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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Though Passion May Have Strained...

Yoda (Wookiepedia)
"Fear Leads to AngerAnger leads to Hate.  Hate...leads to suffering."

It is not everyday that the words of Yoda of Star Wars is quoted in the face of a national tragedy, but it seems that the George Lucas character may have said it best.  Perhaps this quote would be better known had it not come from the better forgotten Episode I: The Phantom Menace.


As of this writing, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords remains in critical condition.  She is alive and at the direction of anesthesiologists, unconscious.  Her brain function looks good, but it is still too early to tell.  Swelling, which remains the most dangerous threat to her recovery now, is still possible for the next few days.  Her long term prognosis may not be known for months.  Six people, including the Chief Judge of the US District Court in Arizona, a 9 year-old girl, her 30 year-old community relations director, and three retirees are dead.  A dozen or so were injuredsome remain hospitalized.  Others have been released.

Cong. Giffords (wikipedia)
 The alleged assailant, Jared Loughner, by all accounts seems to be a very troubled, very probably mentally ill individual.  His online life, ostensibly his only solid outward connection to the world, is a patchwork of paranoid delusions and, yes, some off-kilter political ideology.  He has been charged with attempted assassination of a member of Congress as the evidence shows that Giffords was the target.  The last significant attack on an American political figure was John Hinckley's attempt on President Ronald Reagan's life in 1981.  Hinckley's motives were not really at all political.


The focus of this posting is not the ease with which Loughner secured his weapon and ammunition.  However, we will say that these events are not inconceivable or, as has been described "unimaginable."  Gun violence, even public assaults like these, is quite common and yet we do little to stop it.  The extended clip Loughner allegedly used had no purpose, but to as kill many people as possible.  Police carry the same weapon and use the standard 12 round clip as opposed to the 33 round clips Loughner had purchased from a Wal-Mart.  These extended clips had been banned under now expired Brady Bill provisions and are now readily available.  While passage is unlikely, sooner or later, we have to seriously ask ourselves how much safer we are with these devices, which serve no purpose, but to kill.  The issue is not banning guns wholesale, but whether their sheer preponderance in our society serves or undermines their stated purpose.


Jared Lougner (AZ Star)
Although Loughner's motives are probably at best remotely political, it has brought much, if not all of the political apparatuspoliticians, newsman, and commentatorsinto a moment of reflection.  That reflection is needed and overdue.  Congresswoman Giffords was the subject of innuendo and outright threats of violence in the past.  A protester waving one of those misappropriated Gadsden flags dropped a gun that had been held in his armpit.  Her office was vandalized following the health care vote, which she supported.  Then there was Sarah Palin's "reload" campaign complete with cross hairs aimed at formerly Republican districts including Giffords'.  Indeed the number of members of Congress receiving serious threats nearly tripled in 2010 from the year before.  A man is currently incarcerated for threatening to kill Washington Sen. Patty Murray over her health care vote.


The right has responded stridently to the claims that it is to blame.  Truly, they are not directly to blame for the shooting in Tucson, but the vitriol and vile language that theyand some voices on the lefthave stirred up has not added to the national conversation and certainly has made a climate that has only aggravated the fear, distrust, and aggression in our society.  Throw into the mix mentally ill or otherwise unbalanced people and you do have a recipe for disaster.


The tone in the national political discourse has certainly taken a turn for the worse.  Sarah Palin's reload/target graphic is the least of it.  Joyce Kaufman, a talk radio personality and Florida and nearly a freshman congressman's chief of staff, spoke about how if "ballots don't work, bullets will."  Tea partiers relish Thomas Jefferson's statement that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time withe blood of patriots & tyrants."  In typical fashion, however, the statement is out of context.  Jefferson was commenting on Shays Rebellion of all things.  Among the many gripes of Shay and his ilk were that ineffectual nature of the Articles of Confederation, which was replaced by our present Constitution its strong central government.


