In my view it is a mistake to view the Tucson killings as some kind of trend attributable to the Tea Party Movement. For example, Lenin’s Tomb writes:
So, in light of that, who cares if Jared Lee Loughner looked on Sarah Palin’s website, or heard a speech Sharron Angle made? It was enough for him to exist in a particular context of American life, in this era. It was enough to live in Arizona, where the murders took place, and which has been nominated by a local County Sheriff as “the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry”. That would have been more than sufficient to drive a vulnerable man out of his mind.
After watching Loughner’s Youtube videos and reading reports in the New York Times and Washington Post, it seems fairly obvious that he had much more in common with mentally ill college or high school students who go on shooting sprees. In Loughner’s case, the indications strongly suggest paranoid schizophrenia. In other words, his act is best understood in terms of brain chemistry rather than prejudice and bigotry as was the case, for example, with Timothy McVeigh.
On Oct. 7, Pima Community College sent a letter to Loughner stating that he would have to get a letter from a mental health official indicating “his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others.”
In a NY Times article titled Suspect’s Odd Behavior Caused Growing Alarm, we learn about what alarmed school officials and other authorities:
In a community college classroom here last June, on the first day of the term, the instructor in Jared L. Loughner’s basic algebra class, Ben McGahee, posed what he thought was a simple arithmetic question to his students. He was not prepared for the explosive response.
“How can you deny math instead of accepting it?” Mr. Loughner asked, after blurting out a random number, according to Mr. McGahee.
A classmate told the Times: “He would laugh a lot at inappropriate times, and a lot of the comments he made had no relevance to the discussion topic.” The staff at the YMCA was just as alarmed:
At the Y.M.C.A. where Mr. Loughner worked out, he would ask the staff strange questions, like how often they disinfected the bathroom doors. Once he asked an employee how he felt “about the government taking over.” Another time, he sat in the men’s room for 30 minutes, leaving front-desk staff members to wonder what he was doing. When he emerged, he asked what year it was.
Now I agree that Loughner absorbed the culture around him. Psychotic people are not that detached from reality that they don’t realize and reflect what is going on about them. They do reflect social forces. If Loughner developed schizophrenia in a society where the rightwing was not as feral and where guns were not so easily accessible, then a different result might have been expected. The closest analogy would appear to be with John Hinckley, the young man who shot Ronald Reagan and James Brady in 1981 in order to “impress Jodie Foster”.
Now this is not to say that political violence, including assassination, is not a real problem in the U.S. There have been 8 people working at abortion clinics who have been killed since 1993, the last of these being Doctor George Tiller who was shot by a fanatic in Tiller’s church in May, 2009. The killer, Scott Roeder, did not commit this act to impress Jodie Foster or because the government was plotting to brainwash people through its control of grammar. Roeder killed Tiller in order to prevent doctors from providing abortions. The militant anti-abortionist movement has been far more of a threat to democracy than Tea Party activists who have not engaged in terrorist acts no matter the kind of rhetoric heard on Glenn Beck’s television show.
I think what leftists have to understand is that violence and repression today directed against the popular movement is far more based on legality than mob violence or terrorism.
For example, the day before the gun attack, this assault on the rights of Mexican-American students in Tucson took place sanctioned by law:
The class began with a Mayan-inspired chant and a vigorous round of coordinated hand clapping. The classroom walls featured protest signs, including one that said “United Together in La Lucha!” — the struggle. Although open to any student at Tucson High Magnet School, nearly all of those attending Curtis Acosta’s Latino literature class on a recent morning were Mexican-American.
For all of that and more, Mr. Acosta’s class and others in the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American program have been declared illegal by the State of Arizona — even while similar programs for black, Asian and American Indian students have been left untouched.
So reported an article in the New York Times titled Rift in Arizona as Latino Class Is Found Illegal. This is the real strategy of the Tea Party movement, to elect politicians who pass such racist laws—not to organize mobs to go into the barrio and brutalize activists. If the left cannot figure out what phase of the struggle it is in, we will not be effective, I’m afraid.
For the definitive account of what is going on with the Tea Party in Arizona, I can’t recommend highly enough Ken Silverstein’s article Tea Party in the Sonora: For the future of G.O.P. governance, look to Arizona that originally appeared in the July 2010 Harpers but now can be read on the magazine’s website, no doubt an attempt to shed light on the Tucson incident. Whether Ken thinks that the killings are a direct outcome of the Tea Party movement, as his former co-editor at Counterpunch Alexander Cockburn does, is another question altogether.
