Friday, July 20, 2012

Polite. Prudent. Politicize.

There are three kinds of issues properly surrounding whether it's appropriate to invoke political discussions in the wake of the events in Aurora.

The first is etiquette. Etiquette suggests that it may be appropriate to wait a bit before we discuss policy options, electoral effects, or any of the other practical stuff of life, or it might be appropriate to use quieter voices in the initial aftermath. May be appropriate. Whether it is or not depends on the particular circumstances of the calamity, as well as the particular context of who is talking and where and how. Who are you speaking to? How do they feel about, how are they connected to, the victims? Etiquette tells us to respect people's emotions and try not to offend; we want to follow that just as we would if we suffered a death among our family or our workplace or some other group. But what it exactly entails may be not entirely obvious.

The second is prudence. Making policy pronouncements immediately isn't just crass; it's foolish. Politicians and pundits need to constantly remind themselves: initial reports of sudden events are always confused, and may include things that turn out to be absolutely incorrect. When in any doubt, waiting another hour, or even another day, may be the wisest course.

But the third is: of course it is at some point and in some way appropriate to discuss the political implications, including policy implications, of these types of events, and to advocate for the policies we prefer.

One way of thinking about politics is that it's about how we collectively decide how to organize ourselves. That includes decisions over which aspects of our lives we will choose to treat as within the realm of politics, and which we choose to treat as beyond that realm. In a democracy, all sorts of questions like that -- not just what to do, but which things we should even consider to be "political" at all -- will be contested. David Waldman put it well this morning: "If you live under a regime of self-government, everything is political. Even the decision to decline to address things politically."

And there's more than that. In my view, the best justification for democracy is only that we want to have the ability to collectively choose how we wish to live (including, always, the leave-each-other-alone options big and small). The idea that democracy gives the objectively best policy answers is, as far as I can see, an unproven assertion at best; the idea that democracy means that the correct people are policy winners is not only theoretically silly in my view but, again, another unproven assertion.

What this means, however, is that things are political and politicized because ultimately we want them to be. The United States is an invented nation, invented in order to allow its citizens to engage in politics, and so virtually everything is open to politicization. I don't accept what Jamelle Bouie said over the at Plum Line this morning -- that "we look at this from the perspective of our culture and not our politics." The democratic answer is that our culture is at least from one point of view part of our politics as well. We may well choose that government-influenced cultural change is worse than leaving culture to its own devices; we may choose that even if we actually agreed on what cultural changes were positive and that government could effect those changes, just because we feel strongly that government shouldn't be involved in that area. But that, too, is a political choice.

Oh, and that goes for extra-governmental politics, too -- private organizations organizing boycotts, for example, or people publicly arguing for some sort of cultural changes. That's politics, too, and it's also part of what the American Republic is about. Suggestions for such as Jamelle's that we should collectively change our culture are in at least one sense political suggestions even if they are meant to be carried out without any electoral or governmental involvement at all.

(To be fair, I suspect Jamelle agrees with what I'm saying here and just didn't word what he said the way I would have; his post is just the closest example at hand).

So: be polite; be cautious. And then, if you believe that change is needed (or if you believe that proposed changes should not take place -- there's nothing in what I'm saying that is meant to imply that advocating change is on any different ground than advocating the status quo), do not hesitate to propose it and work for it, and (as long as you're attending to etiquette) ignore anyone who says that it's wrong to politicize or to exploit an awful situation. There's nothing more patriotic in the United States of America than engaging in political action.


  1. If I might put forth a slightly different suggestion, I think that one of the most powerful ideas about public life, and one that I agree with, is the notion of popular sovereignty, which I would very loosely define as the notion that people, individually and collectively, are responsible for what happens in society. Democracy is, arguably, to be defended because it makes this line of responsibility relatively clear.

    Now, this is actually a very grim doctrine. If you take the notion of popular sovereignty as I have defined it seriously, it means that yes the German people were responsible for the Nazis, and yes the American people were responsible for Jim Crow. It means that the sin of society rests firmly on you the collective and you the individual and no hiding behind personal moral worth. Democracy forces this responsibility on people more clearly than other systems. It is not perfect that way, for there are still too many psychological bolt holes ( I was not a Southern Democrat or my family were not Nazis). Still, not being a Southern Dem is a different excuse than not being born an aristocrat, as would be the excuse in another kind of system. Democracy brings people up harder against the cruel truths of their responsibilities, at least more clearly and more often than other systems, even if in the objective sense these moments of responsibility are few and weak.

  2. But just because people make a snap judgment that something like this is because of gun control (or lack thereof), or because of Tea Party craziness/liberal immorality/etc. doesn't make it true. Most commentary we see on things like this is along the lines of "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". I bought into some of the critiques of our 'uncivil, violent political culture' after Tuscon but now it just seems silly. The shooter was not connected in a meaningful way to Tea Party politics, and the causal links between, say, Sarah Palin's bad "crosshairs" metaphor (when would Loughner have ever seen it?) and Loughner's actions seem extremely thin. Ditto for the right-wing postmortems on why people run away from machine-gun wielding crazies instead of tackling them or shooting them.

    These conversations will inevitably happen, and maybe need to happen, but we've heard it all before and few are going to change their minds. Which is how most Americans feel about politics in general.

  3. Also, this:,28857/

    but maybe that fact that everyone is getting all meta today proves that we're changing--I don't know if this is an improvement

  4. My attitude is similar to anon's. I think what a lot of people object to are *ill-informed, opportunistic, or presumptuous* political points right after a tragedy. And with little information, what other kinds of points can be made in the immediate aftermath?

  5. There's also the teachable moment, when you don't have to get anyone's attention--it's there. Apart from gun control I think the teachable moment here derives from the positive: the very quick and competent response of police (who may well have prevented a second shooting)and other first responders. Meanwhile budget crunches and lack of federal support means police, first responders etc. are losing their jobs all across the country at a time when they are going to really be needed--just look at weather related crises. This is the time to honor and finance our public sector, not see it drag down employment numbers every month.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?