I don’t usually comment on American politics in this blog, but in the wake of the terrible events in Tucson last Saturday, it seems that everyone else online already is. Finding myself leaving ever longer comments on American friends’ Facebook pages, and trawling through the mounting hysteria on online forums, I thought I might as well add my two pennies worth. In a plea to restore sanity, if you will.
On Saturday, a gunman shot Arizona Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head at point blank range, before turning the gun on the crowd and killing six others. The obvious assumption to make was that this act was politically motivated; the obvious suspects, as the target was a Democrat, were the Republicans – specifically, the extreme right wingers calling themselves the Tea Party. Liberals across America within hours were reposting Sarah Palin’s notorious ‘gunsight’ map of Democrat targets (which pinpointed Giffords specifically), while Republicans, with perhaps some justification, pointed out that it might be a smidgen tasteless to ascribe this tragedy to politics before anyone knew anything like the full story. Of course, the more extreme Republicans expressed this sentiment in terms unlikely to gain them any sympathy, with their usual cries that the Democrats were “like the Nazis”, and other less salubrious comparisons.
Just in case you’re one of the three people on the planet who haven’t seen this.
From the information still emerging about the gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, it seems that he was almost certainly mentally ill – his incoherent Youtube rants paint him as most likely a paranoid schizophrenic. Despite vociferous cries from many of my Democrat friends and hardcore Republicans taking the opposite stance, he doesn’t seem to have had a coherent political ideology. The much vaunted list of his favourite reading material includes The Communist Party Manifesto (left) Mein Kampf (right in some ways, left in others) and Ayn Rand (emphatically right). He is remembered by classmates as a bit left wing, but obsessed about big government conspiracy theories with the fervour of a Fox News commentator, and his fascination with the gold standard for currency was (probably coincidentally) echoed by Sarah Palin herself on Twitter not long after the incident.
Finger-pointing, then, at either party as his prime motivator seems pointless. But, tasteless though the debate may seem to some, politics itself clearly was a motivating factor – and perhaps it’s the hysterical, shrieking incoherence that has become de rigeur in American politics that fostered a similarly incoherent hysteric in his ambition to get a gun and take matters into his own hands. Like it or not, this event has thrown a spotlight on the state of American politics, and the face it’s revealed isn’t pretty.
It’s often been said that the British possess a desire to reform America that it finds baffling, primarily because the British don’t really understand that American culture is far more different to them than it seems. But equally, a bit of distance and an outsider’s perspective can perhaps be revealing. It’s difficult for us, in a country with three major political parties (well, until the next election, anyway), to comprehend quite how viciously partisan an entrenched two party system can be. And our own political parties inform our views of the Americans’ – it seems laughable to us that the Republicans cower in terror (with a suitably big gun) of the Democrats’ ‘socialist’ policies when the Democrats are actually slightly to the right of our own ‘beloved’ Conservative party.
American culture is different, and from this Brit’s perspective, seems hugely informed by three things – an ill-informed nostalgia about the War of Independence, Hollywood’s mythologising of the pioneers who conquered the West, and the 1950s Cold War hysteria over Communism. Reducing the problem to just that is over simplifying of course, but that’s exactly what the Tea Party is doing – it’s exemplified in the movement’s very name.
I’ve been reading a lot on this topic over the last few days, much of it in left-leaning UK newspaper The Guardian. The Grauniad, as it’s known after its proud tradition of typing errors, is most revealing when one reads the Comment section, particularly the user comments after each piece. Reading these threads, neither Republicans nor Democrats, Brits nor Americans, come off very well.
It is interesting that so many fairly extreme Republicans post so vociferously on the website of a UK newspaper known to have a left wing bias, but some of the comments are revealing. This Michael Tomasky article has had all of them removed (a communist-style purge, I hear some cry) for inflammatory language about the mentally ill. So, sadly, I can’t share with you the poster who took pride in his mis-spelled insults to the liberal left because he didn’t want to be “a smart asshole” like them. So to the hard right, intelligence is a bad thing? Nor, sadly, can you see the chap who told the British emphatically that if we didn’t have gun control, we might still have our Empire. Leaving aside the fact that having an Empire is not necessarily a good thing, I feel patriotic enough to point out to this idiot that we don’t have an Empire any more because we went bankrupt standing alone against the Third Reich while the United States, with all its guns, remained isolationist.
And talking of the Third Reich brings me to one of the most common themes ‘explored’ by the real right wingers on such threads – liberals, are, unfathomably, supposed to be like the Nazis. Glenn Beck, with his Godwin’s Law Tourette’s, may bear some of the blame here, but the argument makes an insidious kind of sense. After all, the Nazi Party’s full name was the National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany. Socialist – do you see? And a totalitarian state certainly fulfils the definition of big government, the concept to which Republicans are so implacably opposed.