Arizona lawmakers have shown little enthusiasm for dealing seriously with the state’s insolvency. They have instead preferred to focus on matters that have little to do with the crisis. Lawmakers have turned racial profiling into official policy, through a new law that requires police to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand to see their papers; anyone not carrying acceptable proof of citizenship can be arrested for trespassing and thrown in jail for up to six months. But this is just one bill in what has been a season of provocative legislating. Another new law bans the funding of any ethnic-studies programs in the public schools, while a third prohibits “intentionally or knowingly creating a human-animal hybrid.” Lawmakers declared February 8 the “Boy Scout Holiday,” took time out to discount fishing-license fees for Eagle Scouts, and approved a constitutional right to hunt.
In January, Senator Jack Harper, an immaculately combed zealot who speaks in the patter of an infomercial voiceover, submitted a bill that would allow faculty members to carry guns on university campuses, saying it was “one very small step in trying to eliminate gun-free zones, where there’s absolutely no one who could defend themselves if a terrorist incident happened.” The house passed a measure that would force President Barack Obama to show his birth certificate to state officials if he runs for re-election, as well as a bill that bars Arizona from entering into any program to regulate greenhouse gases without approval from the legislature. “There are only two ways to vote on this,” said Representative Ray Barnes of the latter initiative. “Yes, or face the east in the morning and worship the EPA because they own you.”
This is Tea Party politics in its essence. It is an attempt to carry out an ultraright agenda through control of the courts, the legislature and the executive offices on a state and national level. In order to succeed, it has to be careful the way it manages its image. That is why a leader of the movement was forced to resign after making explicitly racist statements. It is also the reason it must take great care to avoid any connections with terrorists such as the kind that blow up abortion clinics. It is a deeply reactionary movement but is not terrorist or fascist at this point.
I would also urge the left to understand the history of Arizona, a country that arguably provided the launching ground for the modern conservative movement when its favorite son Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964. Although Goldwater was defeated, many Republicans including Ronald Reagan endorsed his program. Reagan managed to succeed where Goldwater failed—largely a function of his own demagogic gifts and the understanding by the ruling class that an attack on the welfare state had to be mounted.
I especially recommend Elizabeth Tandy Shermer article Origins of the Conservative Ascendancy: Barry Goldwater’s Early Senate Career and the De-legitimization of Organized Labor that appeared in the Journal of American History in 2008. Shermer writes:
The threat of a labor and liberal ascendancy spurred conservatives to political action. Although they benefited from federal dollars, many business leaders in the Southwest had no intention of supporting corporatist arrangements. The specter of the growing labor movement and the expanding federal government united corporate titans with local business owners in the region. Opposing them were employers in retail, service, agricultural, and extractive enterprises, which were either labor intensive or structured in a way that gave workers power at the work site. Throughout the 1940s, southwestern state legislatures were key arenas in the fight against the New Deal. As one tactic, business leaders supported laws designed to remake the region into an oasis for heavily taxed and unionized firms fleeing the Northeast. In 1949, the members of the Reno Chamber of Commerce pushed a “free-port” bill through the Nevada legislature, which permitted manufacturers to avoid property taxes on goods officially “in transit.” The state assembly relaxed those rules throughout the 1950s, attracting warehousing and manufacturing companies to Nevada. Curbing labor’s growth was also a key strategy for conservatives. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, state governments across the South and Southwest introduced right-to-work legislation, similar to the 1946 Arizona law.12
Barry Goldwater’s rise exemplified the politics of this emergent counteroffensive. The Arizonan was well known even before he ran for the Senate because of his family’s stylish department store, Goldwater’s, and his daring exploration of the Grand Canyon in 1940, which he captured on film and presented to audiences during the 1940s across the state. He cultivated the image of a compassionate capitalist. His firm was renowned for its positive employee relations as well as its medical and pension plans. Like the benefits offered by other welfare capitalists, the perks at Goldwater’s were an important argument against charges of business malfeasance and employer indifference to workers’ welfare. Local papers lauded Goldwater’s, cementing the Phoenician’s reputation as a model employer. A Prescott newspaper reported that upon the opening of a store in that city in the early 1940s, Goldwater treated fourteen of his new employees to a fancy dinner. “Perhaps it’s pretzels and beer for run-of-the-counter sales ladies,” the editors noted, “but it’s champagne and chicken if they’re on Goldwater’s payroll . . . and a chance to ‘dine out’ with the dashing bon vivant, Mr. Barry Goldwater.” “Pity the poor working girls? Not if they work for Goldwater’s.”13
This is the kind of analysis that the left should be producing today. Arizona’s reactionary stew is a product of class antagonism that is leading toward a showdown between the rulers and working people. The ruling class is using “legal” methods to keep working people and oppressed nationalities under its thumb, even as we understand that its tactics might change in the future, as antagonisms grow irreconcilable. But if we cannot base our own strategy and tactics on the true relationship of class forces, then we will end up making mistake after mistake.