Mark Potok’s Loony Logical Leap

by Roger Koppl

The tragic shooting in Arizona has sparked a fight about whether today’s right-wing political rhetoric is somehow responsible for egging on Jared Loughner.  The evidence so far is against the claim.

Mother Jones, hardly a right-wing rag, interviewed a friend of Loughner.  It seems that Loughner had a grudge against Giffords after she failed to give him a satisfactory answer to a question he put to her at an earlier event.  Loughner told his friend that he had asked Giffords,  “What is government if words have no meaning?” Loughner’s unfortunate concerns with grammar may or may not be connected to the ideas of Wynn Miller who is generally considered to be on the right.  But it seems a stretch to say that such an influence shows that right-wing rhetoric incited Loughner to violence.

In any event, we should avoid loony logical leaps.  And how else am I to describe the reasoning of Mark Potok?  On the NPR program “To the Point,” Potok noted that Loughner’s reading list included Ayn Rand’s We the Living, The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, Animal Farm, and 1984.

From this list Potok draws the inference that Loughner was under the influence of “anti-government” thinking.  Really.  I’m not kidding.  He says, “I think that the consistent theme through those books is anti-government or, you know . . viewing . . . it’s sort of the individual against the totalitarian state, the tyrannical government.”  The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels calls for a great expansion of state power, and it was a leading text for the totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia and Maoist China.   Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler expresses the political ideology of the world’s most notorious totalitarian system, Nazi Gemany.  I cannot understand how such works can become “anti-government” books in the mysterious mind of Mark Potok.  If you click on the site, listen from 18:35 to 19:30.

Potok’s loony remarks were no mere slip.  In an essay for The Huffington Post, Potok says, “I would argue that that’s the way Loughner seems to be reading The Communist Manifesto and Hitler’s Mein Kampf — as variants of a kind of generalized ‘smash the state’ attitude.”  This interpretation of Loughner supports Potok’s conclusion that Loughner “likely absorbed some of his anger from the vitriolic political atmosphere in the United States in general and Arizona in particular.”  

How is it possible that Potok could make such a loony logical leap and what does it say about American politics today?

38 thoughts on “Mark Potok’s Loony Logical Leap

  1. That is a loony claim on Potok’s part, but I think many conservatives and libertarians are substantially misinterpreting what most (not all – there are people like Potok to be sure) are saying.

    There is quite reasonable speculation – maybe true maybe not – that the saturation of the discussion with allusions to violence from the Tea Party and Tea Party sympathizers is emboldening to certain people. It creates a climate where political violence is deemed acceptable.

    Even if this turns out not to be a factor at all in Loughner’s case – if it’s exclusively the voices in his head with absolutely no enablement at all from his environment, it’s STILL a good opportunity to reflect on why we tolerate some of the things that get said.

    I can’t think of many commentators that have actually blamed the Tea Party – the vast majority of what I see criticizes the sort of climate the Tea Party creates, but reserves blame for Loughner and the state of his mental health.

    It’s disconcerting for me to see all this self-pitying by Tea Partiers and their sympathizers as if they’re the victims here simply because they’re too hyper-sensitive to realize that NOBODY IS BLAMING THEM, we’re just fed up with the kind of atmosphere that’s surrounding all this. In the aftermath of a tragedy like this, it’s absurd that its the Tea Partiers that we have to reassure and comfort now.

  2. Is it such a mystery? Aren’t all of these texts critical of a government of some sort? So if, in the reader’s mind, the American government warrants the criticism, then they can be read as anti-this-government, if not anti-government.

    Nevertheless, it seems silly to characterize a person as anti-government for reading the classics.

  3. Daniel,

    Potok is an important expert who has been quoted and cited quite a bit on this issue. ABC, NPR, The Jewish Week, the Sydney Morning Herald, and so on. This from Newsweek: “Loughner’s rambling Internet missives, says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, likely come from well known online sources of the radical right.” (
    CBS says,
    “As Mark Potok of the Souther Poverty Law Center notes, the central theme running through the books – Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Ayn Rand’s We The Living – is “the individual versus the totalitarian state.”

    And so on.

    So the claim we agree to be loony has some currency out there. *That* worries me!

