American Nihilism

For all the hand-wringing over whether the gut-wrenching massacre in Tucson was the result of America’s virulent political discourse, the

For all the hand-wringing over whether the gut-wrenching massacre in Tucson was the result of America’s virulent political discourse, the hand-wringing itself quickly became another instance of the virulence, and then the inanity, of American political discourse.

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First, liberal writers declared that Jared Lee Loughner was the product of right-wing incitement: Sarah Palin shamefully putting cross hairs over liberal congressmen’s districts; Michele Bachmann’s call to Tea Party legions to be “armed and dangerous”; the unbelievable rhetorical fury against President Obama; the right-wing portrayal of the president as Hitler. 

Then the vigilant powers of the Internet revealed that, in fact, Mr. Loughner was an atheist who spouted, insofar as they were coherent at all, both right-wing and left-wing ideas. So other liberal writers added that even if he wasn’t the creation of right-wing incitement to violence, he was the product of the violent atmosphere that the right-wing incitement to violence had created. 

It then emerged that Mr. Loughner might be mentally ill. Yes, cried still other liberal writers. Maybe he is insane, and maybe he is not a right-winger, but you take the right-wing atmosphere of hatred, combine it with easy access to automatic weapons, and it becomes lethal when added to mental illness.

Conservative writers quickly used the insanity defense to exculpate the Palins and the Bachmanns. Other conservative writers struck back with examples of left-wing incitement to violence: the liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas shamefully putting a bull’s-eye on Gabrielle Giffords because she was a Blue Dog Democrat; Mr.  Obama’s threat to Republicans in the summer of 2008 that “if they bring a  knife to the fight, we bring a gun”; the unbelievable fury against President George W. Bush; the left-wing portrayal of Mr. Bush as Hitler.  

After a fleeting online eternity of each side giving gainful employment to the other, a sort of synthesis of opposites was reached by some liberal and some conservative pundits. It wasn’t right-wing hatred, or left-wing hatred, or the general lack of civility in American politics that had caused Loughner to unleash his slaughter in Tucson. 

No, it was the “shadowy” world of “crazy” inhabited by American’s assassins, a hermetically sealed Da Vinci Code realm sealed against all outer influences and driven by an internal logic all its own. Strangely, this vision of a select group of assassins guided by esoteric notions of conspiracy and injustice was strikingly similar to American assassins’ own self-image as special aristocratic persons. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Mark David Chapman, Jared Lee Loughner-the three names reflect a fantasy of specialness that perhaps corresponds to the fantasy of absolute power these figures experience in murdering a special person.

The discourse following the Tucson shootings was all the more mind-numbing because no one wanted to talk about the elephant in the room. The uncomfortable fact is that we share the same culture as Loughner. We swim in it; we bask in it. Loughner’s YouTube ravings are like a perverted reflection of ideas and sentiments that are our daily bread.

According to news reports, Loughner went to one of Congresswoman Giffords’ public meetings and asked her this question: “What is government if words have no meaning?” It also appears in his YouTube video. In the light of what later happened, the question  chills us. Its nihilism and its unbalanced lack of basic trust are haunting. Yet they are also the stuff, not just of right-wing suspicion of government, or of radical left-wing suspicion of same, but of scores of Hollywood movies, from Taxi Driver and Three Days of the Condor, to Guilty by Suspicion and Mercury Rising, to The Sentinel and Syriana, and, well, I can’t keep up. For at least half a century, our movies, from simple to complex, have been driven by the idea that official words have no meaning and that government is either criminal or a sham. 

If that strikes you as too earnest an assertion, then you are perhaps too sophisticated to draw moralizing conclusions from mere entertainment. In that case, you have probably read the standard texts of advanced American attitudes. Thus you have absorbed throughout college, like any number of Hollywood screenwriters and American tastemakers, the idea-from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein to Foucault to Derrida to Chomsky to Stanley Fish-that the words used by any type of official, political entity, like a government, are nonsense. “What is government if words have no meaning?” That could be the motto of The Daily Show.

There are other people who ask the question not in the spirit of intellectual smugness or cleverly calculated comedy but in rage: What is government if words have no meaning? I’m not only referring to Tea Party people. One or two ugly twists of Julian Assange, and you get Jared Lee Loughner. 

It goes without saying that we are not all potential Jared Lee Loughners. We are decent, ironic, cosmopolitan people horrified by the Loughners of the world, are we not? We are not killers no matter how much we enjoy being diverted by the spectacle of killing in movies, TV shows, video games, violent apps. But a mountain slide pulls  down everyone, good and evil, innocent and corrupt, in its rush to the bottom. We all dwell complacently among the same cultural assumptions. Some of those assumptions are helping to  drive society, through no conscious purpose of their own, to the bottom. The feeble-minded, like Loughner, are the first to sink.

But so many of us refuse to acknowledge the context we all share. Hours after the Tucson murders,  some commentators myopically  asked if Congress would ever be the same. The idea that the Tucson shooting might have the effect of changing the way Congress does the national  business was an insult to one particularly agonizing symptom of our  collective anguish.

America has more mass murders, unrelated to politics or criminal business, than any other prosperous, peacetime, democratic  country.  In shopping centers and post offices, in schools and on  military bases, in every type of workplace and on the street,  Americans are gunning each other down in groups. Incredibly, mass slaughter happens several times a month. Conservatives don’t want to make an issue of mass murder because then they would be confronted with the fact that  the massacres are committed by people using guns. Liberals don’t want to  cry out about it because then they would have to address the fact that the  violence of our entertainment,  as well as the hip nihilism of advanced taste, numb us to real  murder. So the mass slaughters proceed.

Yet when a member of Congress is shot along with other innocent people, Congress becomes concerned about mass  murder. It wasn’t long after Tucson that figures in both parties started  saying there should be more bipartisanship. They proposed that the two  sides listen more carefully to each other. Certain pundits, those  opportunistic clowns who sit at the feet of Olbermann and O’Reilly,  obsequiously yapping condemnations of the other side, are pretending to ask themselves the same thing. But why does concern for their own welfare suddenly make the politicians speak words with meaning, and not concern for ours, or concern for the social and economic forces that drive some  people over the edge and put us all in jeopardy? 

Is it really true that  Congress will consider working more in the public interest only after one  of their own is heinously assaulted? Is it true that they and the entire  political culture will stop the self-sustaining and self-serving pendulum  of blame and invective onl
y after a congressman has been shot? Another Jared Lee Loughner is out there, asking himself the same question.


American Nihilism