Monday, July 23, 2012

"politicizing the tragedy"

though i was too busy in the wilds of the chicago suburbs to comment, in the fall out from the aurora shooting i kept seeing people cautioning that we should not politicize the tragedy. but why not? politics matters, at least if you use the word "politics" to refer to the discussion of policy changes. if something horrible happens and you have an idea that you think might prevent something like that from happening in the future, or that might make similar tragedies a little bit better, why shouldn't you speak up about it? it makes no sense to tell people it is wrong to do that.

i think two different things are going on here. first, politics is often not reported as policy discussions. political reporting often pays little attention to substantive policy and instead reports on the horse race aspect of politics (who is up, who is down, who made a gaffe, who had a good week, what the polls say, etc). because that is how politics is portrayed, many people don't see politics as a policy discussion. they see it as something that politicians use to angle for an advantage in a political competition. so from that perspective, "politicizing" means using something for someone's own personal gain rather than a practical discussion of how to make things better.

but second and more insidiuously, there are people who don't want the public to engage in a discussion of how to make certain issues better. there's a reason that the cautioning against "politicizing a tragedy" only seems to happen after a tragedy that involves gun violence. 9/11 was a horrifying tragedy, and yet when the television bobbleheads readily talked about how the u.s. should respond. i don't recall anyone saying they were politicizing a tragedy. when the 2004 tsunami devastated south asia, there were all kinds of discussions about how to beef up warning systems to evacuate if something like that happened again. when the 2009 haitian earthquake hit, people talked about the shoddy building codes that make the devastation worse and what to do about orphans stranded there. the fukushima disaster last year raised an ongoing debate about nuclear power, one that is still raging in japan. why weren't any of those debates condemned for "politicizing the tragedy"?

i really can't think of any time the "politicizing" objection ever comes up other than when some nutball takes advantage of the lax gun laws in the u.s. and blows away a bunch of innocent people. when that happens, then suddenly asking serious questions about the policies that allowed that to happen is a grievous sin against the victims of the tragedy, in the way that practical questions following any other kind of tragedy is not. it's a crazy double standard, one that manages to shut down real discussion of an issue that certain parties don't want discussed.