Cong. Richard Neal (WMassP&I)
This blog is not comfortable with the term hate speech, because it is too broad and lends itself to misinterpretation.  Moreover, we do not gain anything by going to opposite extreme and purge our political discourse of passion and live in a cacophony of political correctness.  However, we must tamp down the negativity and the demonizing of political opponents.  As Congressman Richard Neal said at his press conference today those on the other side are our "opponents, not our enemies."  In addition, Neal noted that many Congressmen need to remember that not every issue is "Armageddon."

 


Cong. Chaffetz (wikipedia)
The right's reaction has been varied.  Some, to their credit, such as Jason Chaffetz, Congressman from Utah, said on television we should reevaluate the rhetoric.  He noted that some Utah news outlets had to take down comment sections all together.  Others...not so much.  An aide to Sarah Palin said that the cross hairs on her site were "surveying symbols."  Members of the tea party offered backhanded condolences.  Among them Judson Philips who made sure to note that Giffords was a "liberal" and that the left will blame the tea party and the right wing for this.  A Pima County based tea party group would not apologize for the over the top tone in Giffords' last campaign (where her opponent held an event asking individuals to join him in firing an automatic weapon).  At the same time, they worried that this tragedy might be used to divide Americans, willfully blind to their movement's own divisive tactics.  Contrast these comments to the "Tucson Tea Party" whose leaders, while worried about being too careful in language, realized that sometimes the rhetoric (or threats) goes too far.  Specifically, Patrick Beck (no relation to Glenn, hopefully), the Tucson tea party head took pains to say he did not think Obama (or others) had malicious intent.  He just felt they were wrong and admitted that that fact often gets lost.  BRAVO!


The answer is not political correctness or even self-censorship, although that is not the same as censorship.  It is about choosing the best words and having the best ideas.  It should not be about drumming up anger and bringing out the worst in people.  If that is they want, what they demand, it may be because that is all they have to offer.  In that case, the tea party really has nothing to offer us than hate and vitriol as their detractors claim.


Sarah Palin (wikipedia)
The tea party and Sarah Palin are facing in this crisis their first test of widespread scrutiny since the summer of 2009 when Palin resigned as governor and the tea party took hold.  Up to now, due to the nebulous nature of the tea party (there is no central organization and efforts to nationalize it has raised eyebrows among rank and file tea partiers), they have escaped any direct attack or effective criticism.  Certainly individuals have fired back either in the media or during campaigns, but largely they have been impervious to any real critique until now.  As a result, the nebulous nature now works against itself.  All are grief-stricken, but condolence can cut very differently as the above illustrates.


As for Palin herself and Glenn Beck?  Well the New York Times Caucus blog has obtained emails wherein Beck and Palin appear to blithely lament the tragedy while trying not appear to concerned about any personal exposure to collateral damage.  These are the first real words coming from either since the tragedy.  However, for Sarah the saleswoman (that's basically what she is), her comments were surprisingly limp and devoid of the fiery ad nauseum for which she is known.  They don't hurt like "prospecting symbols," but lack any depth of emotion.  Had they been so armed with human emotion, she could have turned the unfair blame, although of her own creation, into a powerful positive for the country...and herself.


Death Chamber (wikipedia)
Jared Loughner was marched into a courtroom to answer for  his crimes.  There is no excuse or explanation for his crime, but as the story unfolds expect to see an increasingly sad, if not sympathetic portrait of an isolated loner, clearly troubled by mental problems.  It is all, but unlikely that his mental health will permit him to escape prosecution, but it may be his only shot at shirking the needle.


Loughner's political beliefs cannot be taken seriously, however.  Among the talk of mind control, his postings and acquaintances point to some of the most paranoid and outlier of the right wing's more bizarre concerns.   Currency manipulation and governmental control of grammar (not solely a province of one man's mental disease) were among the such examples.  This points to a "tangential" connection, if not a direct one between the vitriolic right wing and Loughner.


As we learn more about Loughner, the word lost comes to mind, beyond whatever mental disease plagued him.  If nothing else comes of this tragedy, we can only hope that as a nation we get a better hold on mental health issues.  Having spoken with those that work in mental health, our nation approaches the issue only a little bit more enlightened than when possession was the common diagnosis.  Ironically, a better mental health infrastructure might have caught Loughner, but that would require an access to health care, assuming Loughner did not have any.


