“It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” -- Sarah Palin, video message, Jaunary 12th, 2011
“So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy.” -- Pres. Obama, Tucson, Arizona Memorial Speech, January 12, 2011
“Men do not become what by nature they are meant to be, but what society makes them.” -- William Hazlitt, 1816
If we are pragmatists, we ask whether Sarah Palin’s assertion is useful given the present context. And indeed it is. Nothing suits a deep wealth divide in which a miniscule few have enormous wealth and a great multitude have dwindling or vanished resources than a “hold yourself personally accountable” view. Call it the “Frank Sinatra I Did It My Way” view.
An individual, say, like John Paulson, a hedge-fund manager, who earned $2.3 billion in 2009 by betting against sub-prime mortgages, would surely find “the precept that each individual is accountable for his actions” a practical precept to support. The average John Doe who made somewhat less in 2009 might also consider the precept a practical one to adopt because next year he may be the one earning $2.3 billion and he wants to be held totally personally accountable at that time. You can’t write an online essay that will counter that optimism because it’s something of a Twilight Zone deal, comparable to America’s love affair with the automobile, guns and football.
Palin’s assertion of personal responsibility and the “free to choose” that it is logically tied to are both foundational tenets of our religious faith or our sense of patriotism – that is, if we’re not free and responsible then how can there be a Heaven or a Hell? Or, how can we be exceptional if it’s not our free choice that has made us so? Any view that siphons off an iota of responsibility onto Nature, Fate, Chance, Society, History, War, Poverty, or the Stars comes out of the “politics of the impossible.” Such politics is fighting The Lord and the Founding Fathers who seem clearly in the minds of many to have established individual freedom and personal accountability.
If politics is the art of the possible, there’s no politics on this issue. Then again political power and crazed fantasies have historically mostly defined “regimes of the possible” and thankfully the countering forces of the impossible, say, from Christianity to anti-apartheid, managed to break through. And maybe now, after one crazed individual, Jared Loughner, kills six people and wounds 13 others in Tucson, we need not to take our focus from the surround, from the stage upon which this happened and give all our attention to the individual psyche of the shooter. But to put American culture – the bifurcated political and economic order after 2008 – under examination when we are disposed to accepting the precept that Palin cites – that Loughner and Loughner alone should bear responsibility – seems futile, but nonetheless, needed.
President Obama has responded to this incident by urging an immediate need to defuse heated attacks and accusations. This president would rather see the heat of any issue die down. Think of Lincoln’s essentially pragmatic approach to slavery, a “violation of human rights” issue that perhaps President Hu Jintao had in mind when President Obama brought up the issue of Chinese violation of those rights. Lincoln’s pragmatic goal was the preservation of the Union. Everything else had to be quieted. It is not clear what in President Obama’s mind is comparable to Lincoln’s goal. What is clear is that there is no partisan dispute regarding any of our choice and responsibility illusions, illusions that are accepted as the light of truth. We need to deal with those issues and Tucson is a good place to start.
Treating Jared Loughner as an autonomous but crazed free agent and asking him to assume total responsibility for his thoughts and actions releases a deeply flawed society and culture from all responsibility. Those who have triumphed, as the conservatives have, in the competitive arena of illusion, spectacle and enchantment, in detouring a population that conservatism has brought to its knees from riot and rebellion want to be exempted from any scrutiny of the Tucson killing rampage. They want to leave the stage they have set upon which Loughner, along with the rest of us, think and act, and leave him and us to make a personal review of conscience.
A society which leaves its young men and women stranded in a wasteland made by the rapacious greed and looting that led to the Great Recession of 2008 and which had already brought middle class well-being to a state of indenture to banks and credit card companies nurtures bewilderment, uncertainty, fear, frustration, and anger. The young are not experienced in this sort of warfare, and like real combat, they suffer and sometimes die before they are tempered.
