The Disengagement Of "Teaching Moments"

Most smart people tend to feel queasy when the conversation turns to things like ‘certain death’ and ‘total failure’ and the idea of a ‘doomed generation,’ But not me. I am comfortable with these themes . .  . Any conversation that can make smart people confront a mix of Death, Doom and Failure with a straight face is probably worth listening in on.
–Hunter S Thompson

Earlier today the talking heads on MSNBC’s Morning Joe signaled that the Tucson shootings had–right on schedule–entered the uniquely American next stage that always follows a national panic attack: They sagely looked at each other and agreed, god willing, the tragedy would become a Teaching Moment. And, as always, that pissed me off.

Because in America, Teaching Moments are encoded shrugs; the equivalent of a national “Our bad.” Teaching Moments are about broadcasting, not receiving. Think back: In wake of a gut-wrenching national experience, no one ever talks about a Learning Moment–and for good reason. Because then the onus would be on all of us to actually do something about the gut-wrench du jour. Learning Moments, not Teaching Moments, are what lead to Change Pivots–and none of the contributing parties to the Tucson shootings want to (or will) go there.

I’m pretty much an unreconstructed cynic–for me, the glass is almost always half-filled–and, both sadly and tellingly, I’m rarely disappointed. Gloomy topics? Ha! Like Thompson, I’m comfortable with these themes. So allow me to make a grim inventory of those aspects of the Tucson shootings that will definitely not be Learning Moments:

Right-wing, violent rhetoric: After a short, muted period, it will ramp up again. Even as I write this, the status of the right-wing attack machine is obviously Battle Stations. And when the blame-deflecting talking points are not being spewed, people are either revising history (that sound is Sarah Palin scrubbing her website) or in hiding (Palin and the NRA). Squint at the broadcast horizon with me–do you really see a Kinder, Gentler Limbaugh? A Sadder-But-Wiser Beck? Sign-less and gun-less Tea Party gatherings? Neither do I. Nothing learned; nothing changed.

Gun laws: Arizona has some of the loosest gun laws in the nation. Guns in bars. Guns at school. Expanded assault-clips at Walmart. While Federal law enforcement agents have standard-issue 12-bullet clips, psychotic college kids are allowed to pack three times the ammo before they need to reload. What are the bets that Arizona’s deeply fucked-up self-image as 21st century frontiersmen is going to change? Do you really think that Jan Brewer–who further loosened many of the gun laws–is going to reverse herself? Calculating, empty-pant-suit Jan Brewer? Do you have any hope that the NRA (currently in hiding from the media) is going to have a lobbying change of heart? Neither do I. Nothing learned; nothing changed.

GOP obstructionism: When the federal ban on assault weapons ran out in 2004, the Senate passed a bill extending it, but the Republican-held House–wait for-it–never voted on it. Fast-foward six years to a period of Republican obstructionism that makes 2004 look like Haight Asbury in the late ’60s. Are Republicans going to take away from the Tea Party even a single class of guns? Do you any hope at all this will happen? Neither do I. Nothing learned; nothing changed.

Safety nets for the mentally ill: Look deeply into Jan Brewer’s callous eyes–she’s letting sane people who need heart transplants die, so what are the odds that there will be funding for the improved care of the emotionally disturbed? Over the next months, when state budgets across the country are slashed–when there is significantly less funding for everything from education to infrastructure–do you hold out hope that improved care for the mentally ill will occur? Neither do I. Nothing learned; nothing changed.

None of these things will be Learning Moments, much less Change Pivots. And privately, all of us realize this–politicians, voters and media talking heads. Thus, publicly hoping that the Tucson shootings will be a Teaching Moment isn’t just ineffective, it’s knee-jerk, with all the disengaged, pantomime caring found in “Have A Good Day.” 

Characterizing the Tucson shootings as a Teaching Moment gives all of us permission not to do anything more about it. It’s a way to feel concerned in the moment but in no way bothered with follow-through. In 12 months time, will MSNBC bump an hour of Lock-Up Raw for a special on whether Arizona’s gun laws have tightened up in wake of the shootings? Or for a look at the changes, if any, in the care of the emotionally unstable? And–damningly–would we watch these things a year from now? Nothing learned; nothing changed . . .

The last time I gave in to a full-blown political rant can be found here: