Jared Lee Loughner and the problem with conspiracy theories

We know Arizona shooter Jared Lee Loughner is crazy but a lot of people are currently invested in deciding whether his craziness swings to the left or the right. Concerns about the toxic nature of political debate in the Tea Party era are real and valid, but the attempt to pin Loughner’s killing spree on people that you disagree with isn’t just unsavoury and symptomatic of the cowboys-and-Indians polarisation that is wrecking US politics – it’s false.

On one side there’s conservative howler monkey Pamela Geller, who declares Loughner “a certified lefty nut”. (Her website advertises her latest book, The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America, which of course plays no part in cheapening debate, denying the legitimacy of elected officials and fostering violent paranoia.) She is careful to note that one of his favourite books is The Communist Manifesto but somehow neglects to mention that another name on his reading list is Ayn Rand, who is homaged in the title of Geller’s very own blog. But why nitpick when her stuttering argument collapses completely in the face of Loughner’s final berserk ramble? The ramble is also the shaky foundation for the opposing case, put by Hatewatch’s Mark Potok, who uses it as evidence that Loughner is indebted to the far-right Patriot movement of the 1990s. I don’t want to compare Potok’s measured tone to Geller’s bilious bullshit but he also glosses over the facts that don’t fit and looks for intellectual coherence where none exists.

Read this part of Loughner’s rant and tell me where you’d place him on the political spectrum. “In conclusion, reading the second United States Constitution, I can’t trust the current government because of the ratifications: The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.” I’d say somewhere between deluded and batshit.

But it’s not unfamiliar. Conspiracy theorist thinking appeals to both left and right, and can forge strange alliances. In the 90s, you’d find rappers and militiamen alike clutching copies of William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse, a book about secret societies, government plots and UFOs. Angry, lonely, disempowered young men are especially drawn to conspiracy theories because it makes them feel like vital combatants in an epic struggle.

So when Geller quotes the Twitter stream of Caitie Parker, a former high school friend and bandmate of Loughner’s, as part of her “lefty nut” theorem, I see something different. “he was a pot head & into rock like Hendrix, The Doors, Anti-Flag,” writes Parker. And separately: “As I knew him he was left wing, quite liberal. & oddly obsessed with the 2012 prophecy.”

Apart from confirming that you should never trust a serious Doors fan, this just makes me think of certain kind of young man who reads a lot of books, smokes a lot of weed and comes up with some far-fetched theories (his reading list includes such counterculture favourites as Herman Hesse, Ken Kesey, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley), only in this case intensified by real mental illness. As Salon’s Laura Miller writes: “A young man whose slide into paranoid schizophrenia has been noticed and addressed probably would favor literature in which maverick truth-tellers are labeled as insane or criminal by self-serving authority figures.”

In this autodidactic stoner cosmology, the government is always up to something nefarious so it figures that during the Bush administration this would have tilted to the left, and the under Obama to the right, without any great philosophical adjustments necessary — the Tea Party thrives on the kind of rebel rhetoric once dominated by the left. To assign him to one side or another is at best mistaken and at worst fraudulent. Laura Miller again: “By studying Loughner’s book list for clues to the political leanings that somehow ‘drove’ him to commit murder, commentators are behaving a lot like crazy people themselves.”

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from Loughner’s twisted logic. Conspiracy-theorist thinking is always out there, and normally it does no harm except to anyone who’s unfortunate enough to sit next to a true believer at a party. Sometimes (see the Wu-Tang Clan) it makes for some terrific music. But occasionally, if the brain chemistry and the cultural mood are both out of whack, it turns into something truly dangerous. The message of the political assassinations of the 60s is not that there are plotters everywhere, but that even lone gunmen are creatures of their culture. Mainstream paranoia-mongers like Glenn Beck and, oh yes, Pamela Geller stir the pot of fear and conspiracy because it’s lucrative and it works, but sometimes they dislodge something nasty from the bottom and it floats to the top. Conservatives can call Loughner a “lefty” all they like, but right now they are the ones stirring the pot with reckless glee.

UPDATE: In a fundraising email, the Tea Party Express calls Loughner a “liberal”. This is one day after the Tea Party Patriots wailed: “To see the left exploit this for political advantage – some people have no conscience. It’s genuinely revolting … I think it sinks to the level of evil.” I’m sure the Tea Party Patriots will be calling up the Tea Party Express right away to express their disgust.