Liberals have chosen not to take on the various illusions of American individualism and personal freedom and personal responsibility because there’s only what we call the “extreme Left” on that side. Everyone else, from Conservative, Libertarian, Independent, Soccer Mom, Millennial, Militia, Tea Partiers, the Positive Illusionists, and Oprah Winfrey don’t want the power of personal choice and accountability to be messed with. Precisely because these illusions are so widely held and precisely because they keep us from any recuperation, any hope of improving the societal surround of our young, they must be faced directly. Obama’s style of sidling by a direct clash will not work here. We cannot buy into the alchemy of attitude overpowering reality, of choices severed from the world within which they are made.
Our persons are influenced in various ways and to various degrees by the world we are in. We are “free to choose” within the constraints of time and place, of genetic inheritance, of power, of unconscious desire, and the play of chance. If you winnow through all those, you will find an ever-changing amalgam of the autonomous self and the manufactured self. The more powerful the empire of illusions within which we live, from those inspired by “market values” to the intended “harmonies” of our new “social networking,” the more powerfully are our choices manufactured, our minds “leased.” Maybe Milton Friedman neglected to mention such qualifiers because we would be led to examine closely the “self-correcting” presumptions of totally unregulated free markets and the power of globalized technocapitalism in shaping our “free choices.” There is a monumental defensive Great Wall built to keep out any consideration of constraints upon our “free to choose.”
We live in a world of unbelievably powerful influences that does not hesitate to demand that we each hold ourselves personally accountable for actions already inhibited by “prior constraint” or indulged by resident ruling priorities. In other words, there’s a worldly “disposition” within which we make our “free choices.” In the matter of planetary degradation we can see “power” and its shaping force in play. We humans have the power here by our choices to decide the fate of every living creature on the planet. Within our own humankind it is not difficult to see the same sort of power at work, say, in post-industrialized societies “opening markets” and exploiting labor in undeveloped regions of the world. Power constrains choice indirectly by offering a hyperreal that over-stimulates, distracts and suppresses. Power will ultimately resort to a direct suppression of choice by imprisoning the chooser within an inescapable world. The rapid flight of millions to cyberspace may represent an attempt at escape. Consider the “personal freedom” enjoyed by Iraqis under Saddam and then subsequent to Bush’s “pre-emptive” war. Consider the “personal freedom” of Afghans as the result of choices made by the U.S.. We do not blush in demanding that both countries at some point “assume personal responsibility” for choices that our use of power have made.
In regard to the play of Chance and its effect on “personal free choice” and “assuming personal responsibility” I need only point out that the wealthy and super-wealthy never recognize chance as anything but a challenge to be seized and turned to profit. The wealthy hold that those without wealth are crushed by such challenges. Chance in the Winner’s view is not a force that may limit or extend one’s fortune but an opportunity to establish your superiority. Winners never see themselves as victims of chance nor do they owe their winnings to chance. The Losers are also not allowed to claim victimization by chance or by anything for that matter. There is no possibility that those in need of welfare are laid low by unfortunate accidents or a mounting series of such accidents. They chose to become victimized by their own failures. They failed to make lemonade out of a lemon.
We can assume that the poor and struggling and all those of the middle class whose circumstances have diminished in the last quarter of a century have chosen their Fate and should assume personal responsibility. The actor is always at fault, not the stage upon which he acts. Lunacy is always personal, like sin. Does no one go nuts because he or she is overwhelmed by the gross inequities foisted upon them by a “free choosing” Wall Street who will not be asked to “assume personal responsibility”? Is there no mind ever too weak, no intelligence God-given too scant to maintain a “functional ego”? And can we also assume that the rising number of suicides among our soldiers is no more than a number of unique mental instabilities detached from the combat surround? Do we ask that each soldier who takes his own life assume total responsibility for that act, for the “dark sun” that shadowed his soul? And when “time and chance” happens in such a crushing way that no light enters, that only a lunatic’s reasoning remains, do we only think of involuntary commitment and precepts of assuming personal responsibility? We should expect that if the stage remains set in the same way, the same actors and actions will reappear.
What we should assume is that Jared Loughner will not be the first monster and casualty that such a society will produce as long as we remain under our enchantments of unconstrained autonomy.
Photo: Sarah Palin's Twitter site celebrates website with rifle crosshairs that many have linked to the Tucson shootings. (Posted to Flickr by Monado)