Unfortunately for them, that’s where the similarity ends. The ‘Socialist’ part of the name predates Hitler’s involvement with the Party; as they rose to power and once they’d gained it, they courted and got funds primarily from the middle class and businesses. Hitler banned trade unions shortly after getting into power, and targetted communists, socialists and journalists at the same time as the Jews. At the same time, he exalted the virtues of the traditional family unit, urged women to stay at home and breed, and encouraged a fanatical patriotism to the Fatherland. All that sounds socialist in the same way that the Democratic Republic of Congo actually is a democratic republic. What it does sound suspiciously like, though, is the mantra of the Tea Party. Or am I stooping to their level in making the comparison?
I should, at this point, mention that it’s a fallacy to stereotype all Republicans as Tea Partiers, in just the same way that it’s a fallacy to assume every Democrat is a pro-choice, socially inclusive gun control supporter – Rep. Giffords herself is apparently a staunch opponent of gun control. Most Republicans are, by the standards of their party, fairly moderate, as are most Democrats. But what this incident has thrown into sharp relief is that they’re not the ones who get noticed.
The viciously partisan nature of the struggle was started, let’s be honest, by the Tea Party. And it’s important to remember also that not all Tea Partiers are Republicans. But most are, and the movement does share a similarity to the Nazis in at least one way – its founding was at least in part due to a period of economic hardship. It’s been said that the Republicans tend to fare badly in power because any party who so strongly opposes big government is unlikely to be any good at being big government. The Tea Party seem to want to go further – they want to dismantle government altogether, and fall back on those good old pioneering virtues of self reliance and individual freedom.
Nothing altogether wrong with that – I have Republican friends, and while I disagree with their politics, I understand their motivations. American culture is all about aspiration to material success, and it’s understandable that those who achieve it don’t want to share any of the loot. They also don’t want the government to run every aspect of their lives – something I can sympathise with, after the last Labour government in the UK making this the most surveilled country in the world and attempting to introduce compulsory identity cards.
But the Tea Party movement have taken this mantra and under a guise of ‘patriotism’ reduced it to a level of fervent hysteria where Michele Bachmann calls for “second amendment remedies” to legislation she disagrees with, and Sarah Palin exhorts her supporters, “Don’t retreat, reload”, capitalising on the frontiersman myth of the noble gunslinger and hunter as the role model to aspire to.
That might have had some validity a couple of centuries ago, but makes little sense now. But harking back to a nostalgic, non existent golden age is what the Tea Party is all about. They want to return America to “what the Founding Fathers intended”. The trouble with that being that the Founding Fathers were from the 18th century, and some of their ideas look a bit outmoded now. For instance, the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have let Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann or Christine O’Donnell have the vote – come to think of it, they might actually have tried O’Donnell as a witch. That I can sympathise with, but it seems rather harsh on the sane women of America. The Founding Fathers also didn’t have much of a problem with slavery; though the Tea Party conveniently ignore this and if pressed point out that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican too.
They also point to George Washington’s declaration that a state must have God at its foundation – despite that bit in their beloved Constitution that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This is where the ideal falls apart somewhat; Glenn Beck, while liked by right wing churches, is also viewed with suspicion as a Mormon.
The Tea Party, like the Republicans in general, share a hatred of “big government”. This, again, is not the clear cut issue they would like to make it. The hatred and furore surrounding Barack Obama’s fairly pitiful healthcare legislation seems mystifying to those of us in the UK, where even the Conservative party would balk at dismantling the long established National Health Service. Yet even that’s not clear cut; it’s true to say that as an overstretched public service, the National Health Service can never offer care to the same standard as private companies. But the choice still exists here, and for those who can’t afford private healthcare, they won’t face the choice of dying or going bankrupt avoiding death. Tea Partiers don’t see why it’s any of their problem to help those who can’t help themselves; if I can take a leaf out of their book and harken to the past, I might refer them to the words of John Donne:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
In other words, don’t ignore those who need help – you might need help yourself some day, and by your standards, nobody would give it. Still, we’d hate to undermine your vaunted self reliance. I’m sure you can amputate your own foot to get it out of that animal trap you set.
Similarly unequivocal is their attitude to gun control, or rather, the lack of it. The second amendment to the Constitution made perfect sense when it was drafted – in 1791. There should not, in a supposedly civilised society, be any need for every citizen to go about armed these days. But the precedent is set, and however irrelevant it may seem, the continued ownership of guns becomes a justification for the ownership of guns to protect oneself from those who own guns, in a dazzlingly circular argument. Republicans have already seized on this argument to state that if more people had been carrying guns at the Giffords event, they could have “taken Loughner down”. In practice, I seriously doubt a firefight in a crowded area would have produced particularly preferable results – we might well have been looking at twenty dead instead of six.
