Friday, January 14, 2011

Some more thoughts on Tucson, Sarah Palin, and civil discourse...

A friend of mine wrote me on Facebook about the broad generalizations on both sides of the ideological divide in this country following Tucson,and when I sat down to respond to him, much more poured out of me than I had anticipated...and so I share it here, too.

Listen, I'm (mostly) a centrist, too, though probably more liberal than you. That said, the issue (at least from my perspective) is not as you describe it. Let me try to explain:

1) I don't believe that Sarah Palin caused this problem. This guy was a nut bag, acted on his own, and whether he was aware of the gun sights on the map or not is almost immaterial. As a psychologist I heard on television explained it, "it was not ideology which caused this problem, it was pathology, but the ideology was gift-wrapping on the pathology." I think that's a pretty interesting way of looking at it, and I happen to agree.

2) What Sarah Palin IS responsible for, I think, is how she speaks. Saying things like, "Don't retreat, reload!" or "We need to take up arms" or things of that nature, not in private, or to a small group of friends, but publicly, loudly, to the American people is, frankly, not what people look for in a potential leader, and absolutely does foment the general environment of political and civil discord that's running amok in this country right now. Is she responsible all by herself? Of course not. Is she helping to stoke the fires of anger among a population that is, quite frankly, in the aggregate, uninformed about their world? Absolutely she is! In the health care debate, it was she who coined the term "death panels." She was referring to a provision that would subsidize the cost of end-of-life counseling for those who wanted it. In other words, if I am terminally ill, and want to talk to a counsellor about my wishes about how I want to die, what provisions I want to make for my funeral, how I want to say goodbye to my family, etc., that counselling would have been paid for by my insurance. Death panel? Absofuckinglutely not. Words have consequences and effects in the real world,and a person in her position, with the national audience she has, MUST carefully weigh each word that they speak, much more so than you or I, and they have a RESPONSIBILITY to do so.

3) The choice of "blood libel" was simply either tone deaf, or intentionally belligerent. There is no alternate "generic" or less volatile and offensive interpretation, as I've heard some try to explain. It's like "Nazi" or "nigger" or painting a swastika on someone's house, or burning a cross in their front yard. You may try however you like to explain that that is not what you meant, but there is NO alternate meaning, given the dark history linked to those terms. "Blood libel" was, quite simply, an accusation made against Jews that they would kill Christian children, and use their blood to make Passover matzoh. The most recent such accusation happened in Massena, New York, in September, 1928 (read this , so, though that is a long time ago, this is something which occurred even in this country, and in modern times. Her choice of this term is inexcusable. Maybe a speechwriter wrote it, and she didn't know what it meant (one theory I've heard in the media). If a speechwriter handed me something I didn't understand, I would ask what it meant before delivering it. THAT is what a leader does. What she did is NOT what a leader does. I think it's also worthwhile reading this article, by Bobby Kennedy, Jr., about what the tone was in this country when his uncle was assassinated:

4) On the overall question of what this says about her ability to be president, David Frum (former speechwriter for George W. Bush, and certainly not a liberal) probably did the best, and most dispassionate job of explaining why her 8 minute video damaged her: "When you apply for a job, you should dress for the job you want,” Frum noted, “She dressed for the job she has.”

5) On the general question of the lack of security at the event, even though the USCP has a protection unit which can provide notification to local law enforcement, USCP is almost exclusively focused on providing protection to the leadership of both houses of congress, not the individual members, and in exceptional circumstances, to those who have been threatened, and then only until the perceived threat has passed or lessened. I agree, had her office notified local law enforcement, even the presence of a single police officer might have provided enough of a disincentive to prevent this guy from doing what he did. Or not... But, it is an all too common occurrence for members of congress, when in their districts, to hold gatherings like this one across their district, and to plan security for each of these would a) be extremely complex, and require exponentially larger expenditures, which b) would likely not be viewed kindly by their mostly ignorant constituencies.

It's a difficult problem. Even though the last paragraph of what you sent me talks about the "assumed" tradeoff between accessibility and security, I think in practical terms the tradeoff exists, and brings with it a cost, as well, not only in dollars, but in lost civility, lost (dare I say it?) democracy.

When I was a boy, my parents took us to Washington, DC, multiple times. I was able to attend the Senate Select Committee hearings on Watergate, without going through any metal detectors, and I was patted on the head by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii (still serving) and by Senators Howard Baker and Sam Ervin (the chairman of the committee. I saw Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman testify. Years later, I was able to see Ollie North testify during the Iran Contra hearings. Multiple times, we toured the White House, and at the Capitol, you could go to your representative's office, and get free gallery tickets to watch the House or the Senate, and you could pretty much freely walk through the capital. We even rode the small capitol subway (which runs between the Capitol and the various House and Senate office buildings) with senators and representatives.

When I took MY children there, last April, you can no longer enter the Capitol, except through the new Visitor's Center, and you can no longer walk through it except via a guided tour, and most of the areas I walked around freely in as a child are now completely off limits. Why? Multiple shooting incidents over the years, following which new and more stringent security measures were put into place. Are members now more safe when they are in the Capitol? Of course. Have we lost something invaluable in our democracy in terms of access? Yes, absolutely. Has that loss of access and increasing distance between the people and their leaders contributed to the feeling of distrust of government? I don't see how anyone could make the case against that point of view...

That is much more than I was intending to write when I began, but I hope you understand that the debate is more nuanced than how it is cast in the media, and it IS a valid debate, and a necessary one. Frankly, I think it is MORE dangerous NOT to have it, than to have it...

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