Tucson and the Politics of Lament

The left is attempting to make Tucson into another Katrina.  With Katrina, which played nonstop for months in the mainstream media, the suggestion of every "news" story was that the crisis was all George Bush's fault.  The "slow response," the "inadequate response," the failure of the levees, the storm itself (caused by global warming, which was caused by George Bush) -- all of it was the president's fault.

The Katrina story was, of course, sheer nonsense, but after months of coverage, most of the public came to believe it.  Even those who saw through the media bias were just too tired to argue over it, the same way they were tired of arguing over Iraq.  By focusing on the mantra that Bush was responsible for Katrina, the left created an intellectual dead zone that could not be challenged with either fact or logic.  As Orwell put it, repeat the Big Lie often enough and loud enough, and the public will believe it.

The same media template applies to Tucson.  Cover the story until the public is worn out, and it will accept the illogical and false conclusion that the Tucson shootings resulted from "conservative rancor."  Never mind that conservative rancor did not cause the shootings or that conservative rancor is only part of the rancor recently on display -- and the smaller part at that.  There was plenty of left-wing rancor directed toward the second Iraq war and toward George W. Bush in general.  Much of it emanated from our current president.

What connects the Tucson situation with Katrina is the way in which particular kinds of events -- events where there exist undeniable "victims" -- can be massaged and distorted until they seem to support an unrelated assumption.  The assumption that George Bush was a remote, uncaring, boorish political cowboy, and perhaps a racist one at that, was conjured up out of the images of black victims awaiting rooftop rescue or languishing at the Superdome.  Having fabricated a martyr out of what was simply inevitable -- the widespread flooding of a city that lies mostly under sea level when struck by a powerful hurricane -- the left proceeded to call for retribution.

In one section of his great book, Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti analyzed the psychological mechanism of what he called "the religions of lament."  Those religions, foremost among them Christianity, hinge on the powerful instinct of guilt among those who have survived the martyrdom of an innocent victim.  A crucial tenet of religions of lament is the idea that the victim has been sacrificed for the benefit of the surviving masses.  Sensing their own complicity in the violence that has taken place, the survivors attempt to revive the martyr and then celebrate his resurrection.  At that point, their sense of the obvious injustice of their own continued well-being at the moment when the martyr has suffered death (or has been struck down and lies in danger of dying) is assuaged.

The instinctual sympathy for the slain martyr is not confined to the field of religion.  Anyone who witnessed the public outflowing of grief following the death of Lady Diana can appreciate how universal the impulse is.  In the case of Lady Di, though the public display may have been a little over the top, it was fairly innocuous.  There was, of course, the inevitable attempt to attribute blame -- in that case, to the royal family, and to Prince Charles in particular.  But the blame game eventually ran its course, and the royals managed to restore their popular image.

In American history the two epochal events connected with Canetti's theory of lament are the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Both assassinations transformed presidents who might otherwise have been rated as unexceptional into objects of national veneration.  And in both cases, political parties were quick to realize the advantage that might be derived from the creation of a mythology of martyrdom.

Following Lincoln's death, the Republican Party ruled Washington uninterrupted (except by Cleveland, for two terms) for a period of a half-century.  After JFK was gunned down in Dallas, Lyndon Johnson, seizing on the national mood of lament, quickly maneuvered hundreds of liberal legislative initiatives through Congress, partly under the pretext of honoring Kennedy's memory.

There have been other cases, however, where the instinct for lament has been appropriated for far less benign purposes.  The most striking example was Hitler's appropriation of the myth of German martyrdom as a result of the Versailles Treaty and the subsequent demand that Germany be restored to its former economic, military, and territorial standing.  Hitler's genius, if one can call it that, was to seize upon the public's sense of victimhood and to turn that sense of injustice against his political opponents.  It is also the case that Germany's supposed martyrdom demanded a scapegoat: the affluent Jews who were unfairly blamed for Germany's economic ruin.

Obama is not Hitler, nor was Al Gore or John Kerry.  But they are, all of them, ruthless politicians who understand that no crisis is to be wasted.  With the aid of a well-orchestrated media campaign, Obama is determined to make full use of the Tucson shootings (or "massacre," as it is routinely called in the press).

Tucson will be used, first of all, to inoculate the president from criticism.  But it will have a longer life than that.  The psychological dynamic of lament will require that the victims be permanently memorialized in some way (for example, by the passage of liberal legislation that they favored and by Obama's reelection) and that a scapegoat (conservative talk radio, conservative bloggers, conservatives in Congress) be punished by media exposure and condemnation.  The process will drag on for months and years as the myth of martyrdom is fleshed out, the appropriate memorials (both physical and legislative) are constructed, and retribution is exacted.

In other words, Tucson is the left's Versailles, and they are determined to make full use of it.

