To end the nightmare, one must first wake up

Well, that was one of the more depressing Saturday evenings I’ve had in a while. As I’m not a US citizen, I’m not going to get deeply embroiled in the political debate rippling out from the Giffords shooting, except to say that if there’s one thing I think both sides should take away from this deeply saddening development, it’s that you’ve had a little warning about just how close you are to ripping your country apart down the middle – not along a neat geographical line, but along countless fracture points and tears in every city, town, street and community, in every state.

Republicans and Democrats alike claim to be “doing what’s best for America”; I think perhaps it’s high time everyone sat the hell down and decided to define what – or more importantly who – America is. Because it’s you – and your appointed masters seem to have conveniently forgotten that component of the whole representational-democracy gig. It’s looking a lot like Loughner isn’t a self-appointed agent for either side, but to see how easily and quickly both sides instantly claimed the shooting as an operation of their opponents was terrifying. No, violent political rhetoric and polarised partisanship isn’t the whole story… but it’s a damn big component of it. And unless you all push for them to stop it, it’s just going to carry on.

I tweeted as the news was breaking:

This is why bipolar party politics is one of our civilisational millstones; if people will fight over sports, they’ll kill over a country.

John Scalzi echoed that sentiment with greater depth on Sunday:

And now is a fine time to ask whether the Gingrich strain of rhetoric is past its sell-by date. I think it is. I think it encourages bad politics; it’s a primary tool in making the manner in which people think of politics in the United States the same as they think about football games. […] what’s good for the 10-Qs of publicly-traded entertainment companies who happen to own cable news networks and newspapers or the ratings of radio stars and reality shows isn’t necessarily what’s good for the actual political health of the nation.

I wish people were smart enough to recognize this. If one result of this shooting is that we start to think about it more, it’ll be a thin silver lining to a very dark cloud. Even if the shooting eventually turns out to be unrelated to the current state of political rhetoric in the country.

Implicit in that wish (or so it seems to me) is the desire to not see the exact opposite – namely political haymaking off the back of a tragedy, as neatly satirised by this post-9/11 essay reblogged at BoingBoing:

Many people will use this terrible tragedy as an excuse to put through a political agenda other than my own. This tawdry abuse of human suffering for political gain sickens me to the core of my being. Those people who have different political views from me ought to be ashamed of themselves for thinking of cheap partisan point-scoring at a time like this. In any case, what this tragedy really shows us is that, so far from putting into practice political views other than my own, it is precisely my political agenda which ought to be advanced.

The saddest thing about that essay is how many times since 9/11 we’ve heard exactly that argument, delivered from both sides of the imaginary fence in almost every country in the world. And it’s that imaginary fence that’s the problem, the whole Red vs. Blue thing. If we continue to believe that we can reduce the complex challenges of global civilisation to a zero-sum game between two diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive choices of ideology, we shouldn’t be surprised when people start taking extreme steps for the side they identify with.

If you really need a fence, how about one that separates those who value ideology over human dignity from those who’re willing to accept that a rising tide should float all boats? By way of illustration, another post from BoingBoing shows a moment of non-partisan unity against extremist terror.

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

I was particularly lifted by this paragraph:

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

Now, by way of an experiment, let’s just change a few words:

“This is not about us and them. We are one. This was an attack on Humanity as a whole, and I am standing with my fellow Humans because the only way things will change on this planet is if we come together.”

Some of you are probably shaking your heads at my naive idealism right now; to you I ask – with a genuine curiosity to know your answer – what it is that makes you feel you have more of a right to a life of peace and sufficiency than anyone else who walks the face of the earth? If you can recognise your own desire for those things, how can you fail to recognise those same desires as they manifest in the vast majority of people everywhere, no matter what colour their skin is, no matter what god (or lack thereof) they choose to believe in? Perhaps you think that people who believe different things to yourself have been brainwashed or stirred up by clerics or politicians; if so, then look to the motes in your own eye, and wonder where they might have come from.

