If we are to Thrive Together in the wake of the Arizona shootings, it is absolutely essential to combine the focus on mental illness with the focus on creating healthy norms of political discourse and behavior. That means recognizing that there can't be civility without sanity, and we need both right now. To have a truly equitable, just, and thriving democracy, we must create a more perfect, sane and civil Union. We deserve no less and can no longer tolerate any less.
And in honoring 9 year old Christina Green, who died in the shootings, President Obama urged that Christina also deserves no less:
"I want to live up to her expectations, I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it, I want America to be as good as Christina imagined it."
Living up to her imagination, the memory of the others who died in the tragedy, and the President's challenge that we be honest in our debate, includes distinguishing norms of democracy that are sane, normal, and mentally healthy from those that are not. An honest appraisal also includes identifying how the current unhealthy norms have been enabled by the media. These norms could very well play a role in some deranged, weaponized individual possibly taking the life of others like Christina Green, or progressives and moderates who dare challenge right-wing extremism.
Thankfully, some in the media are beginning to examine norms of political violence and their link to mental health.
This includes the NationalJournal.com, Liz Halloran of NPR, and Venice for Change, whose "The 'Becking' of America: How Right-wing Media and Politicians Incite Violence" is a classic must read.
However, as Stephen Colbert poignantly satirized, Sarah Palin and others are defending her vitriolic and violent rhetoric and imagery, which they say are being "unfairly" spotlighted by her critics.
But let's not forget, it was Congresswoman Giffords herself that first called attention to the "consequences" of Palin's placing her and other Democrats in rifle crosshairs. She also made note of the hundreds of hate-spewing Palin inspired protestors laying siege to the front of her office on a daily basis.
And never forget that it's Gabby Giffords who's fighting for her life with a bullet through her brain, NOT "poor little missed picked-on" Sarah Palin. Sadly, in the rush to exonerate Palin, much of the media has forgotten.
In light of the growing debate concerning this tragedy, I will attempt to make the connection between mental and political health as we strive to thrive together. In this regard, I believe it is fair to ask whether the following examples should be considered acceptable norms of sane political discourse and behavior:
Should it be considered an acceptable norm for Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle and their supporters to show no remorse and/or defend their literal "call to arms" and threat to use "2nd Amendment remedies?" This includes placing Democrats in rifle crosshairs and later claiming the crosshairs were just surveyor's tools and that by "arms" they merely meant, "votes."
As Gabby Giffords fights for her life with a bullet through her brain, would sane norms include Palin and/or others having the chutzpah to compare themselves to Jewish Holocaust and pogrom victims? Should spewing anti-semitic "blood libel" lust on their critics exemplify appropriate affect in the wake of the murder of six and wounding of eleven, including Palin's most prominent critic, Gabby Giffords?
Does sane political discourse include three nationally recognized conservative Christian pastors -- Stephen Anderson, Wiley Drake, and Peter Peters -- calling on Christians to literally pray for President Obama's death? Should we accept as normal when "Christian soldiers" are being recruited to follow in the footsteps of Scott Roeder, who murdered an abortion provider, and Timothy McVeigh who killed 183 in Oklahoma City, as I discuss in my Huffington Post article, "Heaven to Earth: Obama is NOT the Antichrist?"
Is it a sign of political mental health for Tea Partiers and/or Republican Congress members to cry out: "Kill ObamaCare, "baby killer," "murderer," at politicians supporting Health Care, threaten them with violence and death, spit on and hurl the N-bomb at Black congresspersons, and subject others to homophobic slurs?
Would healthy norms encourage right-wing leaders and media to deny any responsibility for giving political cover to and/or stirring up the very fear and hate that fuels terrorist groups like the Hutaree Militia, who were caught in the act of planning a "Civil War II" against our Union?
Should it be a lofty norm for the media to make the false equivalence between conservative and liberal constituencies, past or present, when we never saw liberal supporters dress up in Ku Klux Klan regalia and lynch Black people, bomb Black churches, prevent Blacks from voting, show up to anti-Bush rallies with guns, and threaten the Republican Congress with death, etc.?
Do sane media norms include equating "left" and "right" when it wasn't the left that: (a) mobilized conservative gun-rights groups to march on Washington last April, (b) chose the date of this march to "coincidentally" coincide with the 15th anniversary of Timothy McVeigh and his right-wing conspirators' bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, (c) nor carried out McVeigh's right-wing terrorist act, which Rabbi Ben Kamin noted also coincided with Hitler's birthday?
Should it be considered an acceptable norm of sane political behavior when Republicans used their Congressional investigative power NOT to seriously look into the role of right-wing conspiracies, like McVeigh's, which killed 183 people in Oklahoma City, but rather to aggressively investigate the role of liberal, "big government overreach" in allegedly inspiring McVeigh's terrorist act, as Republicans did during Clinton's Presidency?
Does healthy behavior, which lives up to Christina Green's ideals, include Republicans playing victim and crying foul because right-wing ideologies and the climate of violence, threats,and intimidation they "thrive" on have come under scrutiny?
Must we accept as a sane political practice Republican Congressman Darrell Issa's plan to aggressively investigate harmless groups like ACORN and the New Black Panther Party, (both already exonerated of the baseless charges Republicans previously heaped on them), rather than investigate the rise of right-wing extremism, which the Department of Homeland Security identified as the real threat in its April 2009 report?
