Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Cracked Tea Pot: How to tell a tragedy from a terrorist

In Uncategorized on February 19, 2010 at 8:58 pm

It has been edifying to read and watch the various responses to the violent actions that it seems that we can attribute to Joseph Stack. The first thing that fascinates me was that quite a few people on both sides of the political aisle recognized the event for what it was, an outrageous act of terrorism derived from personal traumas and strange combinations of disparate political ideas that somehow relate to the recent wave of Tea Party activism. I say that this is the obvious frame because the target was a tax building, the core theme of the Tea Party revolt is tax aversion, and the method was to use a plane to destroy a building in a way that can only remind us of September 11th 2001. Beyond that, there is much more to say about what motivated the guy and how his motivations may or may not be related to the actions of Tea Party activists. My favorite reaction was the almost Freudian denial from an Austin paper that the act was a personal tragedy and not an act of Tea Party terrorism. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, really!

I must say that I am largely persuaded by the most defensive of the deniers of a connection that to lump this man into the broad stream of angry reaction is unfair. One piece of evidence that has convinced me is the personal experience of a student of mine who is a law enforcement officer who related how her exposure to the activists who marched on D.C. in April convinced her that there was great respect for law and order in the ranks. This was not true of activists, she said, in many left wing marches. Also it is surely true that the vast majority of Tea Party activists are reasonable and law abiding citizens who decry violence at almost every turn. I think that Mr. Stack is not likely a card carrying member of the Tea Party movement, but as far as I know, they don;t yet have such cards to carry. In fact, as the movement organizers remind us, this is a loosely coupled grassroots movement organization with no clear party line other than aversion to federal taxes and organizations like the IRS.  Stack’s experience was quite specific to his own sense of slight and his causes are not those of Tea Partyers. I would still insist that we should not see the Stack event as separate from the larger extremist urges we have recently witnessed that include bringing firearms to Obama events (and advertising material on the blood of tyrants).  Also worth noting is a joke at CPAC about the plane having been flown by Grover Norquist.

I surmise that all political movements can be thought of along a continuum of radicalism with a very strong right skew (think of a bell curve with a long stringy tail off the to right of the distribution). This means that most activities in the movement will be moderate and reasonable. The average value of wackiness is quite low. For the Tea Partiers, the mean might be even lower than average as my student has suggested. But the variability of wackiness and emotional volatility is usually quite high and when the rhetoric is choice enough, the upper tails can stretch out above terrorist threshold. This is why leftists were blamed for the activities of bomb throwing anarchists back in the early 1900s when we learned what terrorism meant. If the general sense of grievance rises high enough, you can get a fairly high proportion of terrorists (let’s say 3-5% in highly disrupted contexts). This proportion is quite low, but it hurts even the strongest power to have people willing to die to support a cause. If we think Mr. Stack as the extreme member of that upper tail of the distribution, we can see how we can reconcile a generally law abiding protest movement and egregious law breakers in its ranks. One also might think of the Weathermen of the 1960s in this context.

This brings us t0 the problem of assigning group membership to the wacky upper tail. In Mr. Stack’s case, we have a confusing couplet thrown in at the end of his rant that brings in a famous line from Karl Marx with a mocking play on it from an English Journalist. We can’t be sure how he meant this to be taken, but it feels rather ironic to me. In any case, one of the most robust findings in American (and for that matter in human) public opinion studies is that people show an astonishingly low level of ideological constraint in their views. This means that they are inconsistent and can mix and match all kinds of contradictory views into their own special package. This can be true of even quite bright people like Lyndon LaRouche, who is quite scary in his sprawling and incoherent rants if you have ever seen him speak. This is what makes for a great cult leader, to spin various unrelated facts and viewpoints into an action narrative capable of cementing will and attention. I would not be surprised to discover that Mr. Stack had some of that in him.

This inconsistency in opinion is actually quite important in making sense of protest politics in the U.S., because the protesters have the darnedest combinations of views that you have ever seen. For example, you probably think you know what makes for a Nader voter in 2004, but I bet you are wrong. One of the best predictors is having been a Perot voter in 1992 or 1996. Nader and Perot have but one thing in common–recalcitrance. I think it is fair to say that when the going gets tough, Americans start pushing buttons. Any buttons. How we act from a collective standpoint is far from what a pair of distinguished political scientists once called the rational public.

It is important to remember that there is a good deal of froth in the political culture and we should not be so sure that other people’s actions will be intelligible to us.  This event reminds me most of the columbine killings. I used to play the video game called Doom in which you would walk through buildings and shoot enemies without mercy and so did the shooters in that difficult time. I like to think that I am quite law-abiding and reasonable and placed the game in the proper context, but they were not and they became involved in a real tragedy that cannot plausibly be read as terrorism.  Mr. Stack died in a very public and symbolic way for a cause that hoped others would follow. If that is not terrorism, I don’t know what is.

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