The Greek root of the word “politics” comes from the word for “citizen” or “civilian”; I think it’s time we reasserted that meaning. We are all citizens of one planet, with nowhere to run to. Either we all share it, or we fight to the death for the right to rule the ruins.

I believe that’s what political pundits like to refer to as “a no-brainer”.

14 thoughts on “To end the nightmare, one must first wake up”

  1. No one in America disagrees with the basic sentiment you express. Everyone belives in large abstarctions like America and Humanity. The reason you are naive is not recognizing why this rhetoric continues to happen anyway.

    You tell “both sides” to cut out the eliminationist calls for violence, to quit suggesting that guns are a valid solution to political disputes, to stop routinely calling your opponents mass murders who must be overthrown in a revolution. You do not, however, actually care who is using this rhetoric. You just want it to stop.

    I understand the sentement. But if you are sincere, you need to first understand that this kind of language isn’t an accident. It is a tool, used deliberately and cynically for political, and corresponding financial gain. You also do need to look at where it is coming from. Just telling “both sides” to cut it out and be nice is merely condescending.

  2. Hey, Phillip K. Dick made a point in one of his short stories. How we’ve gradually expanded our ‘tribe’, from the literal family to the city, state, country etc, and the key seemed to be someone to fight. That is, we Will become one united planet (albeit with the same remnant competition found between cities and states who know the other to be part of the same country etc), but it will probably take an alien invasion, or (more likely) a war with a newly independent space colony or something.

  3. @zota – Oh, I’m fully aware of who’s using it and why. But I’m also pretty convinced they can only do so because we let them – whether by inaction, tacit approval, blind submission, whatever. Our governments are supposed to be our agents, not our bosses, and we’d do well to start reminding them of that in no uncertain terms.

    And while I’m sure that everyone believes in large abstractions like America and Humanity, the problem is they don’t necessarily mean the same things to all people; again, these definitions must be reclaimed from those who manipulate them.

    I hope I didn’t come across as condescending, for that was definitely not my intent. On the contrary, rather than telling “both sides to cut it out”, I was suggesting that we re-evaluate the whole notion of “sides”:

    Perhaps you think that people who believe different things to yourself have been brainwashed or stirred up by clerics or politicians; if so, then look to the motes in your own eye, and wonder where they might have come from.

    Because the more I look at the world, the more I see a division not between Red and Blue (or whatever ideological duality you prefer) but between Governed and Government. Red and Blue are just colours on the wall of Plato’s cave at this point, or so it seems most days… 🙂

    @Phildickian – yeah, that’s pretty much the core plot of Watchmen, too. I really hope that a common enemy isn’t the only thing that could unite us, but sometimes I suspect it may well be the case, more’s the pity.

  4. I know your intent was not condescending. But I do find it frustrating. Because you are speaking to the many Americans who already agree that we need to look for common ground and find points of reasonable compromise in an effort to build a better society for all of us.

    But we are not the people you are talking about. We are not the people bringing guns to political rallies, shooting at targets of their political opponents, and assassinating people they oppose. Those people are not listening to us, and they are not listening to you. But listening to each other, they are getting angrier and louder.

    Telling reasonable blog reading, empathetic Americans to look beyond Red and Blue is — I’m sorry — quaint and painful to hear. The reason some of us asked politicians to tone down the gun violence in their rhrtoric is not because we want to score points. It is because we have a very serious and growing problem.

    Believe me, we have tried the whole “let’s put aside our differences and be reasonable” thing. It’s not working. Advice is appreciated. But please do try understand the full nature of what is happening here.

  5. Hey, I’ve got a great idea, for after we sit down in a giant #USAdef Twitter circle and ‘define’ ‘American’, and ‘solve’ the US left-right political system by the power of our sheer intellectual wit.

