Sunday, January 9, 2011

What's the Matter, Can't You Take a Joke?

I don't enjoy writing about politics. During the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election I did rather a lot of it -- and a few people might have said that some of what I was producing wasn't all that bad -- but on very, very few of those occasions would I have described the activity as a labor of love. (Live-blogging the actual map on election night stands out as the exception that proves the rule, here, precisely because the topic about which I was writing was an exception that proves the rule: The good guys, on that night, were winning.)

Mostly the act of writing commentary about our present era from a perspective on the political left has felt less like a gleeful celebration of the promise of representative government being enjoined by an informed electorate -- and more like drawing the short-straw of trying to write a compelling narrative about a mismatched bowl game in which it is already understood that the entire coaching staff on the losing side will immediately be fired when the game is over. Except for the existence of high, occasionally life-and-death real-world stakes for the rest of us. Yes, that's more like it: A mis-matched football game, in which those of us seated in the stands have all wagered our lives' savings on the team everyone was predicting was going to lose before kickoff. We know how it's going to end, and it's going to end badly for almost everyone.

Indeed it is so not fun to write about politics from the left in this country that, on more than one occasion, it has actually given me chest-pains. I write about politics anyway because, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the idea of not writing about politics is often even more unbearable. January 9, 2011 is one of those times.

In case you've been living underwater since yesterday afternoon, one Gabrielle Giffords, along with twenty other people, was shot outside the entrance to a Tuscon-area supermarket. Ms. Giffords is the representative from the eighth congressional district of Arizona, and she was shot while meeting with constituents. Of the twenty other people shot, six were killed -- including a Federal judge and a nine year-old girl. Ms. Giffords herself was struck in the head and suffered a bullet wound that traveled all the way through her brain and exited the other side. Reports on her condition at this hour are still mixed: It appears likely that she will survive, though it is far less likely that she will ever truly recover. The alleged gunman is already in custody, after bystanders are reported to have tackled the individual as he attempted to re-load. The suspect's name is Jared Lee Loughner and he is twenty-two years old. After executing a search warrant into his home and automobile, law enforcement officials discovered an extensive collection of writings about the threat to freedom and democracy that is posed by excessive government control -- in language that could pass for the script of Glenn Beck's next radio broadcast.

Giffords has represented a Tuscon-area district that voted for McCain in 2008 and, after casting a vote in favor of the health insurance reform bill that past last year, won narrow reelection over a Tea-Party sponsored candidate in the 2010 midterms -- a juxtaposition that had not escaped the attention of highly placed and typically vitriolic opinion leaders on the black-hearted right. And here we come to the point of today's comment. It happens that Sarah Palin's political action committee, the SarahPalin PAC, recently published a map of the United States which targeted twenty congressmen and -women who fit the same political description as Ms. Giffords: Democrats who represented districts that had voted for McCain, and who subsequently voted in favor of health insurance reform. ...But when I say targeted, you see, I mean that the map in question actually placed gun sights over the areas of the country that these people represent. Let me just repeat that: Sarah Palin, folks, the woman who wants to be your next President, published a map that included gun sights drawn over the locations represented by nineteen other Democratic congresspeople, and Gabrielle Giffords.

As chilling as this is (and let no one attempt to suggest otherwise), it also serves as an excellent example of something else that too few people are talking about these days, it seems to me: the wave-of-the-hand dismissals that are being brought to such chains of causality by the right wing's rank and file. Having invested themselves in a world view that operates on an embrace of simplicity for the sake of itself, to an extent that a candidate for President can lose an election on the grounds of suggesting that he'd meet with people and have conversations before deciding, the Joe Everyman constituent on the political right does not now want to have that seductively vapid world view compromised by the obvious dot-connections between Sarah Palin's gun sights, and Gabrielle Giffords' gunshot wounds.

