The late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously preached that culture is more important than politics. He was talking about the success of a society, but I can't help but think that the aphorism is especially apropos now.
We are a culture that fetishizes violence. Look anywhere, and you'll see it. It's in our language, our sports, our entertainment, and yes, our political rhetoric.
And it's probably true that -- as many have recently speculated -- violence-laced rhetoric or images might be enough to inspire someone who is already
mentally unstable to act out.
The underlying violent culture is, I think, much more important than our political rhetoric. (Yes, some would argue that politics is just a reflection of the culture, but Moynihan saw a separation, and I agree.)
Yet it is ironic that the same people who typically mock the notion that violent movies, music or video games could influence behavior seem to think a former governor of Alaska's PAC could do so.
So far, of course, there is zero
evidence to suggest that Jared Loughner -- the man charged with shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others -- ever saw Palin's now-notorious map, or was, in any way
, influenced by her. (That didn't stop some, seeking to score cheap political points, from immediately blaming her
.) Moreover, there is (as of now) no evidence that anybody's
political rhetoric triggered this horrific attack.
Still, the finger-pointing has fueled a hot topic: examining how heated political rhetoric might have caused this tragedy.
While such rhetoric may be a problem, the alternative is arguably worse. What is the opposite of heated political rhetoric? Political apathy -- or, on the extreme end of the spectrum, censoring political speech.
Political speech is, and ought to remain, the most protected speech (that's part of the reason I would say this shooting was an attack on democracy itself).
And speaking of censorship, while our nation debates whether to blame Sarah Palin for something she had no connection to or responsibility for -- there once was a time when it was clear that pop culture actually did
lead to an assassination attempt on a U.S. president.
, of course, was inspired by Travis Bickle -- the title character in the 1976 movie "Taxi Driver" who tried to kill the president. Hoping to impress Jodie Foster (who was featured in the movie), the deranged Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan in 1981. But I don't recall political pundits blaming Robert De Niro (who played Bickle) or Martin Scorsese (the director) or Foster. (I'm sure some cultural conservatives did blame them, but the media did not.)
(While I oppose censorship, responsible adults -- movie and music producers, and yes, politicians -- should police themselves and, for the good of America, tone down the violence. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Do you want your life's work to be a force for good or evil in the world?)
In the end, though, I believe in personal responsibility. Blaming the political milieu -- or "Hollywood" (or whatever
) -- does not absolve the one man who was allegedly responsible for the heinous act in Tucson. But when we're searching for a reason to explain such madness, I would argue that culture, is, in fact, more important than politics.