Assassination is as American as the hackneyed patriotic schtick that often seems to motivate it. This isn’t about the gallows humour of the Republican right which consists precisely of knowing, wink-wink in-jokes (gun-sight imagery, ‘Reload’, and so on) about the barbarism that already exists, and which they have done so much to cultivate. It’s about what the jokes advert to.
This is a point that needs to be made repeatedly, particularly when the consensus opinion of “reasonable voices” in the media is, as Angus Johnson paraphrased Jon Stewart, “Let’s come together in this crisis, put aside division, and focus on our real enemy: The mentally ill.” There is, I think, something interesting about the way in which Lenin’s point about wider culture is rejected and explanations in terms of mental illness are accepted. Mention Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck, and you’ll immediately be informed that they never told Jared Loughner to shoot anyone, and that you can’t prove that Palin or Beck or anyone else caused Loughner to shoot at Gabrielle Giffords. This is true but misses the point; the purpose of mentioning Palin and Beck can’t be to make this kind of direct causal link, but is rather to point to something much more diffuse and general of which, as Lenin says, Palin and Beck aren’t even examples, but at most symptoms. However, no such analysis is permitted, it seems: all explanations must be offered in terms of discrete causes acting on specific individuals.
Which brings us to mental illness. Mental illness doesn’t actually explain Loughner’s actions at all. Do we even have any reason to believe that he was mentally ill (rather than being “crazy” in the colloquial sense, which his YouTube videos seem to strongly suggest)? Even if he was in fact mentally ill, that doesn’t explain his actions, because the majority of mentally ill people don’t gun anyone down, aren’t violent at all; we would still need an explanation of why this particular mentally ill person acted in this particular way.
However, I suspect this is not how most people think about mental illness. Rather, mental illness seems to be being adduced as a cause, as something definite existing inside Loughner’s brain that compelled him to take the actions that he did. This way of understanding mental illness and the mind more generally is of a piece with the rejection of any attempt to understand ideology as anything other than direct causation. The similarity is the reductive methodological individualism, which assumes that the causes of all actions must be found within specific, nameable individuals. This is a fundamentally anti-political position, as it prevents us locating individuals and acts in the larger political (social, economic, ideological) contexts that render political action comprehensible and possible.