    To me it seems too subtle to say that we don’t blame the Tea Party but we criticize “the sort of climate the Tea Party creates.” The Tea Party supposedly creates a “climate” that somehow incites Loughner to murder. We blame the Tea Party for creating the incendiary climate, but nobody blames them for Loughner’s crime. It sounds a lot like blame to me, albeit not exclusive blame. Anyway, the whole business can’t get off the ground unless Loughner is somehow “anti-government.” For the life of me I can’t understand Hitler and Marx are anti-government.

  4. The process of blaming Sarah Palin for this guy’s psychosis has been pretty ridiculous. And the American public thinks so, too. George Will’s comments, reprinted in today’s WSJ, are right on.

    The argument for democracy is that it’s better for people to fight with words rather than bullets. Today’s political rhetoric is much milder than in the 19th century.

  5. At Roger Koppl:

    I do not think Potok means anti-a-government but anti-the-government. The doctrine in the books clearly promotes a different kind of state. Maybe the guy is-was interested in alternative political systems and hates the state as it is. That is possible.

    Also, I do think the tea party rhetoric was pretty harsh and there have been some bad remarks and implicit threats on democrats which were beyond what I find reasonable in the political game.

    However, even if this guy is a follower of the tea party movement, this crime cannot be projected on the group. Members from whatever group pursue crimes everyday.

    Of course crimes are related to individual believes and circumstances in which the person acts. And there is always some trigger. But if someone likes is sympathetic to a movement, this does not mean the movement is sympathetic to the guy’s belief system. Neither is this a criterion to say that the action of this person can be projected on the rest of the group.

    Otherwise, both political parties would be responsible for hundreds of crimes everyday.

  6. The opinion section of tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal has an article by a psychiatrist debunking the idea that political climate has anything to do with psychotic acts.

    To be psychotic means the individual does not act within a recognizable means-ends framework. There is no meaning to find.

    Tomorrow’s Journal also reports on real(not implicit) threats from the left against right-wing politicians (notably the new Governor of Florida). The only violence involving Tea Party members (a pretty diverse group) of which I’m aware has been as victims.

  7. We’ve even been treated to this rubbish over here…

    Personally I think we should make pot legal and make it compulsory for political commentators to smoke it. That way they wouldn’t get all het up about things like this. It has the added bonus that after a few years after they’ve discovered astrology and holistic cooking no-one would listen to them.

  8. “What is government if words have no meaning?”

    What was Loughner smoking that day? How could poor Giffords give a satisfactory answer to THAT? Maybe she responded with the sort of scorn I am often tempted to when confronted with such stupidity.

    Maybe she said, “If words have no meaning, your question doesn’t, either, so I can’t answer it, at least not without more meaningless words. Next question.”

    Then (a few days later), bang! It’s tougher being a Congressman than I had thought it was.

  9. Ned Baker and Andreas Hoffmann suggest that Potok might have meant “anti-this-government” or “anti-the-government” rather than “anti-government.” I don’t really see how such interpretations square with Potok’s words, which imputed a “generalized ‘smash the state’ attitude” to Loughner.

  10. Well, I tried to make sense out of the wording.

    Potok is not stupid and knows that Marx and Hitler were no minimal state people or anarchists.

    To me it seems he was not clear in his wording and an “anti-this-government” attitude would be somewhat in line with the rest of his argument.

    But, however one interpretes it, I agree with you that there is no reason to make a party responsible for a guy’s psycho attitudes and actions.

  11. Roger –
    I still haven’t figured out the right way to express it because you still interpret it as “the Tea Party supposedly creates a “climate” that somehow incites Loughner to murder”, which is definitely not what I’ve said. I’m not sure how it keeps getting read like that, but it is and I’m trying to figure out a better way to verbalize it so it doesn’t get read like that. I’m not sure why there’s this defensiveness.

    Andreas makes a very important point. What we see is an opposition to the American constitutional order and a wish to replace it with another framework. A diverse set of people are opposed to the current American constitutional order but they gain solace from each other in wanting to end it. The point is not that the Tea Party is the same as Mein Kampf – the point is that anybody hell-bent on opposition to the American constitutional republic is going to draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources – we should expect that and not be surprised by that, right?

  12. I agree with Daniel Kuehn. I think this is why he listed these books.

    He also names conspiracy theorists before that are anti-government in a different sense than maybe the tea partiers. Also he mentions that this guy favors gold or silver over fiat money. Somehow all people that do not trust government have a problem with fiat money (of course there are good reasons).

