Monday, January 10, 2011

Our Political Discourse

When I first heard the news that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) had been shot, I immediately figured it would turn out to be a teabagger exercising his/her "2nd Amendment Remedies".  After all Giffords was one of those swing districts whose re-election was one of the last ones called.  Her re-election campaign was ugly and full of fury on both sides.  Sarah Palin had her as one of the "targets" to take out in 2010 since she had voted for Health Reform.  I wasn't the only one who immediately jumped to that conclusion.  Millions of other people did too, and like me, they tweeted about it.

I was scolded for jumping to conclusions and not being helpful.  The nature of twitter is its immediacy.  It's very much like a rolling national, sometimes international, conversation.  There's a reason that so many people, mostly unconnected to one another personally, immediately thought about the Tea Party Movement with its talk of 2nd Amendment "remedies", watering the tree of liberty with the blood of martyrs, and threats of a 2nd American Revolution, and specifically Sarah Palin with her tradement "Don't Retreat - RELOAD!" crap.

That the right immediately went on the defensive indicates to me some evidence of a guilty conscience.  They immediately starting saying things like:
  • "How DARE you suggest that our rhetoric might play a role!" 
  • "Dude was crazy, we had NOTHING to do with it!  How DARE you!"
  • "Liberals said worse about Bush!" (who, unless I missed something, never had someone take a SHOT at him)
  • "Democrats use targets too!"
  • "Violent rhetoric is just part of politics, and always has been!"
  • "You're just crass and political trying to take advantage of a tragedy.  How DARE you!"
In all that hand-wringing and deflecting, never once did Palin, Beck, or her defenders say, "Wow, that is NOT what we meant by that rhetoric.  Everyone knows that.  Dude was crazy, but Jesus, if things we said helped in any encourage him, that's not what we're about.  Using gun sights and talking about "reloading" and "2nd Amendment Rememdies" in the heat of a campaign was taking it too far.  We wouldn't do it again, and we'll call out anyone who tries in the future."

But no, instead there is complete denial and attempts to change the conversation.  There's no acknowledgement that just because we CAN say something that we should.  There's no willingness to even discuss that perhaps political leaders shouldn't engage in the ultra violent rhetoric of the base.  All the examples of Bush bashing, and the calls for Bush's death came from no-name fringe people, most of whom were anti-war.  You didn't have Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi, or any Democratic leader of note going on the nightly news to spew out the same crap, or suggest that liberals needed to take up arms to seize back the country.  We were always focused like a laser on the next election, convincing people to show up to the polls.  Harry Reid did insult Bush, calling him a liar on the Senate floor which was as bad as it got.  We did feel that the Bushies were dangerous to the freedoms we loved under our Constitution, but we protested peacefully, sued (often successfully) in court, and got our voters to the polls in 2006 and 2008. 

But conservatives have, since the Clinton presidency, presented liberals and Democrats as beyond the pale, trying to create a socialist dictatorship with FEMA concentration camps and death panels that will swoop in and kill healthy grandmas everywhere!  Oh, and while we're at it, we're going to disarm the populace, and take a black marker to scratch out the 2nd amendment.  Since Obama was elected, we've endured the unending charges of birthers that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim looking to exact vengeance on America for European colonialism in Africa?!?  And we have just gone through a 2 year election cycle where House members feared for their lives, to the cheers to the GOP establishment.  We saw my Representative, John Lewis, get spat upon while walking to cast his vote for health reform.  And Giffords herself had her office windows broken after she voted Yes on health reform.  We saw Sharon Angle saying that people might have to use "2nd Amendment Remedies" as if we were on the verge of a tyranny not seen since the election of Hilter in 1933. 

Politics is rough, and campaigns have become mini-wars.  No longer do we think people are merely wrong in their policy preferences, but somehow EVIL and out to DESTROY the Constitution!  I've been as guilty as any teabagger in that fallacy.  I've assumed that people on the right are driven by pure greed and a disdain against people different than they are.  I think that not only are they misguided but dangerously so. 

A lot of this feeling is driven by real sense of potential danger I feel as an openly gay man living in the South. I am accutely aware that the VAST majority of my fellow citizens in Georgia do not think I have many rights worth respecting.  I don't have children, but I have many dear friends who do.  I know there are people who would gladly use the police power of the state to remove those children from their homes because their parents happen to be gay.  I know the Constitution of Georgia states that no relationship that I might enter into with another man will be recognized in any way, shape, or form.  If I had a husband and someone tried to contest a will that left him as beneficiary, I have no confidence that my wishes would be followed unless the case was tried in DeKalb or Fulton Counties.  For me, who is in charge makes a difference.  It's the difference between attempts at writing discrimination into the US Constitution with a "marriage amendment" versus the repeal of DADT.

I have learned that not all Republicans are enemies, but I find it much easier to intellectually engage with fiscal conservatives and have a debate about how much and what kind of governement is necessary than I do to engage with social conservatives who I believe would do not consider me an equal human being in any way, shape, or form.  I fear social conservatives, and until they learn to accept that gays are part of society and must be treated equally, I always will.

What frustrates me more than anything about Sarah Palin, her rhetoric, and the white washing of her record, and ludicrous denials of any responsibility whatsoever for dealing in over-the-top rhetoric...and all the conservatives who are screaming that Democrats are just as bad for even bringing up the rhetoric issue is the lack of personal responsibility.  Keith Olbermann had the decency to personally apologize for overheated rhetoric he has used.  Would it be too much to ask someone to acknowledge that he/she has engaged in overly violent rhetoric, and to agree that perhaps we need to tone it down?   For too many on the right, the unfortunate answer seems to be YES, that IS asking too much.

The assassin in Tucson was undeniably off his rocker.  I think he knew right from wrong, which is thankfully the definition of legal insanity.  I hope that he will be put to death for what he has done.  But honestly, people, it was only a matter of time before some crackpot decided to take matters into his/her hands.  Our divisions are too great and too deep to promise that only polite conversation be used in debate and campaigns.  But responsible political leaders need to have a filter for what is appropriate!  Just because we CAN say something does not mean we SHOULD.  Isn't that a lesson we were supposed to learn in Kindergarten?

Some suggest that making this argument is an attempt to chill political speech.  That we should not only continue to engage in overheated, violent rhetoric, but revel in it.  And when a tragedy happens like the attempted assassination of a member of  Congressman, we should merely dab away the tears at the tragedy, lament the loss the loss of life, and then carry on.  No reflection needed!  After all, Freedom of Speech apparently means Freedom from Criticism.  If we somehow suggest that we need to cool it with the war, revolution, and violence metaphors, then we are, by definition, enemies of freedom.  I don't think asking for responsible maturity in our political discourse, especially from our acknowledged leaders, is anti-Freedom of Speech. 

I hope we don't give in to pressure from the right to drop the discussion about the tone of our politics.  No one should suggest making a law to regulate speech, but there's nothing in violation of the Constitution from applying shame and peer pressure to urge people to use a little judgement when exercising the precious right to free speech.  It may be the only way to continue to preserve our system.

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