Forced to address the connection at all, they smirk their smug, bully-smirks, and ask you why you didn't realize that the Palin ad was intended to be taken as a joke. Far from serving as conclusive proof of the fulminating, pro-violence, anti-constructive agenda of the right, the linkage between Sarah's obviously (?) tongue-in-cheek map, and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, is instead proof somehow of your thin skin.

It wasn't that long ago that I was asked semi-publicly by a husband-and-wife duo how it was that I'd become so unreasonable when it comes to politics. This, you understand, from a couple with whom I'd once enjoyed a close friendship but who, in adulthood, have like so many other people surrendered all semblance of basic reason to the right wing hate machine's siren-song cocktail of xenophobic religious bigotry, fear-mongering about excessive government interference, and laughable disinformation dressed up as open-minded impartiality. Two weeks before the wife of this couple asked me how it is that I could have changed into someone so unreasonable in the years since we'd known each other, the husband in this couple had referred to Glenn Beck -- the man who said on his nationwide broadcast, "You know, I'm seriously thinking about killing Barack Obama" -- as a journalist.

Of course, if we've learned anything over the past two years it is that the country gains nothing through the engagement of such people. Inviting their preferred politicians to participate in the writing of important legislation, and incorporating their suggestions, only threatens the facile diorama if it is reported that way by their mass-market spokespeople of hate, and so it doesn't even get mentioned. Instead it's "Obamacare," and the people who voted for it in pro-McCain districts get to wear gun sights -- if not on their persons, then on the places where they live.

Few people with whom I've discussed this want to admit it, but if the countless Republican ideas that were incorporated into the eventual health-insurance reform bill were to have no beneficial impact on the rhetorical tone of the extreme right -- if the bill ultimately passed could, as a result, end up being a virtual carbon-copy of the one proposed in 1994 by The Heritage Foundation, in response to the proposals being advanced at that time by the Clinton Administration -- then really, folks, the notion that constructively engaging a pair of foam-at-the-mouth religious nut-jobs about the A-to-B connection between Palin's poster and the Giffords shooting is a fool's errand. It's contrary to the best instincts of those of us on the left, but it's also true: Informed debate with these people is now pointless.

What then remains? What remains is a renewed commitment to Democratic ideals (sparing the pointless compromise for some other epoch in which both sides are once again prepared to negotiate in good-faith), coupled with a far more proactive commitment to messaging both the accomplishments those ideals have produced, and the ghastliness of the alternative, to the supposedly undecided but actually there-for-the-taking independent vote. It's the subject for another column at this point, obviously, but personally I am of the opinion that independents were largely ignored during the first two years of the Obama Administration, in two important senses: The ridiculousness of the right's characterizations of the President's agenda were never proactively countered with equally effective messaging about the truth (an old story with Democrats in high places, alas), and the compromises being offered to that agenda were targeted at mollifying the hardened right, instead of being offered so as to sound reasonable to the people in the low-information middle. In the case of health insurance reform, this produced a bill that carries less appeal to them, with no upside for people like Gabrielle Giffords.

As painful as it may be, as against-type as it may be, Democrats are going to have to cede the idea of speaking to Republicans as if there were any room left in this country for earnest, good-faith dialogue about the issues of the day, because there isn't. Painting gun-sights on the home towns of elected officials is the conclusive evidence of this -- the in-this-case-literal smoking gun. But more to the point, a decision to let go of the time-honored tradition of one-way good faith on the part of Democrats will free those officials, and the messaging resources that have been wasted in the effort, to point out far more effectively and far more comprehensively to the low-information voters in the middle that the threat represented by handing-back power to the gun-wielding religious nuts on the other side is larger now than it has ever been in our country's history. In other words, the next time one of those swaggering bully fascists from the Drudge Report smirks at us and asks us, "What's the matter, can't you take a joke," the answer we give in response -- thinking first of Ms. Giffords and the long and arduous rehab that probably awaits her -- should be a resounding, "No."

Dave O'Gorman
"The Key Grip"
Gainesville, Florida

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