    But Roger Koppl is right that he somehow throws in Marx and Hitler at a weird – probably inconsistent – moment in the talk. But it is a talk and it is possible that he thought of Rand when he continued speaking.

  13. I think you are being too kind to Potok, Andreas. Look again at the quote from Huffington. That was a written comment in an essay he penned.

    Daniel, it’s true, we don’t seem to be on the same page. Now it sounds as if you think the Tea Party rejects the US Constitution. Sorry if I’m being obtuse. Oh, as for defensive, I think my past posts show that I’m not a Tea Partier.

  14. I would love to know how many people have read all these books and, you know, not shot anyone. Seems like that’s the relevant statistic here. After all, how many people read “Catcher in the Rye” and didn’t shoot people?

  15. Furthermore, if certain people were to look at my reading list, they would probably say I’m against the state. That’s true.

    If, however, those people further said that I would engage in violence against the state’s representatives they would be sorely mistaken.

    There is violent rhetoric from all sides, all around us. Most of us don’t act on it, because we’re not nuts. That’s a technical term.

  16. I’m not sure what “constitutional order” means in Daniel Kuehn’s post, but I too find it strange to gather Tea Partiers under a rubric that has them all rejecting the constitution per se. DK, do you mean by “constitutional order” something akin to the ways the constitution is interpreted in practice, both “liberal” and “conservative”? If so, ten I understand what you’re saying.

    Regarding the Potok stuff, I can understand his grouping Marx and Hitler in with the others if the idea is to point to some general “anti-authority” stance, rather than anti-government in any sort of political way. Do you think that’s what he’s trying to do?

  17. It seems we are being asked to accept (by large swathes of the media both domestic and foreign) that right wing rhetoric is a precursor to violence and murder, while ‘colourful’ rhetoric from the left represents nothing more than spirited political discourse.

    During the last administration Bush and Cheney were regularly vilified and frequently demonized across the media spectrum. This included the distribution of posters depicting Bush with a gun to his head, “Kill Bush” t-shits, the production and distribution – to positive reviews – of a ‘docu-drama’ depicting the assassination of Bush. Since 2008 Palin has been on the receiving end of death threats – graphics and posters are sold depicting her with a noose around her neck, for instance; Sandra Bernhard expressed her hope that Palin would be “gang-raped by Black men.” Democratic supporters calling for extreme violence against right wing figures has become quite common – yet is rarely condemned by the same figures currently tub thumping about Loughner’s motives.

    Rhetoric is now the focus of attention for narrow political reasons: the Democrats largely lost the debate preceding the 2010 elections and rather than argue their case again in 2012 many see this as an opportunity to silence their critics by casting them as accessories to homicide –it’s a bid to silence criticism by casting rhetoric from the right in terms of hate, not debate.

  18. Roger, re: “Daniel, it’s true, we don’t seem to be on the same page. Now it sounds as if you think the Tea Party rejects the US Constitution.”

    Well, they certainly accept their version of the Constitution. What we can agree (I think) is that they oppose the current American constitutional order, which is why I phrased it that way. They oppose the Constitution as implemented, not as they would implement it.

    Tea Partiers have told me I don’t support the Constitution, and I’m not the only person they inform of this fact. That, of course, is both absurd and insulting. Rather than trade those accusations I think it’s better to say that I support the Constitution, they support the Constitution, I think they are very wrong on some points, I (generally – not on every little detail) support the current American constitutional order, and they oppose it.

  19. David Scofield –
    Compare and contrast, though, the liberal media’s response to the Bush assasination movie and the conservative media’s response to the various Palin/Bachmann/Angle statements.

    Most of these accounts that cite “violent rhetoric” admit that it’s on all sides. We can always come up with examples. The question is: (1.) what is the prevalence?, (2.) what is the reaction?, (3.) what is the level at which the rhetoric emerges?

    On (1.), Nate Silver has a good summary at the New York Times website. On (2.) I can’t off the top of my head think of anyone that has invited the documentarian or Sandra Bernhard on their shows to promote their views and I also can’t think of any major media outlet that has embraced them. On (3.) All your examples come from pissed off individuals that can’t really be conceived of as the “base” of liberalism. None of them come from any party leaders (until, of course, you bring up Obama’s knife/gun point – the vagueness of which still contrasts sharply with the either targeted or literal nature of a lot of the conservative speech that’s been cited).

