Much has already been said about Sarah Palin's crosshairs, about how Palin's violent rhetoric ("Don't retreat, reload," she told her supporters last year) seems to encourage violence such as the outburst in Tucson last weekend. Among some liberals, a popular interpretation is to see Palin as a cause, even if indirect, of the Tucson shooting.
The "blame-Palin" view, however, is speculative at best, and it also fails to recognize a more accurate reality with regard to Palin's role. That is, Palin's rhetoric and crosshairs were not so much a cause of the shooting, but a symptom of the real cause.
Beyond the shooter's possible mental illness, the real cause of the Tucson violence would seem to be the fear, ignorance, and anger that have become commonplace in the American public dialogue. Palin cannot accurately be described as the cause of these phenomena, but certainly her popularity and celebrity are to some degree a result of them.
Surely, it is most unlikely that a public figure such as Palin - not particularly well educated, not well traveled, having connections to extremely conservative religious groups with apocalyptic messages, reading notes scribbled on her hand during an interview, uninformed about international issues, pandering to ultra-patriotism and anti-government groups, etc. - would be taken seriously as a candidate for high office in most developed countries. Yet in America she has already been a vice presidential candidate and is mentioned as a serious contender for the highest office in the land.
How can this be? We can try to answer that question, but before doing so we should realize at the outset that Palin's celebrity is a symptom, not a cause, of the underlying problem.
Palin, the anti-intellectual, moose-hunting, God-fearing, liberal-targeting hockey mom, can be seen as viable in a culture that exalts image over substance, in an environment where few voters actually read, where information comes from ultra-right talk radio and cable television (and 15-second political ads during campaign season). In an economic atmosphere of insecurity, with growing divisions between rich and poor, a celebrity figure such as Palin can go far via conservative populism, portraying government as the problem, fanning "us-against-them" thinking both domestically and internationally. Don't blame Palin for riding the wave, but instead blame the larger culture that makes her viable.
If Palin's message resonates, it's because anxiety is high and the public is fearful, feeling that the system is out of control. The public in many ways is indeed helpless - poorly informed and unable to take back the country from the corporate interests that actually control it.
If we want a more rational public discourse, the real solution is not to scold Sarah Palin for her poor judgment in using crosshairs. The challenge is much bigger than that. We need to address the fear, anxiety, and anger that are so prevalent, now so deeply rooted in the culture. This can only be done through a citizenry that is better educated, better informed, and more empowered.
In a society that expects instant gratification, that exalts material wealth and ridicules intellectualism, that is susceptible to patriotic rhetoric and appeals to God and American exceptionalism, that is disinclined to complexity and fact-based analysis, this might be asking too much.