 Some outside media, including London's Daily Telegraph noted that the media and politicians had turned too quickly to Palin and those that have used angry vitriolic rhetoric.  He pointed to the tenuous connection politics may have had to the attack.  However, what he and other critics of the critique of America's political tone is that this is a process that has been building for years and has only reached fever pitch in the last few years.  What is more insidious is that it has become about making enemies or even traitors out of political opponents, a strategy largely discredited thanks to Richard Nixon. 


Heath Ledger as the Joker (wikipedia)
 There has been an effort to dehumanize people as a means to score political points.  While this is not new, the force and power of these efforts have expanded to people that some behind this effort have called enemies.  Public servants became pariahs.  Welfare recipients became leeches.  Politicians...well you would think that they could not sink any lower, but they became caricatures.  How many posters showed Obama, his image altered to appear as the late Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight?  Let's go back further.  This blog is no friend to George W. Bush, but claims he was an insidious co-conspirator in 9/11 are ridiculous.  These images are not people.  As Alan Grayson said on the Huffington Post, if politics were an issue at all, Loughner was not shooting "Gabby" Giffords, but some "cartoon version of her" equally wrought from the distorted and destructive view some have painted of her.


Keith Olbermann, in a rather stern, but not misplaced special comment, called on all in the political discourse to drop the gun rhetoric, the violent rhetoric or to repudiate those that do.  Indeed, he even cited his own use of such rhetoric and likewise repudiated it.  As a country we should and we must go further and work to not lose sight of the humanity of all people.  Some politicians, even those who questioned the criticism of the rhetoric, like New York congressman Peter King betrayed their own belief that personal attacks are not appropriate, even if they are not new.  There is a simple reason why.  "We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies," as Abraham Lincoln told us.



Giffords with service member (wikipedia)
 Even if there is no connection whatsoever to Loughner's alleged attack on Gabrielle Giffords and her staff, the right does itself a disservice by not at least entertaining reflection.  Reflection and self-evaluation are not vices.  It is not weakness to question whether what you say, do and promote is sending the right message, getting the right results, or actually improving the situation.  However you decide in the end, reflection and acknowledgment of that reflection is never a bad thing.  This may be a rare chance for such reassessment, particularly from politicians themselves because this does hit so close to home.  An assassination is a murder of a political figure.

One important factor that has not been lost, besides the gun issues, that could be forgotten is that the victims here were engaged in the most basic form of civic engagement.  They were gathered, orderly, perhaps as in a line of cars entering a tunnel as Jon Steward evoked at the Rally to Restore Sanity.  They wanted to speak with and meet their representative in Congress, not brimming with righteous indignation, but calm conversation about their concerns.  At least one of the dead was a Republican.  What they did is what millions of Americans and their representatives do everyday.  Jared Loughner was not the first to turn such a bedrock democratic scene into a bloodbath, but others have disturbed such scenes in other ways to detriment of democracy as a whole.



American Flags (wikipedia)
 As we began with Yoda, so will we end with Yoda.  "If you choose the quick and easy path...you will become an agent of evil."  The use of his quote is hyperbolic.  Still there is a time and a place for charged rhetoric, but it can be tempered without losing meaning.  To call something a war of ideas to save our country is not any weaker than saying its a war to save our country absent an actual declaration against a foreign power.  Unless you want to appeal to the worse of people (and some do), then you can make your point, with passion.  However that may require better, indeed a more effective, on point choice of words.  If you cannot do that, if you reject that conscientious approach and refuse to see your opponents as your fellow man, then you are choosing the "easy path."  The rest, I think you would agree, speaks for itself.

1 comment:

Tommy said...

Great Column Matt
But I think that George Lucas lifted the Yoda quote in the header from the Buddha, nevertheless.
The Repub's were reflexively demonizing opponents as traitors since the run up to the invasion of Iraq. This was the ground from which the emotional core of the currant generation cultural right winger springs. Not it's all of the verbal shorthand of shared beliefs.
The Frank Luntz book I mentioned yesterday is called "Words That Work"
BTW If it doesn't get snowed out Amaad Rivera is having a meet and greet at the Bing tomorrow @6 ish.