The word of the week is blame. Who should be blamed for Jared Lee Loughner, the loony white male devotee of the Sovereign Citizen Movement who shot nineteen people outside a Tucson supermarket on Saturday, killing six and wounding fourteen, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords? What happens when scapegoating overtakes a culture, as it has overtaken our national discourse, when calls for revenge stretch the divide between neighbors until a tattered social fabric begins to give way?
Despite a flock of media blowhards cynically upping their ratings by calling for the blood of infidels, I have a hunch that—when push comes to shove—few of us truly want to find out the answer to the second question. Or maybe we already know.
There is a Jewish teaching that the destruction of the Second Temple—the cataclysmic event two millennia ago that changed Judaism from a placed-based, sacrifice-based religion to a movable feast of personal practice and collective disputation—came about on account of sinat chinam, baseless hatred.
Ordinary hatred, for better or worse, is grounded in real experience: This man has injured me, so I hate him. But baseless hatred is a more abstract feeling. In its grip, we despise individuals or groups on grounds so flimsy as to be pretext: they belong to a vilified category, they are aligned with a rival team, they behave in alien ways, they look or sound different.
Sound familiar? Consider, for instance, the terrible venom directed from Tea Party fans at public employees, who are attacked for the sin of holding jobs in the sector that sustains social infrastructure. (See Robert Reich’s recent blog about the scapegoating of public employees.) The hatred is categorical and impersonal, but as we saw in Arizona, the impact can be personal beyond belief.
In some Jewish teachings, the destruction of the Temple was straightforward divine punishment for the widespread sin of baseless hatred. In a more instrumental reading, you could say that baseless hatred spelled the end of a way of life because it preoccupied people with internal rivalries and vendettas. With attention focused on fighting each other, rather than joining to face threats besetting their whole community, they were not able to save the Temple from invading Roman legions bent on retaliation for the Jews’ rebellion.
Very early on Sunday morning, social critic and filmmaker Michael Moore sent out this Twitter message: “If a Detroit Muslim put a map on the web w/crosshairs on 20 pols, then 1 of them got shot, where would he b sitting right now? Just asking.”
Moore was referring to a map of the USA posted on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page, featuring 20 gunsights, one for each Democrat targeted for defeat by SarahPAC. Three gunsights were colored red, representing Democrats who had already withdrawn from the race.
Moore and countless others have pointed out the differential way the media treat transgressors depending on factors such as race, gender, and social position. Since Loughner pulled the trigger, there have been countless media reports saying there is no indication that his attack was politically motivated; or conversely, that it was a random act of insanity. Does anyone imagine for a second that if Loughner had been Muslim—and just as deranged as he appears to be—the talking heads would have forsworn his ethnicity and focused exclusively on his mental condition?
In Loughner’s case, as with virtually all news coverage, when a white, gentile male transgresses, neither his gender, his religious background, nor his race will be mentioned, and an act of vengeance on random human beings, one that strikes terror in the hearts of millions, will not be named as terrorism.
These automatic omissions add to the climate of baseless hatred, creating the presumption that a white man’s act of terror is a symptom of mental illness and nothing more. But, contrary to these default media assumptions, there is no reason why an assassin can’t be both a wacko and a terrorist, and indeed, in Loughner’s case, mental illness is married to bizarre right-wing politics. Read a description from Tikkun Daily of the politics of the YouTube videos posted by Jared Lee Loughner and discover an especially bizarre species of conspiracy thinking that posits a new form of punctuation as the way to release the icy grip of a phantom government that replaced the real U.S. government when the gold standard was abandoned. (I kid you not.)
In contrast, gender, racial, and religious categories are inevitably used when the perpetrator doesn’t fit the white, male, gentile default setting. Add this to the fact that most media outlets cover the bad news almost exclusively, and in effect, whenever people hear the word “Muslim” on news and talks shows, it is almost always associated with violence and fear.
Moore’s Twitter question is rhetorical, of course. We all know the answer: in this climate, the imaginary Detroit Muslim’s Website would be shut down in a flash, and its owner would be in custody.
But that doesn’t make it right. Nor should it inspire progressives to advocate for the equal-opportunity betrayal of civil liberties. Yes, the hypocritical double standard is unmistakable. I have no respect for Sarah Palin and even less for Glenn Beck, the Koch brothers, and others who invest their considerable resources in inciting baseless hatred. I imagine I’m as angry as you are over their willingness to take America’s frail democracy from ailing to intensive care in the service of their own careers. But it cannot be said that they put the gun in Jared Lee Loughner’s hand, nor even that the hate speech and hateful images they’ve deployed in their dangerous game literally caused his orgy of blood-letting.
