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The danger of the word “politicization”

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Once in awhile, I declare war on a word that’s become widespread because it carries a lot of assumptions with it that I think should be challenged instead of reinforced. (Such as “problematic”, a word I’ve banished from my vocabulary because it’s lazy and allows the person using it to avoid explaining exactly why something is a problem.) And today, that word is “politicize”, which is used to confuse instead of enlighten 90% of the time nowadays, and definitely ended its tenure as a useful word in the wake of the Arizona massacre.

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It’s too bad, because “politicize” used to be a useful word. It was the go-to word to describe two very negative behaviors:

1) Making mountains out of molehills.

2) Making things that are not problems out to be problems.

A good example of #1 is a lot of culture war nonsense, such as pretending that Michelle Obama is going to take away your smores or the American Life League declaring jihad on Krispy Kremes for suggesting that the word “choice” isn’t a taboo word that should never be uttered in any context. (They probably then went right back to whining about being called “anti-choice”, even though they’re not literally against those six letters standing in a row.) The latter is a little more tricky, because there are legitimate disagreements about what constitutes a problem, but again, culture war nonsense is a good example. So, for instance, you have the wingnuts in this thread making their resentment of people who make healthier, happier choices than they did the driving force behind their politics. They oppose the theory of global warming and urban planning to make more of the country dense and walkable, which are straight up political issues, because they resent the younger generation for their youthful hipness and wish to punish them, even though the young being young is not really a problem in the traditional sense.

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What these two situations have in common is that they presume that politics is about the important, life-and-death issues, and that government exists to govern, which is largely about solving social problems and preventing future ones. Real problems. “Politicizing” then is trying to attach irrelevant nonsense to politics, and it downgrades the importance of it.

Nowadays, however, the verb “to politicize” is used, 90% of the time, to suggest that politics and government are silly little trifles that shouldn’t be involved when something really serious is on the table. That’s how the word has been used in the past week, by right wingers trying to deflect criticism of their very serious actions by suggesting that this massacre is too serious to involve politics. But you see it a lot, and sadly not just from the right—I’ve seen liberals argue things like health care reform and abortion policy shouldn’t be “politicized”, though literally the only way to leave politics out of it would be to take ourselves out of the game and lose completely. But certainly, the right is eager to use the term in an attempt to bully liberals away from speaking up on important issues at the right times. Thus, burying a politician is something where you should never be “political”—though only if they’re liberal, of course—because remembering a person’s life all of a sudden became the wrong thing to do when mourning that person. And now, of course, we’re being told not to “politicize” the shooting of a politician. We’re told that a huge social problem—in this case, mass shootings that happen on average 20 times a year—is simply too grave to be handled through politics. You know, that attempting to stop mass shooting is an insult to the victims of them, because of the politicization. (By the end of the decade, we will have right wingers take offense at the idea anyone who voted Democrat should be permitted to attend a funeral for a loved one.)

The implication is that politics is basically a government-funded sport that has no meaning outside of whose team is winning or losing. And that, just as we cancel sporting events in the wake of major tragedies that make game-playing seem insufficiently somber, we should cancel politics. This view helps the right, and should never be reinforced on the left, even if we can catch the occasional rhetoric advantage in the short term with it. That’s because it’s the right that benefits from the idea that politics is a sideshow created for entertainment, and that actual policy that actually does something sullies the nation.

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Look, if there was one message that right wingers have been trying to drill home for decades now, it’s that government cannot ever be considered a legitimate tool with which to solve social problems. Now, the leadership of the Republican party doesn’t believe this. They feel government does and should exist to serve the wealthy. They’re all for courts existing so they can solve their disputes, military to help exploit the resources of other nations, police to protect their property, and central banking that serves the interests of Wall Street against the people. But they know damn well that the issues that tend to capture the public imagination are those that directly affect most of us, and that is where they’d prefer that we imagine government as being nothing more than a taxpayer-funded spectator sport that has no real meaning and should therefore have no real power.

You really see how much this belief that government doesn’t and shouldn’t have power to make laws and policy has caught hold in the debate over gun control. There were the usual pro-gun folks freaking out all over the thread at my Guardian piece where I basically did nothing more than support extremely mild restrictions on guns that can take dozens of lives within the time it take a TV show to have a commercial break. And I argued with them a little, but the whole thing gets super frustrating within minutes because it doesn’t take long to get to the point where you’re explaining that the purpose of government is actually to solve social problems.

For instance, I brought up a series of social problems that I felt would be curtailed if we had even a handful of sensible gun restrictions. The examples were mass shootings that could be slowed and even stopped by making it harder to get semiautomatic guns, the proliferation of impulse suicides and murders that could be curtailed somewhat with handgun restrictions, and I pointed out a story of an 8-year-old who blew his head off with an Uzi at a gun show as an example of an accident that would have been prevented if we had even halfway reasonable gun laws in this country. The response was basically to say that yeah, these are problems, but hey, I’m the crazy one for suggesting that a response to problems is, gasp, policy. So, once I found myself explaining that government exists precisely to react to problems like, say, small children being able to handle barely-legal weaponry at gun shows, I bowed out. There’s a fundamental problem here, which is that “politicization” language has confused people about what politics are and what they exist to do.

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The results are adequately depressing. As Digby points out today, a CNN poll found that 66% of people believe there is nothing society or government can do to prevent mass shootings. I blame the proliferation of the word “politicization”—at least this specific use of it—and the assumption bundled up in it, which is that politics aren’t the correct tool to use to solve social problems, and that saying otherwise somehow drains problems of their seriousness. Without having access to politics as a tool, we literally do have nothing with which to address this problem. All realistic solutions to prevent mass shootings are political in nature. Just take this case in particular. Jared Loughner had multiple motivating forces and multiple opportunities that led to the shooting, and it’s likely that even removing one element would have prevented it. Better gun control, better mental health services, a public discourse where paranoid and violent rhetoric is shamed, and more feminism so that men are less likely to grow up thinking women are weak and contemptible: if any of these had been in place, there would probably have not been a massacre. These are all political solutions, though, and so if we take politics off the table, we really are helpless. Which is right where the right wing wants us to be—after all, they’re conservatives. By definition, they pretty much oppose all social change and therefore are eager to find ways to banish the possibility of it roughly forever.


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