Judging a man by his bookshelf

By now, almost everyone is aware of the mass shooting in Arizona yesterday. Six people lost their lives: Christina Anne Green (aged 9), Dorwin Stoddard (aged 76, a pastor at a local church), Dorothy Murray (aged 76), Phyllis Scheck (aged 79), Federal District Court Judge John Roll (aged 63) and Gabriel Zimmerman (aged 30, aide to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords). Fourteen other people were wounded, include the Congresswoman, who was shot in the head. The shooter, Jared Loughner, was subdued by two men after a woman tried to grab the gun as he tried to reload.

Naturally, everyone wanted to know just what the deal was with this Loughner guy. Is he a right-wing extremist? A lefty loony? A paranoid schizophrenic? A frenzy of internet searching commenced. The fact that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish, female and a relatively conservative Democrat who supports the right of citizens to own guns was fuel to that fire.

In short order Loughner’s MySpace page, YouTube channel and a bunch of other sites were uncovered. Cue the amateur pundit/pop psych analysis, much of which centred on Loughner’s favourite books.

His favourite book is Mein Kampf! This proves he’s a right-wing nut.

His favourite books are The Communist Manifesto and Animal Farm! This proves he’s a lefty loony.

Of course, the carefully-constructed ‘telltale books’ arguments carefully failed to mention Loughner’s other favourite books – such subversive tomes as The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

What’s appalling about this kind of approach to uncovering the motivation of a guy who committed six cold-blooded murders is that it wasn’t just people in the Twitterverse or on Facebook. It was also major media organisations. Fox, of course, made much of the presence of Karl Marx on Loughner’s bookshelf. CBS zeroed in on Hitler. Here in Australia, Sky forgot to mention Hitler or Orwell. The ABC, at least, mentioned both ends of the political spectrum. On the basis of a single book, media started to build their profile.

To be fair, once other information surfaced, it was incorporated (like the fact that Loughner had tried and failed to join the Army) – but the damage was done. Taking their cues from mainstream media, people chose a side and launched their attacks. Very quickly, Loughner the person was obscured by Loughner-the-construct.

The absurdity of this quasi-analysis should be obvious. I’m fairly sure I could make a persuasive case for the idea that Loughner was delusional, based on his preference for fantasy books that dealt with surreal, utopian worlds. It would be as ridiculous as assuming that a man who reads Mein Kampf is a supporter of totalitarian, racist ideologies.

For that matter, take a look at your own bookshelves. A quick perusal of my non-fiction reveals books from both left- and right-wing authors, FBI sexual homicide crime classification manuals, treatises on cryptography, gnostic theology, English grammar, Hebrew lexica and Schopenhauer. And that’s just a sampler. From this, I’ve no doubt someone could construct a picture of me as – for example – a right-wing Israel apologist or a left-wing conspiracy nut. It all depends on which texts you select – and when you start cherry-picking texts to support your pre-existing theory, you’re operating from a very unsound basis.

It’s only natural that people should want to seek reasons for why terrible things happen. At the very least, we like to feel there’s something we can point to and say, ‘There! That’s what made him do it.’ What happened with Loughner, though, wasn’t about discovering the truth. It was about creating an assassin in the image of a political ideology.

Worse, it was about exploiting the deaths of six people and the attempted assassination of a federal political just to score points off political opposition. And left and right were as bad as each other.

Meanwhile, six families are in shock and only just beginning to mourn. Giffords and some of the other injured are fighting for their lives in hospital. Post-traumatic stress is setting in for the victims and witnesses, even those who were lucky enough to escape injury. Jared Loughner, who looks increasingly as though he’s suffering from schizophrenia, faces the death penalty and may never receive a fair trial, let alone treatment for his illness.

It seems that, yet again, the media isn’t about to let the facts get in the way of a good story. And it is a good story, no matter whether it’s the tale of a left-wing long-hair who struck out at the Democrat who’d disappointed him, or the right-wing bastard child of a hate group and the Tea Party who ‘punished’ a Jewish woman who had the nerve to be a liberal politician.

The horror of a little girl’s death should not be co-opted serve a political agenda. Equally, it should not be obscured by media trying to generate sales by pushing half-assed pop psychology designed to appeal to ideologues.

Her life, and the way she died, are far too important for that.

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7 Responses to Judging a man by his bookshelf

  1. Cristina says:

    Touche. Sound arguments. Keep up thhe amazing effort.

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  3. I agree with parts of this, but I have to point out that even with the death of other bystanders the shooting of a politician is inherently political.

    I agree that trying to assign motive or political agenda to the crime by looking at what books he likes is very dubious. What we can do is re-evaluate political rhetoric and especially be mindful of extremism that incites violence.

    It seems there are some Americans who have been concerned about violent rhetoric in US politics and have been concerned that something like this may happen.


    In Australia it’s less of a problem. You do get some extremists but they are usually clearly identified as such. What we do have a problem with is oversimplification and outright misinformation.

    I’m aware of the biological hindrances that are upon us. I know we instinctively shy away from complexity (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_asks_are_we_in_control_of_our_own_decisions.html)and we have a limited capacity for direct empathy (http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html).

    If any good can come of this we can reflect upon the way we approach political rhetoric and hold our politicians to a higher standard.

  4. Hobbes says:

    Excellent post

  5. NatC says:

    Absolutely spot-on, Marian.
    This whole ‘bookshelf’ story is lame and bullshit when they usually trot it out after such tragic events, but when the story conflicts with itself and the media still persist in pushing their chosen versions, they all look like frickin idiots. But we, the viewing public, aren’t supposed to notice these things, so of course we could never be offended by such sloppy, rubbish journalism.

    So sick of media exploitation – tragedy is not ‘infotainment’.

  6. Bri says:

    Too damn true.

    (Hoping no one is looking at what’s on MY bookshelves…)

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