The shootings in Tuscon present a difficult conundrum. On the one hand, we cannot seriously suggest that Sarah Palin and the other Tea Party demagogues literally sponsored or otherwise provoked the spree. But on the other, the inflammatory rhetoric of recent American politics has made many people (including myself) very uneasy, and this massacre feels like something expected, inevitable. Jonathan Raban’s column in the Independent today seems to strike the right balance, rightly pointing out that it is the entire discourse and culture that is at fault:
The gunsights were intended as an eye-catching metaphor in the metaphor-stuffed rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, which loves to harp on a fanciful parallel between today’s opposition to healthcare reform, the stimulus package and the bank bailouts, the case for providing amnesty to illegal immigrants, and all the rest, with the great patriotic war of the American Revolution in the 1770s. It’s the sort of historical comparison designed to appeal deeply to people who are ignorant of history, and it generates a stream of metaphors for heroic resistance, involving muskets, funny trousers and tricorn hats.
There is a chance, if rather a slim one, that the Tucson massacre will make both politicians and commentators draw back and reconsider their terms. Politics is not warfare. The Democratic party is not a colonialist tyranny. Obama is not George III. To live in a slew of overheated metaphors, in language vastly disproportionate to the occasion, is to invite and license the kind of atrocity that happened the day before yesterday.
Some on America’s extreme right have already begun to hit-back those who have criticised Sarah Palin for the gun-sight imagery she used on a campaigning website during last year’s mid-term elections. But I don’t think this criticism of Palin is cynical. Rather, it is an inelegant erruption of a thousand ‘told you sos’, from all those who have been concerned by the Tea Party’s divisive rhetoric. Explaining why statements like “a second ammendment solution” (Nevada senate candidate Sharon Angle) are dangerous and undemocratic usually takes a fair few paragraphs of historical and political blogging to get right. In the face of an hysterical, pseudo-patriotic libertarian fervour, the more compassionate and reasoned of our American cousins have struggled to articulate a counterpoint. The Arizona shootings are sick and twisted, but they have also made a complex set of ideas seem very simple indeed. A single word, ‘#Tuscon’ will now suffice to refudiate and dampen the more sinister and threatening political rhetoric. A single face will come to symbolise how far the pendulum can swing. This is in itself reductive, however.