January 24, 2011

How to Cool the Heat In Arizona

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When I visited my mother’s conservative hometown, I always knew that people felt differently about social issues than voters in my native Brooklyn, NY. What I didn’t understand as a kid was the deep-rooted sense of anger and personal offense that pervades political debate today, escalating Congressional arguments over social policy into media circuses and wars of words.

Over the last two years, I’ve felt a palpable sense of hatred taint political arguments and media coverage. 2008 was a year of change that understandably led to a bumpy period of readjustment; President Obama’s victory was a huge disappointment to the conservative right, leading to the rise of the Tea Party. This new right-libertarian political movement was one of many groups intent on making over the old, tired face of the Republican party.

Over the last year, Sarah Palin has made a play to be a leader in the Tea Party movement, praising it in pre-election video speeches and criticizing old-school GOP honchos, including Bush mastermind Karl Rove. Her casual, friendly style matches well with the Tea Party’s back-to-basics, on-the-ground approach to politics, so I wasn’t really surprised to read articles linking her to the movement. What bothered me, however, was how casually tactless she became in her political methods and communication with constituents.

Her political action committee SarahPAC, for example, posted a Facebook image of a map of the U.S., with districts targeted for Tea Party takeover marked with — yes, literally — gun sights. Quite frankly, a coloring in of the district or a little message over it would have more than sufficed, but the Palin camp chose a violent and aggressive symbol to represent its strong feelings about the need for change.

Look, I get that SarahPAC and other Tea Party-affiliated organizations wanted to appeal to voters with visual aphorisms, summing up their anger in one little sign. The organizers behind SarahPAC may well have imagined that the map said, “Hey, we want you out of here!” What symbols like gun sights say to me, however, is, “Hey, we want you out of here, as if you were dead!” The practice of directing aggressive imagery like this towards leaders of different political movements is a destructive approach to political discourse and counters building effective consensus in the future. SarahPAC alienated both the Democratic and much of the Republican political communities in efforts to appeal to some voters’ anger. I believe that it was with little concern for the respect of other political parties that this map was posted on Facebook.

A little over two weeks ago, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on a meeting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords M.A. ’96 (D-Ariz.) was holding with her constituents outside a grocery store in Arizona. He killed six people and wounded 13, including Giffords. The sheriff of Pima County, where the shooting took place, acknowledged that Loughner is highly mentally unstable. However, he also expressed concern over the political vitriol that is a huge problem in Arizona, creating anger towards leaders like Rep. Giffords. His comments opened up the question of whether angry political debate in the United States needs to be curbed and cooled down.

Rep. Giffords had criticized Palin and the greater Tea Party’s tactics in the past, expressing concern for her and other Democrats’ safety after her office was vandalized by an angry voter. She remarked in an appearance on MSNBC that her colleagues who served in Congress for over 30 years had never seen such anger over legislation as they did over healthcare reform. She specifically called Palin out on what she described as a failure to recognize the consequences of her statements and tactics.

After the shooting, Palin released a seven minute video in which she emphatically defends our right to free speech, and points out that Giffords herself read the First Amendment on the House floor the week prior to the shooting. Palin seemed not only intent on distancing her political views from the actions of Loughner, but also on putting those critical of SarahPAC on the defensive.

What Palin didn’t address, however, was the actual issue of political vitriol and its consequences. Of course, it is clear that Loughner was not some hitman hired by the rabid conservative right to hurt Giffords. That he has mental problems is evident. While Palin spent seven minutes defending her right to use violent images in her campaigning and remarking that she had nothing to do with Loughner, she forgot to address the subsequent question — whether or not we need to calm things down.

Palin displayed quite fully that she is intent on defending SarahPAC’s exercise of free speech, but doesn’t acknowledge that both major political parties tend to focus more on free speech than effective action. In the United States, politicians have become vehicles for messages, not for change. We argue with opposing sentiments and feelings, but don’t focus on the real issues at hand.

Loughner’s crimes against the crowd at the grocery store in Pima County, Arizona, don’t have to be driven by political views to be significant. Simply because his actions don’t correlate to the vitriolic political rhetoric of a specific movement doesn’t mean that they’re not symbolic of a greater American problem. Just as he has literally blocked Rep. Giffords’ ability to make political change in Congress for now, our lack of respect for our political opponents blocks our ability to do the same. Let’s take this opportunity to reflect, regret and change how we act in the future, so that when tragedy strikes again we don’t have to blame, but rather stand together.

Maggie Henry is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry