I concur with President Obama’s words here; such senseless violence is always disheartening. I wasn’t going to write about the Arizona tragedies. There are more capable, qualified writers to handle such matters and I thought I’d leave it in their hands. I don’t pretend to be a political commentator (or at least I try not to pretend); beer, music, and poetry is more my world. Yet I can’t seem to help myself.
First off, I do not think that this is any individual’s fault–we can’t put this on Sarah Palin’s shoulders, or Sharron Angle’s, or any other individual’s. But wouldn’t it be a sad state of affairs if such an incident doesn’t at least cause us to reflect on the culture surrounding the event? I have been wondering why it is OK for the Right to attack, for instance, the rhetoric of hip-hop and rap as having very dangerous, tangible consequences in terms of violence and misogny, yet in this case we can’t try to point out equally dangerous political rhetoric. And don’t get me wrong; I think dangerous political rhetoric is pervasive on all sides–it’s not just the domain of the Right. But it is the Right in this instance who wants to argue that it’s inappropriate for such societal self-reflection even as they have engaged it for decades.
Those of you who know me, know I’m no fan of Sarah Palin. A friend of mine astutely said today that the current debates around political rhetoric were actually a chance for Sarah Palin to be a hero. If there were ever a chance for her to stand up and show her true leadership abilities, this was it. She did not have to claim responsibility for this event; nor did she even have to say she was wrong. What she might have done that would be leaderly, though, would be to say that such an event does in fact warrant a high level of social and political self-reflection, to simply say maybe she has crossed the line and she should give it some thought considering the seriousness of this event. By doing that, she could then point out that this is the responsibility of everyone: regardless of political persuasion, we should be investigating the kind of society we create by the way we engage in political discourse. What kind of world are we helping to create? She could help begin this kind of self-reflection and discussion without having to admit to any wrongdoing.
Instead, we got Palin comparing her situation to that of the Jewish community facing “blood libel,” the justification of centuries of horrific persecution of the Jews. Really Sarah? Is that really your situation? It’s like you almost went out of your way to prove your point that the language you use need not be responsible. As if to say, “you want irresponsible hyperbole, here try this one on.” I’m not saying that the Left and the media isn’t engaged in its own irresponsible rhetoric, but this was an opportunity for Palin and what we got to my mind was inexcusable.
It’s as inexcusable as Sharron Angle suggesting that people could rightfully take up “second amendment remedies” to current political situations. Look, the idea of the second amendment is not about a way to remedy political ideas you disagree with; this isn’t what the Founders meant. They were talking about tyranny, and when a party was rightfully elected to office and is still supported by a large portion of the population (even if the left lost seats in the last election, it’s not the overwhelming landslide the left wants to believe. Isn’t the Senate still Democratically controlled? The simple fact is we are a politically divided country. I don’t think anyone at this point can garner a true mandate) then we can’t call it tyranny; we call it political disagreement. So who in their right mind would say that someone like Angle suggesting these “remedies” is being responsible? The problem is that somehow actions can be judged quite clearly. No one disagrees that the Arizona shooting was wrong (well, no one disagrees whom I really want to talk to). But somehow the first amendment makes any judgment of speech off limits. We can judge and criticize speech, though, even if we guarantee the right to be irresponsible. OK, Palin has the right to say what she has said; Angle has a right to say what she has said. But it doesn’t make it responsible. An incident such as this is a great opportunity to at least think about these things. We should absolutely allow any speech, but does that mean we can’t at least say “this is the kind of speech I think is irresponsible,” or “this is what I think civil discourse should look like?” Or do we throw our hands up in the air and say freedom of speech, freedom of speech, as if that means we can’t criticize.
The real problem behind much of the rhetoric that I see isn’t necessarily the violent imagery behind it. It’s the insistence on an us and them mentality. There is a “real” America and the others (regardless of the fact that the “others” are half the population–thus the divided politics). There are “real” Americans who need to “take back” their country. From whom? The very implicit notion here is that those who don’t fit a particular image or political idea of America do not have any right to the country. And this is where the notion of tyranny comes in: if these “others” have gained control, then the real Americans are being governed by aliens, by non-Americans. This is the rhetoric that needs to change. Because as long as one side of a political argument is allowed to feel that they have the monopoly on the American identity, they will feel righteous in the cause of violence. And that’s just downright scary.