Is it mandatory that we swallow the implicit narrative of Issa and his ilk, which is summed up brilliantly in the title of the following timely article:
Does healthy media and political behavior include marginalizing experts in hate groups and hate speech, like Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who after studying Loughner's internet missives and videos told The Daily Beast/Newsweek that the inspiration for them was most likely the right-wing extremist, David Wynn Miller?
In the wake of the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Giffords, the murder of six and wounding of eleven, our reflection and debate must include not only the mental health of those like Loughner, but the "sanity" and "normalcy" of enabling a political climate capable of triggering even worse outrages.
We can no longer bury our heads and blind ourselves to the dark side of the use of veiled threats of violence and actual attacks on those who support liberal causes, dangle the force of arms over all of our heads, and then play the victim card and blame critics when caught.
In my view, the right-wing behaviors I've described in this article should no longer be considered normal, sane, or healthy norms of a democracy worthy of Christina Green's imagination nor of the memory of the others who died or were wounded. These unhealthy norms have gone untreated for far too long. They've also been enabled by the media with its "both sides are equally valid," and "false equivalences" equating "right" and "left," as Rachel Maddow noted.
This also includes the media's pervasive abuse of the positive word, "tough," to characterize truly abusive right-wing political discourse, such as calling liberals "traitors," not part of the "real America," "communists," "nazis," "evil," "baby killers," "Marxists," etc. These media norms have empowered and normalized right-wing discourse and behavior.
The vice of Vitriol, violence, veiled threats, intimidation tactics, lack of remorse/regret/apology, inappropriate affect, deceitfully playing the victim while blaming its critics, etc. may serve the right-wing's political agenda, as Pima County Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik suggested. But such behaviors are well known indicators NOT of sanity and normalcy, but of sociopathy, narcissism, and paranoia - all forms of mental ill-health. As such, it is therefore appropriate that we also question the contribution to the health of a real democracy of ANY agenda that would disproportionately benefit from such political and mentally unhealthy discourse and behavior, right or left.
It's time we stop treating such behavior and rhetoric as normal and sane even if they constitute the current norms dominating our media, politics, and culture Rather, it's time we honestly frame the abusive political rhetoric and behavior of the likes of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Sharon Angle, et al as politically predatory, narcissistic, paranoid, and sociopathic. Unlike people who are clinically diagnosed and have not chosen their condition, the right-wing has CHOSEN to engage such behaviors and rhetoric as ways to promote their agenda. Perhaps a helpful way to understand how to deal with such people is to view them, analogously, as partners in an abusive relationship.
In this regard, the book, Venus: The Dark Side, and its downloadable chapter, "The Psychology of Malice," are particularly insightful and instructive. As has been pointed out by observers, Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, Bachmann and right-wing bloggers and trolls etc. often deliberately say things to cause mental and emotional distress in liberals and progressives. Why? Not only to supply "red meat" and rile up their constituencies, but to demoralize their "enemies" (i.e., those NOT considered part of what they call the "Real America) and cause them to withdraw from engaging in debate and/or the political process. This helps the right-wing dominate discourse, debate, and the political and cultural landscape. How? By making the cost to one's personal, psychological, and emotional health so high that most moderates, liberals, progressives, and/or just plain reasonable people give up and cede the debate as a health protecting coping mechanism.
Understanding the psychology of such malice by abusive "political partners" may help us better cope with the pain, defend against it, and understand why those who engage in such dark sided behaviors are not amenable to reason. Then we can honestly and with integrity create the kind of strategies that help Americans thrive together in the midst of such malice, threats, and vitriol -- even as we struggle to create a real, equitable, and truly representative democracy, free of such tyranny and the corporate greed that bankrolls it. This includes what the New Yorker described as the Koch brother billionaires' "War Against Obama."
In closing, our country is teetering on the edge of a political mental health crisis and break-down that could throw us into violent chaos. We must use this time of reflection and honest debate to imagine and establish new, mentally healthy norms to govern our political discourse and behaviors. If we are to address the numerous problems confronting our country this must be done.
As psychologists have noted, had Jared Lee Loughner's repeated demonstrations of inappropriate affect and other warning signs been accurately and honestly diagnosed and timely interventions made, there would likely not now be six dead, eleven wounded, and Christina Green might well be leading the discussions on democratic norms in her student council meetings.
In the wake of her death, and as Gabby Giffords fights for her life, the arguably inappropriate affect that we have seen demonstrated by many on the right should not be exempt from scrutiny. And the growing right-wing vitriol, veiled threats, violence, and intimidation tactics that have arisen, especially in the wake of President Obama's election, should be viewed as clear warning signs of trouble that can no longer be ignored.
As such, our debate must be honest and absent the knee-jerk reaction to make false equivalences between "right" and "left" in the rush to appear "fair and balanced" and bi-partisan. We cannot afford to treat such dark sided behaviors as "inconvenient truths," like the clear warning signs of Lougner's deteriorating health were treated. For clearly, the political mental health of our country, its citizens, and the promise of democracy are at stake.
Only then will we appropriately honor the memory and imagination of little Christina and strive to Thrive Together, which can only happen in a truly equitable democracy and sane and civil Union.