The horrendous shootings in Tuscon have certainly inspired a lot of drivel from the commentariat. They were heartbreaking, but please let’s not draw stupid conclusions from them.
Perhaps most annoying has been the call for a return to civility. Well, no, I don’t feel like being civil. I like being rude. The problem with the rudeness in American political discourse is that it’s often so stupid, not that it’s so rude. The idea that politics can be civil is a fantasy for elite technocrats and the well-heeled. I’m reminded of something that Adolph Reed once said to me, characterizing a mutual acquaintance as the kind of person who thinks that if you could just get all the smart people together on Martha’s Vineyard, they could solve all our social problems. Obviously they couldn’t.
Margaret Atwood once wrote that politics is about “power: who’s got it, who wants it, how it operates; in a word, who’s allowed to do what to whom, who gets what from whom, who gets away with it and how.” There’s no way that could be rendered civil. The field of politics is constituted by vast differences in interests and preferences. Much of the time, we don’t talk about those things directly or explicitly. We talk about them in caricature or euphemism, or take it out on scapegoats.
Some on the so-called left, such as it is, are using Obama’s speech in Tuscon the other day as an excuse for rediscovering their crush on him. On The Nation’s website, always a rich source for high-mindedness, John Nichols wrote this (Don’t Tone It Down, Tone It Up: Make Debate “Worthy of Those We Have Lost”):
It has been said that Obama strives for a post-partisan balance. But this was Obama speaking as a pre-partisan, as an idealist recalling a more innocent America — and imagining that some of that innocence might be renewed as shocked and heartbroken citizens seek to heal not just a community but a nation that is too harsh, too cruel, too divided…. [F]or a few minutes on Wednesday night, we dared with our president to answer cynicism with idealism, to answer tragedy with hope, to answer division as one nation, indivisible.”
Really, John, when was this nation ever innocent? When we were trading in slaves and killing Indians? What act of “healing” will make this nation less divided? The rich and powerful have a lot of money and might and they’re not going to give it up easily.
Elsewhere on The Nation website, Ari Berman actually used the phrase “better angels” to characterize the pres’s rhetorical targets (In Arizona, Obama Appeals to Our Better Angels). (Uh-oh, I said targets.) This reminded me of Alexander Cockburn’s great characterization of the role of the mainstream pundit: “to fire volley after volley of cliché into the densely packed prejudices of his readers.” But clearly it’s not just the mainstream pundit—so too alternapundits. It’s not just that these stock phrases grate on the ears—their use is a symptom that their speaker is evading some complexities.