‘Politicizing’ that which is already political

In the wake of tragedy, demand for debate


Max Read dismisses those who fret about “politicizing” a tragedy.

It’s easy to understand the impulse to decry “politicization”: politics is necessarily antagonistic, and in the aftermath of a violent tragedy confrontation seems distasteful and disrespectful. No one wants to be accused of using a tragedy for “political ends.” But you don’t really get to escape. The insistence that no one talk about politics is itself a political act. Politics is how we effect change in the systems and structures that govern our lives. To take the stance that tragedies are or should remain “apolitical” or “depoliticized” is to say, essentially, that everything is fine and nothing needs to be fixed; that such an act was random and unpreventable. (In a country with rates of violent crime that far exceed our economic and cultural peers, such a sentiment seems misguided at best.) To demand politics be left out of the conversation is only to hide them.

Similarly, there is part of Dave Weigel’s early response to the shooting in Colorado.

I see Chris Cillizza’s getting criticized for writing a well-researched story about whether gun tragedies affect public opinion of guns.(Short version: There are vastly different KINDS of tragedies, but, no.) Lay off! The only time Americans ever talk about gun laws or the effects of gun laws is after tragedies.

There are probably some distinctions that need to be made. Holding a raucous political rally on the day of a prominent tragedy would have been poor form, but no more so than going through with a gala red carpet opening in Paris for the movie linked to the shooting. Erroneously linking the perpetrator to a particular political cause or party isn’t “politicizing” the tragedy, it’s bad journalism. And to say we shouldn’t be afraid of political debate and discussion isn’t the same as excusing politicians who offer rash, poorly conceived responses in the wake of tragedies.

But, with all that said, the idea that we shouldn’t “politicize” a major event is vaguely puerile. We should respect the loss and the grief, but we can’t suspend reality: specifically, the reality that everything of any significance is political. Not “political” in the way that word has become a slur, but political in that it relates to how we govern our society and relate to and interact with each other. The idea of “politicizing” suggests there’s a difference between “politics” and “real life.” Worse, it would also seem to suggest that we find our politics to be generally distasteful.

But that should be an argument against how our politics is conducted. Not with the very idea of democratic governance. We should be able to talk about the very serious matters of policy that are raised by tragedies such as the shootings in Scarborough and Colorado. To suggest we shouldn’t is to suggest we can’t. That we can’t handle a very serious discussion about a very serious issue. For sure, we should respect the very real tragedies that have occurred and our thoughts should be with those affected. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that anything is made better by declining to engage with the questions of public policy that are raised by these events.


‘Politicizing’ that which is already political

  1. Very good post.

    Erroneously linking the perpetrator to a particular political cause or
    party isn’t “politicizing” the tragedy, it’s bad journalism.

    Sorry Aaron, but it’s both.

    Brian Ross knew exactly what he was doing. He’s ABC’s chief investigative correspondant and has been in the business for years. This was not some rookie mistake. He was following the Tuscon playbook all over again, where Jared Loughner’s shooting spree was blamed on Sarah Palin as quickly as possible, before the true facts could emerge.

    The name of the suspect had only been public for a matter of an hour or two before Ross went digging up Tea Party sites looking for any connection he could find, and rushed to get it on the air as fast as he could, without any attempt at vetting his find, before the true facts could emerge, in order to inflict as much damage on the Tea Party as he possibly could. The fact that there are several “James Holmes” in the Denver area was not considered.

    This was not an “error”. It was completely deliberate. This is how the American media covers tragedy now; by using them to inflict as much political damage against conservatives that they can. Despite the James Holmes that he slandered receiving death threats and having to disconnect his phone, Ross will probably be rewarded for what he did.

    But assuming this was what you were referring to, I’m glad to see you at least identify it as “bad journalism”. Though if you’re going to reference an instance of bad journalism, you owe it to your readers to link to what happened as you usually do, so that those who haven’t seen this particular piece of journalistic malpractice can see just what kind of stunt was pulled here. Brian Ross does not deserved to be protected for what he did.

    • You almost had me fooled that you weren’t a tinfoil hat wearer, but then you went and offered this little gem:
      “This is how the American media covers tragedy now; by using them to
      inflict as much political damage against conservatives that they can”

      I’m sorry, but no matter how many times the voices in your head say it, the media isn’t controlled by ‘the left’. Time to stop blaming hidden forces for everything going wrong in your life. Personal responsibility will get you far in this world. Give it a try.

      • It’s not how many times the voices in my head say it, it’s how many times the other voices do.

        At the link, a list of recent tragedies that have been blamed on conservatives by the left in the minutes after the tragedy, before any facts were available (not including 9/11 and the “Truthers”)…

        Jared Loughner
        The Cabby Stabber
        The “killer” of Bill Sparkman
        Amy Bishop
        The Fort Hood Shooter
        The IRS Plane Crasher
        The Pentagon Shooter
        The Times Square Bomber
        James Holmes

        Given that there has never been a documented instance of tea party violence in the history of ever…why does this happen? What motivates someone like a Brian Ross or a Keith Olbermann or a Rachel Maddow to hear the name of the offender, and then as the first thing you do, go look for a Tea Party connection? Why??? Why not an Occupy connection?

      • John G is right. No matter how many times you stick your head in the sand and ignore the obvious, it will remain true.

      • People who think in such simplistic terms as “the left” and “the right” have absolutely no business commenting on anything related to politics at all. Both of you are showing nothing but ignorance.

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