L.A. Times: "Loughner's ramblings appear rooted in far right"


That would be the news pages, not the Opinion section. How, at this late date in combing through the wreckage of the Tucson shooter's brain and paper trail, do you arrive at that conclusion? The same way newspapers did just after the massacre: by using as your primary factual source not anybody who actually interacted with the guy, but instead the factually fallible partisans at the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Most wind up concluding that Loughner suffered from mental problems. But experts said that several oft-repeated phrases and concepts — his fixation on grammar conspiracies, currency and the "second United States Constitution" — seem derived from concepts explored with regularity among elements of the far right.

"What you can see across the board in his writings is the idea that you can't trust the government — that the government engages in mind control against its citizens," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long monitored the radical right.

Loughner's assertion that he would not "pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver" is a running theme among right-wing opponents of the Federal Reserve system.

"The people who talk about the manipulation of currency follow it backward from the IRS to the Federal Reserve…that it's run by either secret, powerful elites or secret, powerful Jewish elites," said Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a nonprofit group that also monitors right-wing extremism.

First, note the code words "experts" and "seem," crucial to so much truly awful speculative journalism from time immemorial. Second, this formulation would lead the unsuspecting reader to conclude that Loughner's currency-talk was limited to or generally characterized by complaints of the greenback not being backed by precious metals, which is indeed a longstanding source of concern among a measurable minority on the right, far right, and Planet Libertarian.

But Loughner, as even the most cursory glance at his non-L.A. Times-quoted ramblings will show, used "currency" as a bizarre, all-encompassing metaphor, overlapping with grammar, mind-control, conscious dreaming, and God knows what else. As Jesse Walker observed yesterday, the shooter participated in online fora with actual gold bugs, and they thought his "infinite source of currency" talk was plum loco. In fact, you have to exert some editing effort to produce a Loughner quote on the gold standard that sounds anything like your modal Ron Paul fan. As Patrick "Patterico" Frey points out in a rebuttal to the L.A. Times piece, the one quote the paper used was surrounded by this unincluded context:

In conclusion, reading the second United States Constitution, I can't trust the current government because of the ratifactions: The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.

No! I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver!

No! I won't trust in God!

If that "seems" like a routine emission from the far right, you're either not actually familiar with the far right, or your hatred of it is activated by the mere presence of keywords like "Constitution" and "currency," which overwhelm whatever sense of logic and fairness you might have brought to the issue.

We know about the SPLC, but what about this Chip Berlet fellow, and his assertion that "the people who talk about" currency manipulation–which, by the way, every government engages in, by the act of having a quasi-governmental body set interest rates–are either A) anti-Star Chamber, B) anti-Semites, or C) both? Here's who Chip Berlet is: Someone who thinks that both the Tea Party and libertarianism can be explained by white racism:

It's an AstroTurf campaign to fill people with scare stories and misinformation. Even if these people say, 'No one told me to come,' they are getting direct mailings telling them to go to meetings and ask questions. They are angry because they feel displaced. They feel pushed out of the way by liberals, people of color and immigrants. It's the story they have told themselves to explain why they haven't made it in America. It's racial anxiety fueled by a bad economy, a black president and disparities at a time when white people's supremacy is being challenged.

Now we have a black president, and for the most part whites didn't riot in the street. But it doesn't mean that most of us who are white men in America don't wonder what that means. They see the president as the head of a bureaucracy, and they are unsettled by the idea of having a black boss: How am I supposed to act? What am I supposed to do? Does that mean white people are losing power? The short answer is: Yeah, deal with it. […]

It is a backlash against social liberalism and it's rooted in libertarian support for unregulated capitalism and white people holding onto power, and, if they see themselves losing it, trying to get it back.

Would you quote this man as an "expert" on right-wing rhetoric?

Look, while I'm glad that Andrew "Fifth Column" Sullivan, David "Unpatriotic Conservatives" Frum, and Matt "They're full of shit. All of them" Taibbi are all so suddenly concerned about the level of divisive vitriol in our national discourse, the persistent attempts on the news pages (let alone in the Twitter feeds of debased partisans) to link this atrocity to beliefs held by millions of Americans, despite an utter lack of evidence so far (as I'm aware) about what political messages this crazy person was consuming and reacting to, reveals much, much more about those connecting the dots than it does the ideologies they are attempting to discredit. This goes for Rush Limbaugh, too.

Question: Where were the major-media thumbsuckers about the dangerous rhetoric of radical environmentalism after James Jay Lee took hostages at the Discovery Channel and issued a list of specific (and insane!) environmental policy demands? Answer: Outside of a few sprinkled non-liberals, they largely did not exist. Even though Lee was far more explicitly and identifiably ideological, even though his views did have some overlap with the outer fringes of environmental Malthusianism, most MSM types, if they discussed extreme green rhetoric at all in the wake of the incident, concluded that Lee's manifest weirdness and grievance-fueled fixation on the Discovery Channel trumped all similarities and chains of causation. This was, I think, a defensible response.

Why so different now? The answer is obvious: We are nearly two years into a media panic about grassroots right-of-center/limited-government activity and rhetoric. They have been predicting imminent race-fueled mayhem for so long that there is no way a lack of connective evidentiary tissue was going to stand in the way of pinning this murder spree on The Climate of Hate. In the immortal words of Paul Krugman, which stand as the best definition of "confirmation bias" I've seen yet,

When you heard the terrible news from Arizona, were you completely surprised? Or were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?

The media wasn't expecting a Malthusian crime spree, just as it wasn't suspecting scruffy anarchist protesters to stomp on and break the leg of a Republican woman outside of a New Orleans fundraiser (note: I don't know if they ever nabbed anyone in that almost totally ignored case; the point is that if there was an existing anarchists-attack-Republicans storyline and fear, it would have made national headlines long before any arrests). Much of the world's most damaging journalism–initial reports on Hurricane Katrina, for one of a thousand examples–are a direct result of confirmation bias overwhelming the industry's traditional standards of verification. Embattled Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik may well turn out to be the analogue to former New Orleans Police Superintendent Edwin Compass in this case: official permission to run with a story that just seems like it must be true.

Only this this time the L.A. Times cannot claim the excuse of not having access to a catastrophic reporting zone. And in making tenuous claims between rhetoric and action, the newspaper has succeeding in poisoning the very well it is trying to clean. Even if evidence surfaces to support the hunch, it will not excuse the speculative pre-writes.