Jeffrey Folks is author of many books and articles on American culture and politics.
The left is attempting to make Tucson into another Katrina.  With Katrina, which played nonstop for months in the mainstream media, the suggestion of every "news" story was that the crisis was all George Bush's fault.  The "slow response," the "inadequate response," the failure of the levees, the storm itself (caused by global warming, which was caused by George Bush) -- all of it was the president's fault.

The Katrina story was, of course, sheer nonsense, but after months of coverage, most of the public came to believe it.  Even those who saw through the media bias were just too tired to argue over it, the same way they were tired of arguing over Iraq.  By focusing on the mantra that Bush was responsible for Katrina, the left created an intellectual dead zone that could not be challenged with either fact or logic.  As Orwell put it, repeat the Big Lie often enough and loud enough, and the public will believe it.

The same media template applies to Tucson.  Cover the story until the public is worn out, and it will accept the illogical and false conclusion that the Tucson shootings resulted from "conservative rancor."  Never mind that conservative rancor did not cause the shootings or that conservative rancor is only part of the rancor recently on display -- and the smaller part at that.  There was plenty of left-wing rancor directed toward the second Iraq war and toward George W. Bush in general.  Much of it emanated from our current president.

What connects the Tucson situation with Katrina is the way in which particular kinds of events -- events where there exist undeniable "victims" -- can be massaged and distorted until they seem to support an unrelated assumption.  The assumption that George Bush was a remote, uncaring, boorish political cowboy, and perhaps a racist one at that, was conjured up out of the images of black victims awaiting rooftop rescue or languishing at the Superdome.  Having fabricated a martyr out of what was simply inevitable -- the widespread flooding of a city that lies mostly under sea level when struck by a powerful hurricane -- the left proceeded to call for retribution.

In one section of his great book, Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti analyzed the psychological mechanism of what he called "the religions of lament."  Those religions, foremost among them Christianity, hinge on the powerful instinct of guilt among those who have survived the martyrdom of an innocent victim.  A crucial tenet of religions of lament is the idea that the victim has been sacrificed for the benefit of the surviving masses.  Sensing their own complicity in the violence that has taken place, the survivors attempt to revive the martyr and then celebrate his resurrection.  At that point, their sense of the obvious injustice of their own continued well-being at the moment when the martyr has suffered death (or has been struck down and lies in danger of dying) is assuaged.

The instinctual sympathy for the slain martyr is not confined to the field of religion.  Anyone who witnessed the public outflowing of grief following the death of Lady Diana can appreciate how universal the impulse is.  In the case of Lady Di, though the public display may have been a little over the top, it was fairly innocuous.  There was, of course, the inevitable attempt to attribute blame -- in that case, to the royal family, and to Prince Charles in particular.  But the blame game eventually ran its course, and the royals managed to restore their popular image.

In American history the two epochal events connected with Canetti's theory of lament are the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Both assassinations transformed presidents who might otherwise have been rated as unexceptional into objects of national veneration.  And in both cases, political parties were quick to realize the advantage that might be derived from the creation of a mythology of martyrdom.

Following Lincoln's death, the Republican Party ruled Washington uninterrupted (except by Cleveland, for two terms) for a period of a half-century.  After JFK was gunned down in Dallas, Lyndon Johnson, seizing on the national mood of lament, quickly maneuvered hundreds of liberal legislative initiatives through Congress, partly under the pretext of honoring Kennedy's memory.

There have been other cases, however, where the instinct for lament has been appropriated for far less benign purposes.  The most striking example was Hitler's appropriation of the myth of German martyrdom as a result of the Versailles Treaty and the subsequent demand that Germany be restored to its former economic, military, and territorial standing.  Hitler's genius, if one can call it that, was to seize upon the public's sense of victimhood and to turn that sense of injustice against his political opponents.  It is also the case that Germany's supposed martyrdom demanded a scapegoat: the affluent Jews who were unfairly blamed for Germany's economic ruin.

Obama is not Hitler, nor was Al Gore or John Kerry.  But they are, all of them, ruthless politicians who understand that no crisis is to be wasted.  With the aid of a well-orchestrated media campaign, Obama is determined to make full use of the Tucson shootings (or "massacre," as it is routinely called in the press).

Tucson will be used, first of all, to inoculate the president from criticism.  But it will have a longer life than that.  The psychological dynamic of lament will require that the victims be permanently memorialized in some way (for example, by the passage of liberal legislation that they favored and by Obama's reelection) and that a scapegoat (conservative talk radio, conservative bloggers, conservatives in Congress) be punished by media exposure and condemnation.  The process will drag on for months and years as the myth of martyrdom is fleshed out, the appropriate memorials (both physical and legislative) are constructed, and retribution is exacted.

In other words, Tucson is the left's Versailles, and they are determined to make full use of it.

Jeffrey Folks is author of many books and articles on American culture and politics.

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