Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

An Arts Journalist's Useful Perspective

Briefly, cogently, and as near as I can see undeniably, Salon's Laura Miller dissects the meaning of Jared Loughner's booklist. The essence:

The sole ideological thread running through Loughner's list is an inchoate anti-authoritarianism. It's likely that what attracted him to "Mein Kampf" and "The Communist Manifesto" was less the political thinking in either book than their aura of the forbidden, the sensation that he was defying the adults around him by daring to read either one.

I really want to see how often this analysis is cited, or stolen, or arrived at independently, because it had better be. Miller goes on to observe that Loughner is without question mentally ill--she doesn't use the term "paranoid schizophrenia," which I first saw applied by none other than Rand Paul, and though all such diagnoses have their limitations, that seems a useful catchall to me--and that mental illness knows no political ideology. Also true. But as Miller observes, other political debates around this horror can continue. In addition to the obvious gun control questions, I will be curious to learn with whom Loughner has recently consorted, and whether any of his associates encouraged his fantasies of justice and retribution. But I won't be at all surprised to learn that the answer is no one.


By Robert Christgau on January 10, 2011 7:52 AM

Just wanted to note here that the original title of this post was "Why Arts Journalism Matters--or Should." After I'd had my morning tea--coffee comes later--I realized that this was an extremely stupid headline. Arts journalism matters for lots of reasons. So I changed it. But I didn't want any sharp-eyed person to conclude I was trying to cover up my stupidity, hence this note.

By Laura Collins-Hughes on January 10, 2011 11:07 AM

Kudos on your extremely full disclosure. Above and beyond, as is your custom.

By misha berson on January 10, 2011 6:56 PM

That sense of ruggedly terrificed individualism as a tributary to violent paranoia in America seems spot on to me too.

What I hope to see more of is some debate about why toxic political speech, with all its retched macho posturing (and I include Sharron "man up, Harry Reid" Angle and Sarah "Mama Grizzley" Palin in this, is detrimental in ways that are immeasurable, and have nothing to do with directly causing someone to pick up a gun and shoot at innocents. It pollutes the atmosphere, drives people apart, makes political service terrifying, discourages empathy and compassionate and reason. Isn't that enough?

By Robert Christgau on January 10, 2011 7:46 PM

If what psychologists say about schizophrenia is true, which I've never been convinced it is but what do I know, then ideological details have nothing to do with it--it's all neurochemistry. But I agree that the heat and violence of political rhetoric are another political issue that can legitimately be raised here whether the shooter was legally responsible for his actions or not--probably the most important one. Unfortunately, I see no reason to believe that empathy and compassion are political a prioris for every American. Indeed, their primacy for people like us are one reason our most entrenched opponents hold us in contempt.

By misha berson on January 10, 2011 10:37 PM

It used to be part of the contradictory and complex fabric of the American psyche--that we were generous and empathetic people, as well as ruggedly individual. That's always been a tough balance to maintain, but it has been seriously attempted, and encouraged. Even now, you hear that refrain.

As for the schizophrenia part, I have some experience of this in my spouse's family, and his yeoman's work leading support groups for families and spouses of the severely mentally ill. His view is that the more black noise out there, the more legitamizing of paranoia and conspiracy by the "mainstream" political establishment--which, according to every mainstream media outlet these days, the Tea Party folk and crazier congress folk now are--the more toxic to people who are "fragile," those who may not automatically turn to violence.

One aspect of paranoid schizophrena is the difficulty of distinguishing what's going on in your head and what's happening outside your head. When the two coincide, it can be tinder and flame.

By Robert Christgau on January 11, 2011 5:55 AM

Your husband's conclusions make perfect sense to me. I would assume that even neurochemical determinists would agree that environment affects behavior in all human beings, the mentally ill included.

By Keith Harris on January 11, 2011 9:09 AM

What struck me about Loughner's list is how unremarkable that selection of books is. He could have come across the majority of these books (Harper Lee definitely, but also the dystopian lit) in high school English. The Marx and Plato are standard poli-sci college survey texts. And I bet he's more familiar with what Mein Kampf stands for than the text itself.

Rather than a peek into a damaged psyche, this could just be the list of a young man with a high opinion of his intelligence who doesn't read much literature outside of class.

By william osborne on January 11, 2011 3:31 PM

There is an interesting article here about how conservative talk radio sells white rage, and how fierce competition among the hosts has pushed them to continually become more extreme in their rhetoric:

The article, and those it quotes, also suggest that you can determine what motivates journalistic content by following the money back to advertising revenue.

