'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.