The Southern Poverty Law Center presents itself as a watchdog monitoring the political extremes, and a large portion of the press takes that pose at face value, despite decades of evidence that the group's real specialties are fundraising and fearmongering. So when the organization offered an opinion about Jared Lee Loughner's worldview, reporters paid attention. It was "hard to say" whether the murderer was "a right-wing extremist," spokesman Mark Potok wrote a day after the Tucson shootings, but it's "pretty clear that Loughner is taking ideas from Patriot conspiracy theorist David Wynn Miller of Milwaukee." Potok elaborated: "Miller claims that the government uses grammar to 'enslave' Americans and offers up his truly weird 'Truth-language' as an antidote. For example, he says that if you add colons and hyphens to your name in a certain way, you are no longer taxable." And since Loughner wrote that the government was performing "mind control on the people by controlling grammar"...well, you do the math.
We may well eventually learn that Loughner encountered Miller's odd ideas at some point. But it's worth noting some things that Loughner hasn't done. For one, he hasn't added any colons or hyphens to his name. Also, he hasn't declared that he isn't taxable. Miller's following, to the extent that he has one, consists of people who think his ideas will allow them to avoid penalties in court. Yet when Loughner was arraigned, just a day after Potok published his speculations, he didn't invoke a single Millerism.
And while Miller believes he has discovered a "Correct Language" (sorry, ":Correct-Language:") that everyone should be using instead of the "bastardized" English imposed by shadowy elites, Loughner's YouTube channel raised the possibility of creating new languages. What exactly he meant by that is anyone's guess, but it sounds rather different from Miller's project.
Nonetheless, The New York Times jumped on Potok's comments and gave Miller a call; Miller, as any self-promoting crank would do, declared that yes, Loughner had "probably been on my Web site." And on January 12—two days after Loughner had appeared in court without drawing on any of Miller's peculiar legal strategies—the Los Angeles Times was citing Potok's Loughner speculations as well, in an article originally slugged "Loughner's ramblings appear rooted in far right." The article also followed Potok in wondering whether Loughner's obsession with currency sprang from right-wing monetary theories, and quoted another professional extremism-watcher, Chip Berlet, who felt he had found rightist undercurrents in Loughner's use of the phrase "second Constitution."
In the meantime, people who actually knew the killer were talking to the press, dropping clues about what Loughner really was reading and viewing. Loughner's friend Zach Osler, for example, told ABC that while the killer wasn't interested in mainstream political debates, he was a fan of Peter Joseph's 2007 documentary Zeitgeist. Joseph's movie is one-third arguments that religion is a fraud, one-third 9/11 trutherism, and one-third conspiracy theories about bankers.
Loughner's interest in Zeitgeist clears up the currency question a bit. After the shooting, there was a lot of speculation about one of Loughner's comments on YouTube, "I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver!" Writers at several outlets, including Reuters and The New York Times, noted that this sounds like something a gold bug would say. The theory that Loughner wanted a gold standard suffered a pretty big blow, though, after some of his writings turned up on the UFO/conspiracy site AboveTopSecret.com. In one of the discussion forums there, Loughner spouted impenetrable ideas about an "infinite source of currency." There were actual gold bugs in the thread, and they were as mystified by Loughner's ideas as anyone else.
Zeitgeist, meanwhile, belongs to the old money-crank tradition, a venerable worldview that stretches from the Greenback Party to the Social Credit movement and from the fascist poet Ezra Pound to the pop Buddhist Alan Watts. Joseph's critique does overlap with the arguments offered by gold bugs, and if you download the study guide he offers online you'll find them among the rainbow coalition of sources that he cites: libertarians (William Anderson, Ron Paul), leftists (John Kenneth Galbraith, Ferdinand Lundberg), Birchers (Gary Allen, G. Edward Griffin), even a cameo by Lyndon LaRouche. But his movie's chief argument against the Fed is that it is a private institution that profits by lending money at interest; and it praises the old money-crank remedy of an "interest-free independent currency" that isn't created by private banks.
Is this left-wing or right-wing? Money cranks come in both flavors, but in the case of Zeitgeist the labels left and right are pretty useless descriptors. The best label would probably be "New Age paranoia." If you've ever gone browsing in an occult bookstore (and you really should; it's like browsing in a science fiction bookstore, only the authors really believe the stories they're writing, or pretend to), you may have seen a shelf labeled "conspiracies" alongside the sections marked "astrology" or "Tarot." People who write about fringe politics often miss the extent to which New Agers serve as a transmission belt, allowing ideas from the left, the right, and the counterculture—not to mention more outré folks like the UFO buffs—to slide from one subculture to another.
In 2009 Peter Joseph founded a full-blown Zeitgeist Movement, with a platform heavy on futurism, sustainability, and utopian economics. There's no sign, as of this writing, that Loughner's love for the Zeitgeist movie extended into a love for the Zeitgeist Movement. It isn't likely, given that Joseph now calls not for a new currency but for the abolition of money altogether. Loughner's own monetary nostrums weren't exactly the same as Zeitgeist's, and ABC unfortunately doesn't seem to have asked his friend Osler any follow-up questions exploring what exactly the killer liked about the documentary and what ideas he took from it, preferring instead to focus on the fact that Loughner used the psychedelic herb Salvia divinorum. But whatever he got out of the video is obviously just one element of the great big crazycakes combination that is the mind of Jared Lee Loughner.
We also know, for example, that Loughner was deeply interested in lucid dreaming, in reality-bending movies such as Waking Life and Donnie Darko, and in the science-fiction novels of Philip K. Dick, a writer whose paranoid plots often hinged on the idea that reality itself is a fraud. Another friend of Loughner's, Bryce Tierney, told Mother Jones that the shooter was "fascinated" with the idea that "the world is really nothing—illusion."
Interviewed by Keith Olbermann on the day of the murders, Potok gamely tried to link lucid dreaming to the radical right, noting that the conspiracy theorist David Icke is interested in the subject. Well, that's Potok's schtick; if Loughner had turned out to be a soccer fan, Potok may well have mentioned that Icke used to play for Coventry. My own guess is that Loughner's interest in alternate realities was at the core of his worldview, and that he was attracted to those elements of fringe politics that seemed to reinforce his suspicion that the waking world is a lie. But I'll refrain from declaring it "pretty clear" that my guess is a fact. That's the sort of thing that might make you look like a fool.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). This column first appeared at Reason.com.