I think militias represent the largest group in America whose ideologies embrace violence. And I think right wing talk radio has been a significant factor in their growth.

Did Regan's repeal of the Fairness Doctrine create the America that we live in today?

By Jeff Hamilton on January 11, 2011 4:11 PM

David Frum I remember well from his appearances on Terry Gross. There he'd appear with Richard Perle in support of the Iraq Regime Change; he was of the roses on the tanks crowd. Does Christgau have to provide you with tax returns to get you off his back viz. journalism's corporate corruption? Read his stuff! You're barking up the wrong tree.

By william osborne on January 11, 2011 6:09 PM

It's true that even left leaning media organizations like NPR and the New York Times supported the Iraq War. Does this suggest that something might be wrong with journalism in America?

And now the press, both left and right, is stressing Loughner's insanity. He is indeed insane and that should be reported, but I think the hidden agenda is to focus on his illness because it helps the media (especially on the right) hide their role in creating an atmosphere of political intolerance and the actions it produces.

I can't say what Christgau's motivations are, but his attack on wikileaks, and now his stressing of Loughner's mental illness seems strangely aligned with the right wing press. His blog statements are then mitigated by his caveats in the comments section, but he himself notes that the comments have a much smaller readership.

It's all very curious to me, though I know my view is in the minority here.

By jason gubbels on January 16, 2011 3:12 PM

I'm afraid I don't see any link to the "right wing" in a suggestion that Loughner's motivations in this massacre were inspired less by a specific political philosophy or a response to violent media rhetoric and more by personal demons. This needn't have anything to do with one's opinions on gun control or eliminationist political rhetoric - or overall media control.

The vast majority of American political assassinations/attempts over the last one hundred years or so have had very little to do with "politics" per se (Leon Czolgosz and Oscar Collazo, yes; Lynette Fromme, Samuel Byck, and John Hinckley, no). Although it would perhaps help repair our fractured political discourse if Loughner's deeds could be undeniably tied to Tea Party chatter, one cannot simply wish it so.

Perhaps Christgau's "motivations" are curious to you because he's actually attempting to theorize without a covert agenda--leftist, conservative, reactionary, progressive, whatever--although I suspect you'll disagree with that conclusion.

By william osborne on January 17, 2011 8:14 AM

It's true that there are a variety of reasons for political murders, ranging from Loughner's insanity to the rightwing politics of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Most of my family lives in Tucson. One of the principle concerns of law enforcement out here is the militia movement which is still quite active, hence the comments by the Tucson sheriff that initiated the debate. Before she was shot, Giffords even spoke about the crosshairs Palin had put on a map of her district, and warned that such actions could have consequences. We do not yet know what images or reports might have affected Loughner's mind.

Political intolerance leads to violence by both the sane and insane. The perpetrators of this intolerance, like Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity are denying their connections to this atmosphere for obvious reasons. It is surprising to me to see Christgua jump on that bandwagon. I would have expected a more differentiated commentary.

And now with Obama's defense of these broadcasters the debate will be quelled which is very unfortunate. We will all just shrug it off as Loughner's insanity and ignore the disturbing trends in our political atmosphere.

By william osborne on January 18, 2011 12:19 PM

When millions of people hear statements like below on a regular basis, isn't it inevitable that some lunatic will eventually "connect the dots":

Ann Coulter: "My only regret with Tim McVeigh is that he did not go to the New York Times building"

Glen Beck: "Hang on, let me just tell you what I'm thinking. I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could."

Eric Erickson ( "at what point do [people] get off the couch, march down to their state legislator's house, pull him outside and beat him to a bloody pulp for being an idiot?"

Michael Savage: "I say round liberals up and hang em' high". "When I hear someone's in the civil rights business, I oil up my AR-25"

Dick Morris: "Those crazies in Montana who say "we're going to kill ATF agents because the UN's going to take over" Well, they're beginning to have a case"

G.Gorden Liddy (broadcasting advice on how to kill law enforcement officers): "head-shots, they are wearing body armor, head shots . . . or shoot for the groin"

By solidstate on January 18, 2011 6:55 PM

Rough translation of this thread and the post that started it: "Damn the facts, we just know that right-wing ideology was behind this incident somehow." The facts include Laughner's college roommate's description of him as a "leftist pothead" and the NYT's revelation that he hated George W. Bush and was a Truther to boot.

Knock yourselves out, folks. But coming after eight years of constant, high-strung vitriol directed at the previous president (of whom I am no fan)--from burnings in effigy to assassination-fantasy movies to endless helpings of "Bushitler", etc., etc.--this deeply felt concern for the tone of political discourse is pretty rich. It's also the kind of small-spirited, public self-pleasuring that keeps those in the political center--the ones who decide elections, remember?--from shifting even a teensy step leftward.

