Monday, January 10, 2011

I remember the 1960s

I remember the 1960s, the political assassinations then. Maybe that's why this latest attack, on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, has hit me so hard.

And since I started this blog, nearly a year ago, I've been warning about the violent, inflammatory language coming from the right, not just from isolated lunatics in the Tea Party, but from Fox "News" and mainstream Republican leaders. As I asked yesterday, how did you expect this to turn out?

Do we really want to choose our political leaders by bullet, instead of ballot? The whole point of the democratic process is that it's an alternative to civil war. You may lose this time, but you don't lose your life. So next time, you might win. Do you really want to give that up?

We progressives suffered through eight long years of George W. Bush, quite possibly the low point of our nation. We watched as America invaded an innocent country, tortured prisoners of war, and politicized our Department of Justice. We watched tax cuts to the rich explode the federal deficit, as deregulation created enormous bubbles in arcane financial instruments, ending in the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. We watched as America dragged its feet, while China raced ahead - in education, in scientific research, in 21st Century technologies.

But did we start shooting politicians? Did we put rifle crosshairs on political posters? Did we claim that George W. Bush was just an impostor, not a real American, not - much as we hated to even think about it - America's President at all? Even after he was given the Presidency, in a 5 to 4 split decision by our very right-wing and Republican-packed Supreme Court, did we go that far?

We disagreed with Republicans, but we didn't claim they were agents of a foreign power. We didn't claim they were really Germans, secretly trying to bring Hitler back to life. They were wrong - tragically, disastrously wrong - but they were still loyal Americans. And we didn't threaten to shoot people if elections didn't go our way.

I remember the 1960s. I remember 1963, in my fifth-grade classroom, hearing the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I remember 1968, when I was in high school and we lost both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in one tragic year, just a couple of months apart.

Our nation went on, of course, but we were sadly diminished by those losses. None of them were perfect, of course. Who is? But they were inspiring leaders who pointed the way to a bright future. John F. Kennedy had created the Peace Corps and was the vibrant symbol of America worldwide. How would our history have been different if he'd lived?

King's death sparked riots, which destroyed city neighborhoods - many of which never did recover - and set back racial equality. Yes, we've moved forward, but how much further would we be today if he'd lived? Just look at the Tea Party, at the "birthers," at the hysteria over Hispanic immigration. Would this degree of fear and bigotry exist today if Martin Luther King, Jr., the great apostle of nonviolence, had lived?

And Bobby Kennedy, dead at 42. What would he have accomplished? He might not have won the presidency in 1968 - he might never have become president - but he would have been a positive presence in America, either way. That's when the dream died, for many of us. In 1968, the promise of the 1960s ended in blood.

And Republicans adopted their "Southern Strategy" of appealing to white racists, exploiting fear and hatred for political advantage. Instead of Bobby Kennedy, we got Richard M. Nixon as President. It's kind of funny, because Nixon would be way too liberal for today's GOP. Well, even Reagan would be too liberal - and far too willing to compromise - for Republicans these days.

The whole country has moved to the right since then. Today's Democrats pass laws proposed by past Republicans. They've become Republican-lite (minus the racism). The Republicans themselves, led further and further astray - first by their "Southern Strategy," then by Christian fundamentalists, and now by the Tea Party - have gone completely off the deep end. The whole nation has taken the wrong path in recent decades.

Would that have happened if we hadn't lost these three great men in the 1960s? Maybe, but maybe not. Where would we be today if John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy had lived? Heck, where would we be today if Abraham Lincoln had lived? We don't know. We can't know, not now.

We can't change the past, but we can remember it. And we can vow to do better in the future. Violent political language exists because it works. We Americans could end it today if we wished, by refusing to support candidates who push hatred, fear, and bigotry. We could end it by rejecting anyone who uses the symbolism of violence - especially gun violence.

We could end it by refusing to patronize Fox "News" and by refusing to vote for Republicans unless they take a clear stand against the loonies in their party. Oh, sure, they all express regret over Saturday's incident, and I'm sure they mean it. After all, it's bad politics to be associated with this sort of thing.

But dismissing this as the actions of a lunatic is disingenuous. Of course he was a lunatic. It's the lunatics who actually go through with something like this, rather than rant and rave and then go home. But it's the environment of hate, the environment of fear, the environment of violence created by these politicians and their media allies which persuades the lunatics to act.

You can't abandon your own responsibility - as a politician or as a supporter of these people - by just saying that you didn't mean for anyone to get shot. No, of course not. Who could have imagined that someone would take you seriously?

I haven't been in the mood to post cartoons or quotations or... really, anything else the past couple of days. But I need to move on, I guess. I don't know why this shooting hit me so hard - more than any other tragic incident of gun violence, I mean. But this post is an attempt to explore that.

I didn't know Gabrielle Giffords or any of the other victims of this shooting. But they were good people trying to do the right thing. Disagree with their politics if you wish, but you can't disagree with that. Giffords had just won re-election. She was only three days into her new term of office, and she was meeting with constituents.

This is what our representatives do. She wasn't campaigning for their vote or for political contributions, although both of those things are always in the back of every politician's mind. She was meeting with constituents because those were the people she represents in Congress. And she became a victim because of the cesspool of hatred, fear, and paranoia stirred up by the right-wing.

What kind of America do you want? Reasonable people can disagree, but can we at least agree that this isn't the kind of America either of us wants?

But note that agreeing is not enough. You also have to act in a way that completely repudiates these purveyors of hate, whether you agree with their politics or not. We all have a responsibility here.

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