Searching for adults in Washington, D.C.
Some said the Congressional fight in the U.S. House to repeal Obamacare would have been unseemly last week as legislators tried to absorb the attempted murder of one of their fellow members, Gabrielle Giffords, a crime in Tucson leaving six dead and 14 wounded. The grief of legislators was compounded by concern for their own safety as they mix with constituents in uncontrolled settings.
But more than a week has passed and it is time to return to the people’s business. It is also time for the children in Congress and the media, those still disabled by grief and wringing their hands over changes we must make in political discourse, to take a firm grip on their inner adult.
Too many conducted themselves like children in the aftermath of the shooting by leaping immediately to blame conservatives for the crime of a lunatic named Jared Loughner, compounding the insanity of that Saturday. One pundit even spat out “those who collect guns” as if it were an epithet, and I suddenly realized I was among those blamed for the murders. How silly.
Worse than silly was Arizona’s negligent Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who jumped right over silly to prove himself unprofessional when he publicly manufactured a nonexistent connection between conservatives and the shooting.
Making public speculative remarks about the motive in an ongoing investigation should be a firing offense in law enforcement, but this sheriff appears to be loved by his left-leaning voter base and he, well, liberally indulged his personal politics. How egregious.
Some liberals kept their adult head while others are just beginning to recover from their irrational binge of finger-pointing at those they don’t like, but the silliness continues.
Whether legislators, pundits or reporters, the children among them insist we must change how we talk to each other about politics. Some want to purge loaded words from political lexicon.
Some want to focus on meaningless symbolism like mixing up the seating arrangement at the State of the Union next Tuesday to show both parties can play nice together instead of being divided, sort of like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Where people sit won’t make a single budget cut even if every Democrat holds hands with a Republican during the speech.
There’s a lot of talk from pundits and presidents about toning down the rhetoric, still boldly pretending that had anything to do with the crime. Pretending aside, there are several reasons any change in tone they propose will be transitory and illusory.
First, delivery of politics to the public is a lot more intense than it used to be. If you are old enough to remember pre-cable TV, then you know in the old days there was a half hour of daily news on ABC, CBS or NBC, with political highlights consuming just a few minutes each day. Political junkies back then had to read a lot of newspapers. Cable TV has revolutionized political programming, multiplying the tonnage of politics available to a much wider audience.
Hundreds of channels voraciously seek to fill every programming day 24-7. Every meaningful morsel is squeezed out of every issue and sub-issue, gathering the meaningless along the way. When a political event occurs, speculative commentary begins in minutes, discarding the obsolete notion of waiting for confirmed facts to report the news. Thus was Gabrielle Giffords’ death reported in error.
The mere whiff of controversy is sought by producers, opponents set up in argument format for the camera since strident disagreement draws more viewers. Opposing views are polarized to a fare-thee-well as we are inundated with politics under a microscope with the volume of political dialogue turned way up and a tone that has become increasingly coarse.
Coarse brings me to the second reason there will be no real change in tone. I’m not wise enough to know for sure whether the decline of civility, increasing vulgarity and lack of respect for each other in our culture is coming from generations of kids raised on a steady diet of TV, or if TV reflects that culture.
I suspect mostly the former and a little of the latter, but however it happened, the restraint of civil discourse many of us learned from our parents seems to now be passé.
The bar of inhibition against rudeness seems to be ever lower, even on the floor of the House of Representatives or the Senate with cameras running.
Politics ain’t beanbag, and the gloves are off while each side seeks every incremental advantage to win, unwilling to make themselves vulnerable by relaxing the intensity or indulging in naïve civility with a news cycle at stake. Going back to more polite and respectful ways would be nice, but you might have better luck trying to un-ring a bell.
The third reason I don’t expect any permanent change in tone is that political disagreements are real, not imaginary, and the division is deep.
However you dress it up, no matter how long the grieving about the terrible crime in Tucson, there remains passionate commitment to radically different political agendas, only temporarily on standby.
Any suggestion of backing off their agenda because of the Tucson shootings, whether Democrat or Republican, would be ridiculous.
I suppose the grief we all feel over the mayhem in Tucson brings out childlike thinking, like blaming those we don’t like or calling for a ban on mean words, anxious about special efforts to be nicer to each other, as if that would stop such monstrous things from happening again.
So much about politics is childish, but making a list of banned and approved words, an American version of Mao’s “Little Red Book,” would make it worse and wouldn’t deter a lunatic.
I hope Gabrielle Giffords recovers and is able to walk back into the chambers in the U.S. House. If that happens, cameras will be rolling and there won’t be a dry eye in the House or anywhere across the nation, including mean old conservatives like me.
Meanwhile, we have some fighting to do.
Those who still feel fragile need to grow up and get to the business for which voters sent them to Washington. Whether Democrat or Republican, that means prepare for battle with your political enemy, plot a strategy to take down your foe, put crosshairs on the adversary’s agenda, conspire to kill rival bills and bury them deep, deliver fatal blows of impassioned argument against bad ideas, dismember budgets of the opposition, pulverize antagonists defending their stupid programs, punch the life out of opposing tactics and lacerate the strategy of the other side.
Those metaphors of modern political language are a far cry from inciting physical violence, and somewhat mild compared to the vitriol you can find in political newspaper columns from the infancy of our country.
If someone is motivated by my words here to commit assault, murder or other crime, that would be his responsibility and would make him an idiot, along with anyone who blamed his crime on me.
[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]