This blog is all about words, how to use them, why they matter, and what they say about us. I don’t get very political here very often, but today is a day to do it. A moderate politican, Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was shot when she was meeting her constituents on Saturday. So were six other people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.
The shooting of Representative Giffords started a long time ago–back in 2008, when Sarah Palin stood in front of a crowd and used lies and innuendo to fan the flames of racism, fear and rage in her audience. They loved her for it, and the Republican Party discovered that they had a powerful new tool–populist anger that fed on xenophobia, class warfare, ignorance, and hate. Emotions like that make facts irrelevant. And the Republican party found itself, in the words of Dan Balz in the Washington Post, “riding the tiger.”
The problem with riding a tiger is that you pretty much have to go where the tiger wants to go. The GOP understood this, and a new kind of crazy was born. Bizarre claims about President Obama’s heritage, citizenship, religious affiliations, and goals were born, disproved–with legal documents, no less–and reborn again. Compromise became a dirty word. Leaders who should have been above such things became purveyors of the most scurrilous gossip–and lent it credibility by repeating it. The idea of Democrats and Republicans working together for the good of the nation disappeared.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could openly say that his party’s primary goal was not advancing a more conservative agenda, or working to advance the interests of their constituents, but winning at all costs by ensuring that President Obama was a one-term president.
It’s a position that makes the failure of a nation desirable, and recovery something to sabotage, and the GOP did its best to make both things happen. They demanded counter-productive amendments designed to suit vested interests, then refused to vote for the bills. They filibustered everything. They organized the disruption of town hall meetings. They demonized organizations that encouraged minority voting.
Intolerance, pig-headedness, dirty tricks, falsehoods, and cynical power-grabs have become the order of the day, and they have been justified and perpetuated with the language of violence. The GOP has justified their runaway campaign to reduce government to a cypher on the grounds that the Democratic party is trying to “destroy” America.
The rhetoric has paid off, not only in a political body that has all but ground to a halt, but in increased threats against that political body. Howard Fineman’s article in HuffingtonPost details how access to our elected representatives is being lost because of those threats.
What has made all of the rhetoric of violence particularly deadly is that we are one nation, under stress. We are suffering the worst depression we’ve seen since the Great Depression. We are fighting a war that looks increasingly like a no-win proposition. We are facing weather and manmade disasters that threaten to destroy precious resources. We face terrorist threats from without and within. Millions have lost their homes. Millions more have lost their jobs. The corporations that have created much of the havoc report record earnings. The measures that were instituted to help beleaguered homeowners have been subverted. There is much to be anxious about.
Under such conditions, the rhetoric of violence becomes more than just distasteful: It becomes something very like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. And it’s only a matter of time before the stampede starts.
“I don’t see the connection” between the fundraisers featuring weapons and Saturday’s shooting, said John Ellinwood, [Jesse] Kelly’s spokesman. “I don’t know this person, we cannot find any records that he was associated with the campaign in any way. I just don’t see the connection.”
Mr. Ellinwood, here is the connection. You and your political allies rode the tiger. You fed it red meat. You spoke the language of violence, hate, and fear. You spoke of “second amendment remedies.” You painted crosshairs on your political opponents’ districts. You and your allies spoke of an election as if it were a battle. You told your followers, “Don’t retreat–reload.” Your candidate, Mr. Kelly, used a picture of himself in combat gear and holding a gun on his campaign website. He courted donations and votes by offering people the opportunity to shoot a loaded M-16 with him. Can you really be so naive as to not expect someone–perhaps some sad, deluded, young man–to take you at your word? Can you really believe that just because you “don’t know this person,” that your violent language, and the war-mongering imagery you and your allies use, has no effect on him?
The worst part of all this is that the hate and violence being ginned up in the name of the people is destroying the very fabric that binds our nation. The Tea Party was born because of the disconnect between those who govern, and those who are governed. The Republican party’s concerted obstructionism illustrates that disconnect perfectly; while millions lost their homes and their jobs, the GOP held the country’s unemployment benefits hostage until they had extorted tax breaks for the wealthiest–who in many cases had directly contributed to the economic disaster.
If there is already a disconnect–and there is–attacks like the one on Representative Giffords today will only exacerbate it. The Tea Party and the GOP have, together, crippled the few avenues that remained for the governed to speak with those governing. Town halls have been crippled. This tragedy has threatened yet another avenue. Fineman traces the increasingly stringent security measures at the Capitol; where the public was welcome in its halls not so very long ago, that is no longer always the case.
The ever-widening gap between those who govern and those who are governed, coupled with the language of violence, makes it all but inevitable that Gabrielle Giffords will not be the last member of Congress to be attacked. Is this what we really want? Do we really see our neighbors as enemies? Do we really want to make violence our method of selecting our leaders? Do we want to become nothing more than armed camps, warring against each other, or do we still believe that we can be “one nation, indivisible”? How far are we willing to ride the tiger?
Words matter. Facts matter. Working together for the common good is a worthy goal. Open, clear communication between Washington and the rest of us is something to treasure and nurture. We are better than this. Let’s get off the tiger and put it back into its cage, before anybody else gets hurt.