obama will win by 55% or more of the popular vote (which he will).  That is too obvious.  I predict that, when I am 90, the next two years will be regarded as a period of presidential productivity and profundity to rival FDR and the new deal and Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase.  Sit back, watch, and be amazed.

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10 thoughts on “Structural Violence (and a prediction)

  1. Over the last 2 years Palin has revealed herself as grossly under qualified for the presidency. I kind of liked her in 2008. But then she just would not go away. She quit her job to become a professional agitator and public victim. Her tendency to respond to every criticism, whether they warrant response or not, is merely petty rabble rousing. And I cannot imagine her having any grasp of foreign policy outside of patriotic sloganism. No, I don’t think she is stupid. On the contrary, I think she is pretty intelligent but as a marketer rather than a statesmen.

    In many ways she is the Obama of the right. Charismatic, polarizing, and somehow demands the adulation of millions, despite any reason for it. A Palin/Obama rematch (and let’s be honest, McCAin/Palin was Palin/McCain) might be the most populism-laced election in our lifetimes, if not ever.

    As for 2012, your prediction rests on Palin A) running and B) winning, and C) sitting back. None of which are inevitable. The Republican primaries are going to be pretty intense, and I hope the gloves come off.

    And while we are making predictions, I think those primaries will become a showdown between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Assuming they both run. Romney vs. Obama would be a pretty competitive election, especially so if the economy is still hurting. Paul vs. Obama would be an election of philosophy: big government vs. individual.

    As for mental illness, it’s a difficult conversation. Preventing another incident is almost impossible, short of intrusive screening procedures/laws. But this kid in AZ was raising some pretty significant red flags. Should he have been in therapy or on meds? Yes. But how to get him there?

    1. Well said Griz.

      I just read Obama’s speech, and while I am no fan of the man, I think that is perhaps the best speech he has ever given. Well done Mr. President.

      Palin can not win the Republican primary. If she does, the Republicans really are in a world of hurt.

      Obama is a one termer…except, except, he may have learned from the recent Democratic spanking and as you predict, will tone it down and do a better job representing the centrist majority of people in this country. If he can do that, and the economy improves, and he can keep making speeches like the above, and actually follow through on what he is saying, he has the potential to become an inspiring leader and will win a second term. So far he has only been divisive.

    2. I think Palin can win the nomination, though against much opposition. She’d be slaughtered in the general, for the reasons you say Adam. Whether she will run is another matter. I think not, as she’s found a more comfortable though less courageous niche.

      I like Romney. Unfortunately he seems to longer have the inclination to be himself. A fatal and I think irrevocable flaw in the eyes of an America which has always fetishized authenticity.

      The mental/public health question is indeed complex. At root there’s a tension between American individualism and individual rights, and the public health need to insist on treatment given certain conditions. As I’ve learned at my job, it is one thing to provide services and assistance, and another thing altogether to have someone embrace them and thus effect substantive change.

  2. Hope. And it is time for some of that change.

    The crime, the violence, the prison population, the way we treat the sick, the poor, the dying, our youth, the under-educated, those coming here looking for work… reflects on ‘us’ as a society. How we care for our own house, our own citizens, and for our guests (legal or not) – say more about our morals and values than flag waving, lapel pin wearing, caribou shooting politicians.

    Its time we as Americans put up or shut up. We care for our fellow travelers on this little blue dot, or we don’t. We value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (in that order!) – or we don’t.

    Our legacy is being written. At times it has looked inspiring and beautiful – but lately it appears shrill, petty, and violent.

    1. An excellent article.

      It glosses over some of the more important details (the many different levels of services for instance, inpatient crisis units do little good without outpatient follow up), but is to my knowledge historically accurate. It’s also been my experience that AZ as a state tries its best to ignore public health as a government function, with horrid consequences that are usually easy to ignore.

      1. I think many states do their best to ignore public health issues. It is not sexy enough and the return on investment is not immediate. As a member of Oregon’s Public Health Advisory Board the educational process for legislators and the public is frustratingly slow. When the public health systems fails and a few people die it is newsworthy. Quietly saving or improving the lives of thousands through prevention and early intervention just does not have the zing factor. Sad and frustrating.

  3. What drives me nuts here in Montana (and I assume many western states have comparable experiences) is that we get loads of federal medicaid dollars, and all the state has to do is allocate it effectively. What MT has done is contract all of that out to a company from Virginia, who makes me waste my billable hours doing paperwork rather than seeing people.

    Grr.

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