note: Short version for TLDR types: While the motives that drove the Tucson shooter do not appear to be political, looking at the facts of shooting, and placing it within a specific cultural moment, I’m positing that there was no way that the event could not be avoid being politicized. This post is my explanation as to why that was the case.
Please, if you’re going to comment, please read through the post first. And note that this isn’t about who was right/wrong. This essay is about why the politicization itself took place.
From the moment coverage began of the Tuscon Shootings, there have been accusations about attempts to politicize the event. Accusations were almost immediately thrown right and left (both figuratively and politically) about what motivated the shooting to occur. In the last few days we’ve entered a second round of accusations, this time questions what motivated the first round of accusations.
Based on current data, it appears that the shooter’s actions were a result of mental illness. Yet, I’d like to argue the shooting, taken as a whole, was political. Or, more accurately, for a wide range of socio/cultural reasons tied to the specific moment in time that we are currently at, the shooting could not escape being political.
Why this apparent contradiction?
Though it began with a mentally unhinged individual’s senseless attack on people at a public meeting between a Congresswoman and her constituents, the Tucson Shooting was far more than just that event. It has come to include, all of the responses to the event, and the responses to the responses. I’ve found it helps to think of this unfolding using anthropologist Peter Redfield’s definition of crisis:
[Crisis is] a general sense of rupture that demands a decisive response, as most dramatically exemplified by the convergence of media coverage around episodes of conflict and disaster. War, famine, and calamities such as earthquakes (once ascribed to “acts of god” but now designated as “natural”) are thereby given narrative turning points, organizing the prose of everyday existence into more poetic, if only partly analytic, chapters. (336)
Redfield’s argument is that a “crisis” is created and sustained, first and foremost, through attention. If a tree falls in the forest or an earthquake happens, regardless of how much damage occurs, if no one shows up, it’s not a crisis.1 So, for example, the attention given to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak created the larger news/historical event of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis. Likewise, despite the fact that last year far more oil was spilled in the Niger River delta than the Gulf, lack of attention means that, at least to Americans, the various ruptured pipelines in Nigeria remained just “facts.”
So the question to ask is why/how did the act become a crisis?
That question require us to, building off of the work of Marshall Sahlins, consider the relationship between cultural structures, individual agency, and the “creation” of history (and the news). In the book Sahlins argues it is “not that culture determines history, only that it organizes it” (11). Events are incorporated (or left out) of historical accounts based on their ongoing resonance with specific sociocultural issues.2.
This notion of cultural resonation is key, as it helps understand why, for example, we remember Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience as a key moment in the US Civil Rights struggle, and miss the stories of Claudette Colvin, Sarah Louise Keys, and Irene Morgan, all of whom were African American women who, prior to Parks, refused to comply with race based seating arrangements on public transportation. So, while there is no doubt, that on Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks made the personal decision to give up her seat, this action was amplified and curated, first into news and then into history, because she was the right person (a middle aged, married, African American woman with a stable career) at the right pace (in Montgomery Alabama, which beyond its location in the South, was home to activist Martin Luther King Jr and a group of attorneys who were at that time looking for a case to use in a challenge to the bus segregation laws) and at the right time3 (a moment in history where increasing attention was being payed to the question of civil rights).4
In other words, individual agency (people making choices within the world), meet structure (overlying cultural insitutions that shape the way we view the world). Structure, meet agency. Together meet history.
News, like history, is organized from current events (be they caused by individual or collective (in)action) that culturally resonate in the “now.” If those events resonate enough, they become a crisis. And that resonance is based on their relationship to an ever emerging socio-historical moment.
