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Arizona shooting: Don't blame Sarah Palin -- get public schools to discuss politics

Ever since Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona Saturday, critics have been pointing fingers at Republicans for their nasty anti-government rhetoric. They have a point. But the real problem is in our public schools, which have left millions of Americans unequipped to engage in rational politics.

By / January 10, 2011

Narberth, Pa.

It’s the Republicans’ fault! Listen to their nasty anti-government rhetoric!

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That’s been the party line among many of my fellow Democrats, ever since Jared Loughner allegedly shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others outside an Arizona shopping mall Saturday morning.

The real problem is public schools

They’re wrong. The real problem lies instead in our public schools, which have left millions of Americans unequipped to engage in rational politics. That makes them suckers for the kind of conspiracies that Mr. Loughner reportedly embraced, as well as for the mistaken idea that one party is to blame for all of this.

Let’s be clear: Some Republicans really have engaged in demagogic bashing of government officials. But it’s equally demagogic to blame them for the Arizona tragedy. Back in the McCarthy era, left-wingers called this line of thinking “guilt by association”: you support civil rights for African-Americans, and so do the Communists, so you must be a Communist! It’s sad – and ironic – to see liberals doing the same thing now.

Or listen to the other popular Democratic line: It’s all about Arizona. The place is crawling with gun nuts and tea party crazies, the story goes, and it’s ground zero for America’s anti-immigration movement. No wonder Loughner lived there!

That’s a shockingly irresponsible stereotype, put forth by the same folks that always tell you they’re fighting stereotypes. As the prayer vigils and other ceremonies in recent days illustrate, Arizona is home to thousands of decent and fair-minded people. By painting them all with the same brush, we echo precisely the kind of irrational invective that we often indict.

Cheap political points

Most of all, we make it impossible to conduct a reasoned conversation across our differences. Instead of using this tragedy to score cheap political points, then, we might pause to ask why so many Americans – across the ideological spectrum – indulge in the politics of hate, fear, and foolishness.

The usual suspects are mass media outlets, starting with the high-decibal shout-fests on talk radio and cable TV. Or we point to the Internet, especially the darker corners where Loughner liked to troll. According to news reports, he thought that American currency was worthless and that the government was brainwashing people by controlling their grammar.

But that doesn’t explain why such unfounded statements find such a friendly audience, not just in Arizona but across the country. As of last May, 14 percent of Americans said President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and another six percent said that was their “best guess.” When one of out five Americans entertains this kind of big lie, we all have a big problem.


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