Still, gun control would represent having the government interfere in the liberty of individuals, and we can’t have that, can we? Oh, except where we can. The right’s determination to constitutionally ban gay marriage is surely exactly that – government legislation mandating what individuals may do with their private lives. And while they stick vociferously to their opposition to gun control, they somehow ignore that the exact same arguments support the legalisation of recreational drugs. Big government, it seems, is fine, as long as it’s banning what you personally don’t like. But if it’s not, there’s always those “second amendment remedies”.
For a picture of what the country run by Tea Partiers might look like, here’s a good article about the state of Arizona in Harper’s. The Republican administration of Arizona, where this tragedy occurred, represent a virtual Tea Party state. Their opposition to government taxation over the years has been so vociferous that public buildings never even finished are crumbling from lack of funds to repair them, while the state as a whole has a massive budget deficit despite a healthy tourist industry. They want to cut still further, believing that only those who can afford to send their children to school should benefit from education.
Meanwhile, they pass insidious laws playing on irrational fears about Mexican immigrants, by which anyone who looks ‘a bit foreign’ can be stopped by the police and forced to present identification. Fortunately, they’ve banned any study of Hispanic literature in the state’s schools, along with many ethnic studies programmes, so none of the upcoming generation will know what a foreigner is. These measures are in the sensible hands of such as state senator Sylvia Allen, who famously stated that the Earth is only 6000 years old (because it says so in the Bible, obviously), and that trees are “stealing Arizona’s water supply”. One begins to see the rationale of the internet poster who venerated stupidity as a plank of the right wing.
They also have some of the laxest gun regulations in the Union, but these are still too intrusive for the Arizona legislature, who are taking the sensible step of allowing faculty members to carry guns on university campuses – one of the few places in the state where, until recently, one couldn’t carry a gun.
When the level of political rhetoric is raised to, essentially, “shoot whoever you disagree with”, and people with mental health problems take an interest in politics in a state where guns are virtually handed out like candy, an event like Saturday’s seems almost inevitable. Unfortunately, it was in the aftermath that the left didn’t do themselves any favours either. They jumped to the obvious conclusion – mad Tea Partier, all Glenn Beck’s fault, look at Sarah Palin’s map – before bothering to get any of the facts. Understandable, sure, but it brings liberals down to the same level as the right to exercise that kind of knee jerk reaction. And it’s come as something of a surprise to me to find so many of my liberal American friends virtually baying for Loughner’s blood like an online lynch mob – surely that’s more the province of the right, too?
And the trouble is, that kind of reaction plays perfectly into the right’s hands. The left shouldn’t try to take them on at their own game – aside form losing the moral high ground, they’re just not as good at it. Obama’s much quoted remarks about “they bring a knife, we bring a gun” (yes, I’ve seen The Untouchables too) and finding out who was responsible for the Gulf of Mexico disaster so he’d know “whose ass to kick” sound like feeble imitations of the right’s fevered exhortations. Meanwhile, online blogs’ demand grew for the shutting down of Fox News. Remember the other bit of the First Amendment, where it says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”? You’re better than this, Democrats.
Of course, this gave the real right wingers the excuse to play the victim. "How distasteful”, they tut, “politicising such a tragedy for which we are not at all responsible”. All while, behind the scenes, inflammatory material like Palin’s map was quietly removed from the web without comment. Guilty consciences? Surely not. Meanwhile, Glenn Beck was able to offer a heartfelt plea for peace alongside an unfortunate randomly generated image of himself impersonating Jack Bauer:
Still, surely this should at least give us a temporary lull in the shrieking, rabid vitriol, right? Well, we got a day or two, with Obama’s minute’s silence and John Boehner’s reasonably dignified, bipartisan condemnation. But even then, both sides just couldn’t let it go. Democrats continued to stubbornly insist that Loughner was a calculating, evil right winger, while right wing radio pundit Rush Limbaugh’s view almost beggared belief – apparently Loughner’s mad grin in the now infamous mugshot is because he knows he has “the full support of the Democratic Party”.
Nobody questioned the lack of support for those known to be mentally ill, least of all Arizona governor Jan Brewer, whose own son has been institutionalised for 20 years in a comfy private facility after copping an insanity plea for a charge of rape. Meanwhile, apparently sales of Glock handguns have soared in Arizona among those who consider the whole event some sort of consumer promotion. Never mind, the Republicans can look almost cuddly if they compare themselves to old favourites the Westboro Baptist Church, who are heading to Arizona to picket the funerals of the dead because Rep. Giffords was a “fag-promoting, baby-killing, proud-sinner”.
In the midst of all this, Gabrielle Giffords, once considered a bright hope for the first female President, fights for life in an Intensive Care Unit. Six people are dead, including a bright nine year old girl who had the misfortune to be interested in the democratic process. And the hysteria rages on, barely checked. Something is definitely wrong here. I don’t have a magic solution to it. Neither do the Democrats. Neither do the Republicans. But calming down and talking like civilised human beings would probably make a good start.