    If anyone says “conservatives do this and liberals don’t”, I would support you in criticizing them. If anyone says “this rhetoric is to blame for the shooting”, I would support you in criticizing them. But beyond that, I think you vastly overstate your case. There is a real distinction and there is a real problem, and we can admit to that without saying “all conservatives and libertarians are violent” and also without saying “the rhetoric pulled the trigger”.

  20. I’m still pretty stumped by Daniel’s remarks. Tea Partiers “oppose the current American constitutional order,” because they “oppose the Constitution as implemented, not as they would implement it.” So if I argue for an interpretation of, say, the 2nd amendment that differs from currently settled law, I oppose the “constitutional order”? As an opponent of the constitutional order am I “hell-bent on opposition to the American constitutional republic” and the sort of person who “is going to draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources”? My sincere apologies, Daniel, if I’m just not getting the obvious point. But I can tell you that I’ve reread your comments and remain perplexed.

    Anyway we can agree, it seems, that Potok’s statements don’t hold up. And we can agree that one cannot blame the Tea Party (whatever that is!) for Loughner’s apparent crimes. And we can agree that neither of those points implies any allegiance to “the” Tea Party.

    I don’t think I have said anything to deny that we can criticize both the “right” and the “left” in the US for shrill rhetoric. That point seems to be widely recognized. I guess part of what set me off with Potok was that fact that his criticism of partisan rhetoric was both partisan and absurd. I prefer truth to party. I can’t help doubting whether the same is true of Mark Potok.

  21. Let me translate what Daniel said: “Anyone who disagrees with me opposes the Constitutional order.” He thinks that what we have now is just hunky-dory, so anyone who thinks there should be change in the way the government does things is wrong about the Constitution and opposes the order created by our government from their interpretation of what it says.

    Some of us think that about 90% of what our federal government does is illegal according to the Constitution. I would call myself a supporter of the Constitution in opposition to the government that has grown up in place despite what the Constitution says.

    I would go farther and say that there are parts of the Constitution which need to be changed, but one thing at a time. Let’s at least get things to the place where the federal government is acting legally according to the rather clear language used in the Constitution.

  22. Somehow, Troy, I don’t think DK is going to agree with your interpretation of his claim.

    I would like a clear definition of “Constitutional order” since that seems to be a concept someone just made up.

  23. I’m willing to wager a buck that Loughner never actually read the books cited, e.g., The Communist Manifesto, etc.

  24. Roger –
    Well interpret it how you will. I could just say “the Tea Party doesn’t like the Constitution”, but that would cause all sorts of confusion. I could say “the Tea Party supports the Constitution” but that would obscure the differences with other people who support the Constitution. Seems easiest to just say they don’t like how it’s implemented, right?

    Loughner clearly doesn’t like the current government for a whole variety of crazy reasons. He’s surrounded himself with sources that don’t either. That seems to be the common thread, rather than being “pro-government”.

    I think you’re right – we agree on Potok’s statement here. I’m actually trying to be reassuring – I really don’t think this is what most people are saying when they cite troubling rhetoric.

  25. Troy –
    The problem comes in when multiple reasonable people “support the Constitution”. I’m not saying you want to trash it. I wouldn’t want you to accuse me of that. I thought I was making things clearer when I described it that way. What Loughner doesn’t like is the current U.S. government – and he’s made explicitly constitutional objections to it. Rather than saying he’s “pro-Constitution” I’d prefer saying he’s “anti-current-order”. It explains the Communist Manifesto/Mein Kampf stuff a lot better too. And no – not everything is honky-dory. But the bulk of jurisprudence and the normative understanding of the Constitution is – in my view – the right one. I think you’re wrong about it, but don’t go getting too excitable over that… I’m sure you think I’m wrong too.

    J Oxman –
    I really didn’t think this would be that big of a deal. I did just make it up, and all I meant was “the way the Constitution is implemented in the U.S./the current U.S. government” – rather than trying to weigh in on whether he was pro-Constitution or anti-Constitution. That distinction is vaccuous. Troy is pro-Constitution. I am pro-Constitution. Roger is pro-Constitution. Obama is pro-Constitution. Palin is pro-Constitution. Probably every commenter here is. It seemed contentless so I wanted to make the point more explicit.