    Let’s all us Americans go sing a lot of kumbaya on Wall Street, walk down to the star-scraping towers of Goldman Sachs carrying baby lambs in one hand, flowers in the other, and just ask them to, “Stop taking our money and blowing up economies and just, like, all get along. We’re all members of humanity(tm)! The rising tide lifts all boats!”

    That’ll show’em fat cats.

  6. Actually, Paul, the most free countries are those with lots of loud and angry political rhetoric. And from what I’ve heard, North Korea is quite possibly the country with the single-most harmonious political discourse. If you want to know who the bad guys are in this game, just check out the ones who are trying to censor or criminalize free speech. For example: or among others.

  7. … the most free countries are those with lots of loud and angry political rhetoric.

    Genuine question: how are you measuring freedom? Zimbabwe has has some pretty fiery rhetoric of late, for instance; where do they fit on your scale? Also: [loud and angry] !(necessarily)= [eliminationist exhortation to violence].

    … from what I’ve heard, North Korea is quite possibly the country with the single-most harmonious political discourse.

    “Hey, at least we’re not North Korea!” You can do better than that, Robert. 🙂

    And as to free speech issues, as discussed previously, I think we’re on the same page. The law is too crude and cumbersome an implement to control public discourse; such controls need to emerge directly from the population in a reflection of its values.

    And that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make here: if there’s violent and polarised rhetoric at the top of the political pile, it’s because the population is either desirous or numbly accepting of it. I’m not sure which of those is the grimmer option, to be honest… but I like to think it’s the latter that is the truer, because the latter can be changed by the population, if it has the will to do so.

    To clarify: I don’t think it should be illegal for anyone to use violent political rhetoric. However, I strongly wish we lived in a world where to do so was considered so distasteful (no to mention manipulative of the most susceptible) that it would instantly relegate the speaker to the very margins of political discourse. Sadly, things seem to be shifting the other way… and I hold that the only way to change that direction is for the population to demand dignity and honour from its elected representatives.

    Which was the entire point of my post above, though I’ll concede that my writing style makes my points rather opaque at the best of times: if America is as appalled by this polarisation as so many seem to be claiming, then it’s up to them to demand (and be) the change they want to see. Standing back and wringing one’s hands over the increasing tension between political polls is exactly the sort of liberalism that conservatives justifiably love to parody, and it achieves nothing.

    Shorter version: you can blame the viciousness of your nation’s politics purely on its political classes or constitutional make-up, but by doing so you wash your hands of any responsibility for the state of that nation. Seems pretty antithetical to this whole “democracy” thing, if you ask me. 😉

  8. But sitting around and typing out wordy hand-wringing blog posts detailing what other people should be doing is so much easier and entertaining than actually doing anything!

  9. Same applies to commenting on said posts, surely? 😉

    (And you calling me wordy? Paging Doctor Kettle, message from Mister Pot at the reception desk… 🙂 )

  10. wow, how enlightned! Folks getting offended by someone from another country “commenting” on theirs… realpolitik = pious cyncism…

    I have no nationality. Do you? If so, why?

  11. Well Paul, it sounds like we are simply in violent agreement. :). But I want to re-emphasize that the greatest threat, by far, is from those seeking to take advantage of situations like this to convince the public to accept the criminalization of political speech that they find distasteful, with the excuse that such actions are necessary so as to protect us from sick and violent individuals who might find inspirations in such words. However, while individual non-charismatic madmen (like the one who attacked Giffords) may kill up to dozens, or even hundreds of innocents, tyrannical governments can (and do) slaughter, starve, and enslave tens (or even hundreds) of millions of people, for periods lasting decades or even centuries. And history shows that allowing the suppression of political speech plays directly into the hands of, to be blunt, the most evil tyrants that have ever walked this earth. You and I agree about a lot of things, Paul. But it seems that I worry about the rise of tyranny and loss of freedom a bit more than you do. Freedom is exceedingly rare, fragile, and, in my view, worth protecting, even at the price of allowing a considerable amount of unpleasant discourse. I agree with you that there should be social pressure against such discourse, but never, never, that there should be laws against it. And there are legislators in the USA who are, right now, attempting to create such laws. Some of their intentions may be good, but their actions are vastly more dangerous to humanity than the threat posed by a mere madman with a gun.

