Chris Matthews, M.D.

by Matthew Shaffer

In a discussion with Brian Levin, of the Hate and Extremism Center, on Hardball last night, Chris Matthews said the following of Loughner:

MATTHEWS: The guy’s a psychotic. But at some point, you decide between right and wrong. And, at some point, you need that moral license. And you go, OK, everybody says she’s bad. I’m OK here. You know what I’m saying? Everybody says she’s bad. It happened in the environment, all these kind of environments. Once you get that final moral, OK, oh, they’re bad, so my psychosis fits in with appropriate targeting here.

It’s refreshing to see Matthews openly attempt to contrive a connection between Loughner’s murders and rightist “rhetoric,” while others have relied on innuendo, simple factual misunderstandings, and “guilt by disassociation” (Giffords is a moderate liberal, ergo an attack on her is ipso facto morally attributable to the Right), to do the dirty work.

But there are two problems, one theoretical, one practical: Professor Matthews proposes a novel psychological theory, according to which psychotics often require a political cause to morally authorize their destructive desires. That doesn’t immediately strike me as implausible (though neither does Matthews offer any evidence or credible psychiatric source). But suppose it were true that Loughner was a psychotic who latched on to Tea Party ideas as a moral rationalization. Wouldn’t his pre-rampage latching-on be evidenced by some associations, some attendance at rallies, some favorite TV and radio programs known to his friends, some participation in online fora that had more to do with politics and less with UFOs? More obviously, if Loughner required a moral rationalization to kill, who provided him with the “rhetoric” that legitimized the murder of 9-year old Christina Taylor Green? Or what political philosophy provided the rationalization as he turned his gun away from the politicians and toward the head of Col. Bill Badger?

But even if he were right, the practical problem is that the implications would put insufferable limits on speech. Other pundits have mostly proposed banishing martial metaphors, but Matthews thinks that when we say “she’s bad” — essentially, when we criticize our opponents — we should be aware of our potential to activate psychotics, and be accordingly restrained. That’s a cure worse than the (again, at this point unevidenced) disease. 

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