10 January 2011

Arizona: what we've really lost and what we must do

By know everyone knows what happened to Congresswoman Giffords, Judge Roll, and the other victims in Tuscon. But I can't stop thinking about this.
Aspiring politician Christina-Taylor Green was born in the midst of tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, and died Saturday morning while trying to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The strong-willed 9-year-old third-grader had gone to meet Giffords with a neighbor when she was shot. She died later at University Medical Center.
And not surprisingly, this:
Jittery members of the U.S. House of Representatives concerned about security jammed telephone lines Sunday during a rare bipartisan conference call a day after a gunman tried to assassinate U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a supermarket near Tucson.
A bipartisan group of House leaders took the unusual step of inviting spouses and staffers to dial into the conference call held to update members about Giffords, brief them about the shooting and discuss steps being taken to tighten security.
I want to show some restraint in commenting on this because there was no initial "proof" that this (alleged) assassin's actions had any groundings in politics.  And frankly I found it disturbing at how quickly the punditry on both ends of the political spectrum absorbed this news and once again used it as proof they have been right about the other side all along. As usual, I won't hide my politics - the punditry on the right has gotten so defensive about this and the tone their rhetoric has taken it almost begs the Shakespearean retort, "the lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Before we delve into the depravity of today's political discourse, it's important to take stock of what we've really lost.
  • We have, of course, the unfathomable tragedy of the loss of life - not only a vital public servant in the form of a federal judge, but also five other innocent people, including a nine-year-old girl.  And we have those who were badly wounded, and those who were traumatized by witnessing the event.
  • We will likely see further physical separation of the government and the governed.  We will have fewer public events, more security and isolation for Members of Congress and this Administration, less access for the taxpayers and even the media.  This means that more government will be done in private, among only those privileged and moneyed enough to have access to those in power.
  • We will see even less incentive to go into public service.  If I run for Congress I already know I'll spend most of my time asking lobbyists for money, I'll have a grueling travel schedule, I'll have to maintain two residences,  and I'll spend the majority of my "floor" time talking about symbolic things that have very little impact on the daily lives of people.  Now I get to wear kevlar while I do it. This is not a line of work I'd ever want my son to enter - not right now, anyway.  We used to worry about our children getting hurt if they joined the military.  Now we have to worry if they run for Congress.
I can think of two major changes we need immediately.  While we don't know for sure if the accused was listening to the political rhetoric of the right or saw the now scrubbed image of Congresswoman Giffords' district in the cross hairs of a rifle sight, we need to understand the status quo is not sustainable.

First, the news media needs to understand its own responsibility here and act accordingly - stop giving rhetorical bomb-throwers air time. We all know who they are.  We all know what networks put them on television. And sadly, we also know they drive ratings.  But you know what - it's really not news.  We've reached the point in our politics where you're rewarded not by working hard with people across the aisle but by calling those people un-American or worse.  It's time for our professional media to be the grown-ups in the room and say no, you don't get to go on TV if all you have are thinly-veiled references to guns, boldface lies  or asinine suggestions that people aren't citizens.  And don't give me guff about the first amendment.  Remember Daniel Webster: "liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint."  Editors edit.  Start doing your jobs.

Second, transparency in government just got a whole lot more important.  If we further restrict access to members of Congress and others in the government, we must know immediately who DOES have access  and where campaigns are getting money. Further, front-groups that don't disclose their funding sources - the groups that have fueled so much of the "vitriol" we've heard about without a shred of accountability to anyone - are a cancer on our democracy.  OWN YOUR WORDS.

One final point - there are moneyed interests who have contributed to the current state of political depravity.   I can't stop thinking about what I wrote in August 2009, when corporate interests were instructing angry, ignorant mobs to storm town meetings much like the one Congresswoman Giffords held this weekend.
There can be no doubt that people in my profession are organizing this sort of thing, stirring up fear and hatred and dehumanizing an enemy, in the name of "freedom," going on television and telling outright lies. They are actively trying to suppress discussion and debate. They are telling unstable people some unstable things, then they're pointing at someone and calling them "Hitler." And they're hiding their true identities (and their funding) by setting up "non-profit" groups that have names with words like "freedom" in them.
They are undoubtedly aware that the more they do this, the more likely someone is going to commit even greater acts of violence. They know this and they do it anyway.
Now those same interests find themselves more able to hide their funding, and actually have more access to government leaders as public meetings become more restrictive.  And of course, no one is accountable. 

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