Monday, January 10, 2011

Looking for the Easy Answers, or, What Is Magic For?

Tiffany Aching, the practical, level-headed witch in Terry Pratchett’s “I Shall Wear Midnight,” is in trouble. The Cunning Man is out to get her. The Cunning Man used to be a fabulous witch-hunter, but now is an eyeless, rank, wandering idea, searching for bodies to inhabit and destroy as he seeks more witches to kill. He may have found a willing host in the nurse of the deceased baron, and is now gunning for Tiffany:
That wretched nurse, she thought. I might have known she would make trouble. Poison goes where poison’s welcome, and in Miss Spruce’s case, it would have been welcomed with cheering crowds and possibly a small brass band. Yes, the nurse would have invited the Cunning Man in. She was exactly the sort of person who would let him in, give him power, envious power, jealous power, prideful power. But I know I haven’t done anything wrong, she told herself. Or have I? I can only see my life from the inside, and I suppose that on the inside nobody does anything wrong.
Unfortunately for Tiffany, the Cunning Man isn’t the only one out to get her. So is Roland, her childhood friend, the one she rescued from the Fairy Queen, and the new Baron. He’s heard some things. Some awful things about the witch, Tiffany Aching. And it doesn’t appear to matter if they’re true or not:
“I have been told you were standing over my father with a poker in your hand, and that you demanded money from him,” he said sadly.

“That’s not true!”

“And would you tell me if it was?”

“No! Because there never would be a was! I would never do such a thing! Well, perhaps I was standing over him . . .”


“Don’t you dare aha me, Roland, don’t you dare! Look, I know people have been telling you things, but they’re not true.”

“But you just admitted that you were standing over him, yes?”

“It’s simply that he wanted me to show him how I kept my hands clean!” She regretted this as soon as she said it. It was true, but what did that matter? It didn’t sound true. “Look, I can see that it –“

“And you didn’t steal a bag of money?”


“And you don’t know anything about a bag of money?”

“Yes, your father asked me to take one out of the metal chest. He wanted to –“

Roland interrupted her. “Where is that money now?” His voice was flat and without expression.

“I have no idea,” said Tiffany. And as his mouth opened again, she shouted, “No! You will listen, understand? Sit there and listen! I attended your father for the better part of two years. I liked the old man and I would do nothing to hurt him or you. He died when it was his time to die. When that time comes, there is nothing anyone can do.”

“Then what is magic for?”

Tiffany shook her head. “Magic, as you call it, kept the pain away, and don’t you dare think that it came without a price! I have seen people die, and I promise you your father died well, and thinking of happy days.”

Tears were streaming down Roland’s face, and she sensed his anger at being seen like that, stupid anger, as if tears made him less of a man and less of a Baron.

She heard him mutter, “Can you take away this grief?”

“I’m sorry,” she replied quietly. “Everyone asks me. And I would not do so even if I knew how. It belongs to you. Only time and tears take away grief; that is what they are for.”
Poison goes where poison’s welcome.

I can only see my life from the inside, and I suppose that on the inside nobody does anything wrong.

Then what is magic for?

This is what we ought to be thinking in light of the shootings in Tucson over the weekend. This is what we ought to be thinking in light of any demonstration of the base animal instincts that hide in mankind, the instincts that lead from paranoia to isolation to acting out in violence.

Both sides of the political spectrum are making hay of this event, in which a federal judge was killed, a congresswoman critically injured and five others dead, including a nine-year-old girl. They’re looking for the easy answers. Sarah Palin’s political action committee featured a map of gun crosshairs on twenty congressional districts throughout the nation, including that of Gabrielle Giffords, the injured congresswoman, where the PAC thought Republicans could make gains over Democrats. So, it must be, then, that the shooter took this advice literally and gunned Giffords down. But then Democratic strategists used similar graphical representations – in their case, targets – on congressional fights where they figured they could win victories over Republicans.

And so on. And so on.

Blame. That’s what’s important. And an easy blame as well. Tea Partiers, yes, they’re the new vogue in GOP evil; let’s blame them. No matter that the shooter, as his profile emerges, appears to be more of a schizophrenic anarchist than Republican or Democrat. What’s important is the blame. Because, after all, poison goes where poison is welcome.

As is the case with events such as this, no one wants the blame to land in their camp. So the arguments begin: Couldn’t have been the SarahPAC map; as the shooter expressed frustration with Giffords in specific and congress in general more than two years before the map was made. And since the Democrats used similar imagery, why not assume there are others just waiting for the opportunity, the tipping point, the trigger – if I can use that word – to go psycho?

David Weigel, writing at, has this to say in an article he wrote on legislation proposed to make it illegal to use crosshairs and other such imagery against politicians – a dubious attempt to fix a problem based on the dubious assumption that it was the crosshair imagery that pushed the shooter over the edge:
On Saturday, before we knew much about [shooter Jared] Loughner, an Arizona Tea Party activist told me the incident had made him think about how he talked. “Should I talk differently when I describe the Founders and compare what we're facing to what they faced?” Patrick Beck asked. “Could somebody imply that I'm calling for a revolution?”

I've thought about that as I read more about Loughner. Beck was thinking about how to calibrate what he said so that the craziest person in the room wouldn't take it the wrong way. This is undoubtedly what Rebecca Mansour wished she'd done when Democrats like Giffords started complaining about the map of targeted seats. And I suppose that's what Bob Brady wants to do, with the force of federal law and prison sentences. But what's the long game? If someone like Jared Loughner wants to develop bizarre ideas about government based on obscure online theories—or based on nothing at all—no amount of civil dialogue will prevent it.
In other words, looking for a scapegoat is just looking for an easy answer where none really exists.

Placed here using the “embed” function. Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

I’m no fan of the Tea Party or Sarah Palin, but I’m also not a fan of people who are too quick to jump to conclusions, especially when they can blame conservatives. I agree with what Glenn Reynolds writes in the Wall Street Journal:
American journalists know how to be exquisitely sensitive when they want to be. As the Washington Examiner's Byron York pointed out on Sunday, after Major Nidal Hasan shot up Fort Hood while shouting "Allahu Akhbar!" the press was full of cautions about not drawing premature conclusions about a connection to Islamist terrorism. "Where," asked Mr. York, "was that caution after the shootings in Arizona?"

Set aside as inconvenient, apparently. There was no waiting for the facts on Saturday. Likewise, last May New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and CBS anchor Katie Couric speculated, without any evidence, that the Times Square bomber might be a tea partier upset with the ObamaCare bill.

So as the usual talking heads begin their "have you no decency?" routine aimed at talk radio and Republican politicians, perhaps we should turn the question around. Where is the decency in blood libel?

To paraphrase Justice Cardozo ("proof of negligence in the air, so to speak, will not do"), there is no such thing as responsibility in the air. Those who try to connect Sarah Palin and other political figures with whom they disagree to the shootings in Arizona use attacks on "rhetoric" and a "climate of hate" to obscure their own dishonesty in trying to imply responsibility where none exists. But the dishonesty remains.
We all need to think more like Tiffany Aching. She can call a spade a spade – knowing where the poison goes – based on empirical evidence, not because that’s what the storyline tells her she should believe. When she looks at herself from the inside, she realizes she’s looking through rose-colored glasses. And when she responds to Roland’s question of “Then what is magic for?” she tells him specifically that there are some things magic just can’t do.

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