  26. DK,

    A potential problem with calling the current practicing government the “American constitutional order” is that it highlights the constitution in a way that you seem in your recent post to want to backtrack. When you wrote that what we see is a desire to replace the constitutional order with another framework, it is easy to think that you mean that the critics are rejecting the constitution.

    I also think it sounds a little weakly argued to consider libertarian or conservative critiques of contemporary liberal interpretations of the Constitution as some outside of something “normative.”. These critiques seem to have had a far greater force than this suggests, wouldn’t you say?

  27. Daniel –
    Well I’m open to suggestions. I really didn’t intend this to be a major production.

    As for the normative character of libertarian understandings of the Constitution… I don’t know… they aren’t “normative” in the sense that they substantially inform constitutional interpretation are they?

    Sure, my explanation wasn’t perfect. But I think it’s better than (1.) Potok who called him anti-government, and (2.) Roger who says he wants more government. He strikes me more as being a revolutionary for revolution’s sake and extremely unhinged. I’m not sure I know what he “wants” so much as what he doesn’t want (and I’m not entirely sure I know that).

  28. And even “revolution” isn’t the best word for me to use because a revolution is a social undertaking. He seems to be off in his own world… a revolution of one, perhaps.

  29. Well, DK, thanks for clearing that up.

    I think TC was on to something at his blog where he noted that all the books had something to do with mind control through word control.

  30. Ah! Now Daniel seems to say that I have misinterpreted Loughner. Sigh. I think it’s clear I did not attempt to do interpret Loughner. If I had, I might have followed Daniel Chiarilli’s example of gearing off Troy Camplin’s comments. Loughner’s concern with grammar could trace to Orwell. Presumably, that thesis might somewhat diminish Potok’s suggestion that it probably traces to Wynn Miller. But all such interpretations are, of course, speculative at this point.

  31. J Oxman – I think that might have something to it, although I’m as leery of attributing a coherent linguistic philosophy to him as I am to attribute a coherent political philosophy to him.

    Koppl – Well maybe you have. Who really knows honestly? I don’t think he’s a big government collectivist, no. I think you’re almost definitely wrong on that. I think I’m only very likely to be wrong 🙂

  32. He certainly comes across as more coherent than he seemed a couple days ago, but I’m still not sure how coherent he is.

    There’s a good, broad survey of all his contacts and interactions on the Washington Post website right now, in case people missed that.

  33. Heh heh. I have not interpreted Loughner, but I my interpretation of Loughner is wrong. Good one.

  34. Potok’s interpretation of Loughner: homicide as literary criticism. “I would argue that the way Loughner seems to be reading the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf…” What on earth does “seems to be reading” mean?

    But why stop with Hitler and Marx? If we’re free to attribute motive to what someone says they have read, why not dig deeper into their personal history for all the influences they have left out? I’m sure at some point in his public school education “two roads diverged in a wood” crossed Loughner’s lips. Why not blame the murders on Frost?

    I would actually feel more comfortable with that. I’m uneasy with a man of the left such as Potok claiming murder is the correct interpretation of Marx and Hitler. It’s almost too good to be true.

  35. Roger,

    I am very late to the party on this conversation, but I have found virtually all of the memes generated by politicos and members of the media to be quite strange. In the aftermath of such crises, it seems like everyone is trying to be the first one to announce why it happened — some for political gain and some for the claim of have the “first report.” Unfortunately, this often leads to misinformation.

    Shortly after I heard about the story and it was discovered that he had a YouTube page, I visited the page and watched the videos he had posted wondering what in the world he was trying to convey. Some commenters above have suggested that he had an opposition to government — “this” government or government generally. In looking at statements from his friends and actually watching the YouTube videos, it seems that his main quarrel with government is its control of grammar — whatever that means. While some have pointed to his comments about currency, it is not clear to me that he meant currency in the typical sense because, if so, this statement comes completely out of context with the rest of his statements. Perhaps he meant it as a metaphor for something else?

    Regardless, whether he was opposed to government or opposed to “this” government, I think that it is pretty clear that his views do not line up with Tea Partiers — although even that group contains a mixed bag of ideologies, albeit nothing about grammar. I think that sometimes we are so fixated on cause that we don’t stop to consider that “cause” in the mind of a person who would shoot a 9 year old girl at random might not be the same meaning of “cause” in the minds of the rest of us.

    We often struggle with things we cannot understand or explain. Unfortunately, there are some who seek to capitalize on our desire for explanations for their own political or personal gain.

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