  12. “Same applies to commenting on said posts, surely? 😉

    (And you calling me wordy? Paging Doctor Kettle, message from Mister Pot at the reception desk… 🙂 )”

    My comment was not targeted at you in particular, more of a universal observation on the nature of emergent human behavior in our current world, where not just Americans but EVERYONE wants to proselytize and give “their opinion” and get off on the hot dopamine rush of self-righteous indignation, but no one wants to actually do anything. But by the way you took the aphorism to be about yourself, perhaps you see the irony now? 🙂 (Yes, I’m guilty of the same sort of digital back seat driving at times as anyone else who has fingers, a keyboard, and a net-enabled device).

    Its easy to abstract America from an external vantage point into a sort of amorphous blob of cowboys and Sarah Palin nutters, what might be called The Great American Tulpa Pantheon, and this is largely the fault of our own marketing and Hollywood media-industrial complex. We have had the best or at least most well-funded and overdeveloped media and have mastered the art of cultural imperialism, to our own detriment. It’s easy to assume that the circus of media-generated charades that passes for a political ‘discourse’ in the US represents the views and intellectual lives of all Americans, but in truth, most realize that the Limbaugh-Palin-Fox News v Keith Olbermann ‘the liberal media’ and ‘New York Times’ is a sock puppet show enacted by the fingers of THE MONEY to bewilder our less fortunate media-braindeadened brethren who have been raised on reality and a belief that skool be 4 dem fools, who do not have the sheer mental or emotional capacity to view the world beyond the frame of tribalistic stadium sports or car-crash reality TV drama queen fests.

    The loudest and hottest winded voices who succeed in pulling off the Jerry Springer formula in the field of political discourse may be the most visible, and I suspect many outsiders view these very visible pundits as representative of the American people when most with a dozen neurons to rub together in fact think orthogonally to their political infotainment hell hole. As one of my fellow Americans has already mentioned, we’re living in a digital world of echo chambers, and that can of worms brewing over in the other forum and Twitter channel rah-rah-rahing the demise of the ‘opponents’ and photoshopping crosshairs on the “betrayers” of their echo chamber? They are not listening to us, or to you. Trying to convince the sort of people who buy into the Fox News narrative is spun into fuel for their fires. It’s like trying to convince a fan to stop rooting for their team through “rational discourse” at best and like trying to convince a zombie to stop eating your arm through rigorous argument on the drawbacks of cannibalism at worst. Belief on this level is not rational but emotional; the heart is the master, the mind is the slave. Change on that deep level does not happen through talk or chiding or pleading to reason or “demanding” change from politicians and pundits who are payed to talk to the other echo chamber. No, that kind of emotional identity change is very much like love: it must be experienced. Namely through human experiences with a group other than your own. For most people this is one of the hardest but most noble things to do, to truly change, which is why it is harder to come by nowadays in our world of convenience and self-reaffirming filters. If there is a key leverage point, perhaps its to promote multiculturalism, in the physical and digital world, although it is much easier to form human bonds in person. Perhaps the best thing a well-meaning empathetic liberal-leaner could do is not to argue with conservatives or to “demand change”, but to get off the computer, exit the digital world of echo chambers, and share a beer or a big game hunting trip with a republican.

    And of course promote education, specifically critical thinking, so that people might see through the fake wars perpetuated by the paid pundits.

  13. Raven –
    I’m not exactly meaning it in the usual way. It’s just that maybe we can’t fully accept a one-world identity until it has something ‘its own size’ to rally against (another world, another species etc). Until then, Earth is just the battleground. Kind of an in-built competition drive perhaps?

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