In fact, as compelling as the Arizona images are, as bright a flashpoint as Loughner’s deeds have become for the contest of blame, that’s how strong is my hope that we will not be drawn into a symbolic combat over blame for the events in Tucson that pulls our attention even further away from the very real challenges that should command our attention. My indictment of Palin, Beck, and the paranoid fringe that they promote is much larger than Jared Lee Loughner: that they are feeding a climate of baseless hatred in this country, that it is seeping into the broken places in individual psyches and in our communities, and that if we let them get away with it, we may destroy ourselves. I thought Paul Krugman’s Sunday New York Times column summed it up well.
While we are treating this one terrible massacre as the crux of the matter, here’s what we are not addressing: how to stop hemorrhaging our commonwealth on war and profiteering; how to turn away from the addiction to punishment that has made us Incarceration Nation; how to heal the economic violence that has abandoned millions to joblessness and homelessness; how to wrest humane education from a numbers-obsessed establishment; how to open our eyes to the social cost of racism and all the structural barriers to equality in this country; how to remember who we can be and draw on our deep national wellspring of creativity to align ourselves with that aim.
I don’t pretend to have the magic formula that will wrench our attention away from the shiny objects of media obsession, that will direct it towards all that needs healing in our ailing body politic. But of one thing I am certain: it will not be upping the ante of blame and hatred. Believing that we can cure scapegoating by engaging in it is so self-evidently false, it would not even be necessary to say so if our collective political vision were not already distorted by this supremely dangerous game.
It seems to me that Rav Kook (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who died in 1935), a supremely wise and justice-loving universalist, was right in positing the antidote to baseless hatred:
“If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love.” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324)
Rav Kook’s son, Zvi Yehuda Kook (who died in 1982), explained his father’s teaching:
The most exalted level of love for mankind must encompass the love of the individual, and includes every person, regardless of all of the differences of religion and belief, race and locale. One must endeavor to understand fully the mentalities of the various peoples and communities, to study, as thoroughly as possible, their characteristics and attributes, in order to know how to base human love on practical foundations.
Only a person rich in love for mankind, and for each individual man, can attain a love for his own nation in its most noble dimension, and for its spiritual and material grandeur. The myopic vision, which views everything outside the boundaries of a particular nation…as ugly and impure, is a part of the awful darkness which causes the utter destruction of the universal spiritual goodness which every sensitive soul longs to see.
Before you roll your eyes, please, stop and think. Yes, it is challenging to love humankind, especially when individual exemplars of the species persist in being so annoying, heartbreaking, cruel, recalcitrant. But why does stretching love to encompass, say, our fellow Americans, seem so much harder than enveloping them in hate? Surely a large part of the answer is force of habit. We have allowed ourselves to be drawn into a world of baseless hatred, and after a time, it seems the only world there is.
If Rav Kook was right (and I think he was), then the campaigns we need now will help us remember the kindness, compassion, and cooperation of which we are capable. It seems right to call on the residue of fellow-feeling that reminds us that we share a society and cannot allow ourselves to be manipulated into forgetting that. It seems right to point out the dangers of feeding baseless hatred, and to encourage people to be aware of it, and to reject it wherever it arises. As grindingly hard as it is to do this, it seems imperative to speak in the public arena of breaking the trance of hatred, of a spiritual revolution of love, as Martin Luther King did in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964 (well worth reading in its entirety):
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response which is little more than emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality….
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. Love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.
I felt that the deep disappointment expressed by Pima County’s articulate Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik right after the shootings struck exactly the right tone of caring, of calling us to our better selves, the tone that I think has a chance of being heard by people who aren’t already in the grip of baseless hatred:
“It’s not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included,” Sheriff Dupnik said. “That’s the sad thing about what’s going on in America: pretty soon we’re not going to be able to find reasonable, decent people willing to subject themselves to serve in public office.”
Right before the news in Tucson broke, I was listening to a Radiolab podcast from last month. Entitled “The Good Show,” it explores the persistence of altruism in a world that presumably runs on survival of the fittest, a dog-eat-dog competition that never ends. The second segment is about people who risk their own lives for no apparent reason, just to help, and if it does not refute the proposition that pure altruism is a fiction, I will eat my iPod.
It appears that love is just as hardwired into our beings as aggression. It appears that our capacity for baseless love is fully equal to our capacity for baseless hatred. It appears that the choice, as always, is ours. May we have the wisdom to choose love before the maelstrom of baseless hatred deposits us amidst “the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”
Ponder that as you concentrate on baseless love, listening to Aaron Neville singing Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”