By william osborne on January 18, 2011 8:45 PM

Solidstate, to subtantiate your point we need current quotes similar to the above suggesting deadly violence from widely followed media figures on the left. Can you provide them?

By Tom Carson on January 18, 2011 9:35 PM

@solidstate: about those "assassination-fantasy movies," your first error is the plural. To my knowledge, there was just one. It was called DEATH OF A PRESIDENT, and it was made by Brits--not Americans.

It was one of the vilest movies I've ever seen. I loathed George W. Bush and considered--as I still do--his policies a disaster for America. That didn't make any difference. I wrote one of the angriest pieces I ever have denouncing that movie, and I defy you to name any prominent American lefties who applauded it.

And dear Mr. Osborne, before your next flight into the ether, please do us all the favor of familiarizing yourself with Christgau's c.v. and reading his work. To those of us who know better, your murky speculations are beyond ridiculous.

By william osborne on January 19, 2011 7:25 AM

Tom, regardless of Mr. Christgaus overall record, his comments about wikileaks and Loughner are striking. They are even more interesting placed in the larger context of his writings and views. It's only natural to wonder what's going on.

I am a musician and have some very difficult performances coming up in Arizona (of all places) and so I have to bow out of these conversations since these sorts of discussions can really distract me--as you likely noticed.

Just one last thought. I don't even believe in the American political specturm. The effective difference in electing Democrats or Republicans is so small as to be meaingless. I think people who get passionately caught between Tweedledee and Tweedledum are being made into fools. The causes, in my view, for this lack of variation are systemic. An unmitigated capitalism will always end in a plutocracy that is supported by what is effectively a one-party state.

I prefer to view our political system as a sort of theater and a cultural phenomanon. It is a sort of theater to make people think they have a choice.

In that sense, I don't really have any large objections to Mr. Christgau's views. They are as effectively meaningless as most everything else in our politcal world--including my views. Mr. Christgau strives toward what in our society would be called a centrist and balanced view, which would probably also be essential for someone whose work is centered on populist art forms (even if he creatively explores the margins of the field.) Even if understandably evasive at times, he tries to be a scrupulously fair person.

These aspects of populist art are what made people like John Lennon so interesting. He managed, for a time, to be both populist and somewhat revolutionary in a society that tolerates almost no political variation. Of course some lunatic gunned him down.

Adios. Off to the speculative, murky ethers of unreality. I think it's called America. Now gee, where did I leave that smoking gun mushroom cloud . . .

By Jones on January 19, 2011 7:26 AM

My initial reaction to coverage of the shooting didn't last. For ten whole minutes tributary speeches were paid to Giffords, motives were questioned and yielded a precedent in the divisive rhetoric that might reasonably account for such politically loaded murders as that of, say, George Tiller. And for ten minutes this speculation didn't seem any less reasonable. Then I found out that six people had been killed. Among the dead was the community outreach director for Giffords herself and a federal Judge, whose deaths furthered speculation. But there was also a nine-year-old girl and three retirees. Was there ever a chance for these four? From the outset, it was clear the two political deaths (coupled with the critically injured Giffords) were doomed to overstatement and the four non-political deaths to relative obscurity. Logic follows that any given explanation or speculation to why they died would be overwhelmed with political sentiment, sentiment which, despite having ground to lay claims on (anything's possible), is nevertheless inherited from an unceasing history. So now that everything's up in the air--theories abound over Jared Loughner's political leanings, mental health, behaviour, drug use and now this, his booklist--perhaps the only means of rationalization is to not rationalize. The Columbine-inspired movie "Elephant" intended to neutralize a similar furore that beset proper analysis in speculation and sentiment over the killers' psychological motivations. Gus Van Sant's emphasis on the seemingly insignificant picture of an Elephant, hanging from the wall in one of the killers' homes, was precisely the point--it signified nothing.

By solidstate on January 19, 2011 7:44 AM

Mr. Osborne: The quotes and communications below are from both media figures and politicians (who, after all, contribute to the tone of political discourse as well). This is a tip-of-the-iceberg list, just what I was able to access in a couple of minutes online. It omits, e.g., the racial bullying that has been prominent from the left in the past two years; physical assaults; depictions of death (the "No Pressure" video); and so on. To lengthen the list considerably, Google away.

Articles, Jan. 10, 2011

Ideas Have Consequences 2 Commenters' Lament