Note: For a primer on conspiracy theories in US politics, especially on the right, you have to read Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics. For an entertaining and thorough takedown of several conspiracy theories, David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories is unbeatable. Sarah Hepola at Salon has written a good piece about the history behind Drowning Pool’s Bodies, the song Loughner used in his YouTube clip.


What music can tell us about the Tea Party

You’ve probably already seen the widely circulated clip of former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker throwing in her lot with the Tea Party and complaining about the USA “being led towards socialism”.

Filmed in April, it only became a big story when Pitchfork picked up the clip six months later and was predictably disheartening for many Velvets fans. Early responses made solid points — you don’t dismiss art just because you don’t like the artist’s politics, and the VU were always hippie-hating misanthropes anyway — but I’d like to examine what makes the Tea Party distinct and how the Tucker tape questions assumptions about rock music, politics and the vocabulary of protest.

Much though a certain class of professional cynic delights in the fiction that all celebrities are conservatives under the surface, the truth is still that an overwhelming majority of musicians (and painters, novelists, film-makers, etc) lean to the left. (Famous exceptions: Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, Johnny Ramone.) That’s why  John J Miller’s much-discussed 2006 list of the 50 greatest conservative rock songs had to make some pretty desperate stretches to fill the list. (Only a Stasi loyalist would concur with Miller’s inclusion of Bowie’s “Heroes” solely on the grounds that it takes a dim view of the Berlin Wall.)

But it’s easy to make the false assumption that because most rock musicians are left-wing that rock is intrinsically a left-wing form. If it can be generalized as anything then it’s libertarian — don’t tell me what to do. The government is usually the problem, whether (as in Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues) it’s just an extension of parental authority or (as in Public Enemy’s sleeve-art mantra, “The government is responsible”) an actively sinister conspiracy.

Because the government is usually identified as conservative, we’ve become used to identifying such instinctive resistance as left-wing, but Moe’s outburst shows how swiftly the Tea Party has moved the goalposts by seizing the energy and the language of protest from the left. Never mind that Tea Party candidates have the support of a major news channel, several billionaires, and, it seems, a Republican hierarchy too craven to put the moderate case. Set aside the fact that the Obama they’re so enraged with is a Kenyan-born muslim socialist who bears no resemblance to the real thing. (Tell the president’s left-wing critics he’s a socialist and they’ll laugh in your face.) In the minds of its supporters it is an insurrection by the average man against the elite — “throw the bums out” — and that’s always a potent idea.

To a political pundit or historian a lot of the Tea Party’s rhetoric is through-the-looking-glass stuff but protest songs teach us that dramatic and unreasonable opinions can be fantastically entertaining. Glenn Beck’s insistence on conspiracies and the hidden history that they don’t want you to know about has a similar flavour to the more fantastical theories of Public Enemy or the Wu-Tang Clan. Muse were taken aback to find that the same sci-fi paranoia that was interpreted as anti-Bush on 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations was suddenly embraced by the foes of “Obamunism”, but the lyrics commit to nothing except a vague fear of government so no wonder Glenn Beck is a fan of 2009’s The Resistance and there’s a Tea Party video set to their song Uprising. “Red tape to keep the truth confined?” “Rise up and take the power back”? Perfect Tea Party fodder.

I’m only surprised that more custom-made Tea Party songs haven’t made their presence felt, although Wonkette thoughtfully compiled some of the very worst back in April. The US has a long history of songs about the country and what it means, a history which has at times become an ideological tug-of-war. When Woody Guthrie found God Bless America too jingoistic he wrote This Land Is Your Land. Fifty years later, Tim Robbins, as folksinging conservative politician Bob Roberts, recorded his own satirical Republican riposte to Guthrie called My Land. Similarly, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded Sweet Home Alabama in retalitation for Neil Young’s Southern Man and Alabama. Three decades on, Green Day wrote American Idiot after hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s shitkicking post-9/11 songs That’s How I Like It and Red White & Blue (Love It or Leave It). Back and forth it goes.

This kind of songwriting reminds us that America’s message is fluid and it means at any given moment what the people with the strongest storyline want it to mean. The worrying thing for US liberals right now is that the Tea Party may not have logic or history on its side, but it has by far the catchiest narrative.