Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old accused of shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, apparently drew political ideas from the radical right and radical left, listing (fascist) Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and (communist) Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” among his favorite books. He was also attracted to conspiracy theories, thought we should be on a gold standard (because the government was trying to control us through currency), and at times just believed life was meaningless and nothing could be done.
Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, however, holding muddled political views does not in and of itself necessarily make Loughner mentally ill, unstable, crazy, or even particularly unusual. It makes him American and peculiarly so. In the college classroom, at political events and in grassroots organizing meetings, it does not take long to find many young (and not so young) people who hold what many of us consider to be an oddly contradictory collection of political views. After more than a decade of teaching, I can say that very few of today’s college students have any sense of what “the left” or “the right” are or have traditionally stood for, what “liberal” and “conservative” have historically meant or where on the political spectrum we might place fascism and communism. When asked, most students – most Americans – “know” that Hitler and Marx are “bad,” but very few can articulate what they stood for politically and many often assume that Nazi and Communist are synonymous.
Like Loughner, a significant portion of young people are, for very good reasons, profoundly anti-establishment, distrustful of anything they hear from the government or mainstream media. But this does not make them crazy anymore than it automatically leads them toward a coherent critique of the political system. Rather, in a world where fragments of information come from so many sources, it often leads them to the odd place where any explanation of the world is as good as any other, where there is no conceptual rudder for judging one theory or idea against another. Hence, they draw from wildly opposing political ideologies and are attracted to conspiracy theories. And it often leaves them in a frustrated place where public figures cannot be trusted, and to the conclusion that nothing can be done to change the world (except perhaps something chaotic and dramatic). Hence, the tendency toward apathy and (after a philosophy class or two) nihilism.
How the hell could we expect otherwise? It is bit ridiculous to ask why so few Americans are politically literate, much less hold politically coherent ideas, after we have gutted public education, turned schools into learning prisons and told young people over and over again they are consumers and not citizens. Political literacy, we learn, is no longer even a requirement for seeking political office, but is in fact seen as a drawback. And an important source of such political guidance, the left, has all but disappeared from mainstream life.
Within this context, it is amazing that any person in their twenties is able to develop anything resembling a coherent political framework for understanding the world, let alone acquire the tools to decipher between news and entertainment, to critically evaluate the fragments of information flying at them 24 hours a day from their TVs, computers and smart phones. Most do not have these tools by the time they arrive to college, and I long ago stopped expecting them to. But neither do I hold it against them, or dismiss their views simply because they are (from my perspective) muddled, incoherent and frequently go in completely opposite directions. I take them seriously both because it is my job as an educator and because I know a better future depends on equipping them with the ability to piece together a critical framework for understanding the world.
It is a bit ironic that at the same time as many commentators are urging us to listen more closely to our opponents’ ideas and resist the urge to demonize them, that we are dismissing Loughner’s political views without even so much as a real discussion. What he did is horrible, but the commentary has gone too quickly from “Loughner’s actions were politically motivated” to “it had nothing to do with politics.” We are now told that because his political views do not fall seamlessly into a neat box labeled “left” or “right” that they were irrelevant for understanding events in Arizona and, by connection, for understanding the current political situation in the United States. We should take Loughner’s political views seriously. His mental state may have led him down a particularly destructive path, but his political confusion is by no means unique.