Returning to the point from above, the actions of the shooter are not, as of this writing, believed to be political. But, if we look at how the shooting-as-crisis has unfolded, we can quickly find many reasons as to why shooting-as-crisis is political. These include:
- Timing: Politics in general, and the Republican party’s ascension, are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Not only does the shooting occur shortly after a rhetorically charged, contentious election, billed by pundit, politician, and citizens alike as a “revolution”, it happens within three days of the swearing in of the new Congress. That ceremony marks one of the three biggest moments of rebirth/transition5 in the circular time of American Politics. Along with rebirth comes a moment that must be defined. Thus accompanying it are lots of speculation, as well as various forms political ritual and performance – the reading of the Constitution, sleeping in offices, the planned symbolic House vote on health care. Still the definition of this moment is largely “open” meaning that an event like the shooting, happening at this time, takes on additional relevance, especially given that things are just starting (rather than being well into the year).
- Placement: Since the proposal and passage of SB 1070, Arizona has become a powerful and oft invoked symbol for both the right and left to represent “what’s wrong with this country.” Beyond issues of immigration, migration, and race, I challenge anyone to identify a state more nationally associated than Arizona with the debate over questions of the rights and duties of States vs. the Federal Government. This suggests, in some ways, for better or worse, as Arizona, so goes the nation. It also makes it a place that is imagined (versus experienced by people day-to-day) as a location that is ready boil over at any time.
- Individuals immediately involved: Congress people function in multiple roles at once. They, at once, represent of their constituents (the local), the Federal Government (Federal), and their party (National). So this attack on Giffords could be, and was, interpreted through each of these lenses. Her personal history assisted in the politicization, including her status as a “Blue Dog” (giving, for example, a reason for progressives to hate her), and the recent close race won against a Palin supported tea-party candidate who had upset the planned mainstream Republican candidate. Further the since at least 1994, there has been a tendency to make the election of Congress people, traditionally local issue, a matter of national attention. Also note that the involvement of a Federal Judge in the shooting only led to further debate.
- Gun imagery: Without getting into a discussion on guns, the presence of the imagery (and regardless of which side is using it, the fact is the imagery is still present). From the cross-hairs ad6 to Gifford’s opponent’s decision to host a campaign fundraiser centered around firing military/assault weapons, the event was surrounded by a gun aesthetic that could be, and was, re-appropriated in various ways.
- Focus on Categorization: Much of the last three years has focused on various attempts to categorize people. These groups (“Real Americans”, Patriots, Tea Party vs Republicans vs “RINO’s”, Democrats vs Progressives, Socialists, Crypto-Marxists, Christians vs Evangelicals, Muslim vs Islamists, Secular Humanists, etc) become shorthand for understand “us” versus “others” and understanding models of action, knowing what people are capable of. Given this focus, it seems impossible to avoid working to situate the shooter into one of these. The cross the board and contradictory nature of his “likes,” the chaotic nature of his YouTube ramblings, reports of drug use and that, four+ years ago, he had been a radical liberal in high school meant that he was the “perfect” cypher for anyone to read anything into.
- Rhetorical Climate: Ignoring the question of whether or not rhetoric can inspire violence, the argument can be made that the level/heat of rhetoric is at a relative high. Historically speaking, there have been other times when it has been equally, if not more viscous. But acknowledging that history does not in any way invalidate the observation that things have been elevated for quite some time.
- Rhertorical Ideologies: A key underlying assumption about the news, and political speech, is that the act of communication can lead to transformations within individuals. So the conventional wisdom (re)circulated by pundit, politician, and citizens alike was that Tea Party “won” (broadly defined), in part, because it, and its allies, were able to reach the hearts and minds of the people and get moderates “back on course.” Now, also note that the media (broadly taken), also expresses, at the same time, a (possibly) counter ideology, that in the end it’s people who chose to change, rather than are changed. Still, many people, regardless of political persuasion, have been using this to blame one side or the other.
In addition to all of that (and I’m know I’m leaving lots out), the timing of the shooting in regards to news production was crucial in creating the “crisis.” Because it occurred on a Saturday, a traditionally slow news day, that 24-hour only had that to follow, focusing even more attention on the shooting and requiring a constant production of content.
Saturday also meant that many poeple were off from work, allowing them more time to focus their attentions to track the news coverage and participating in it (see previous post), via venues like Twitter, Facebook, News Sites, discussion boards, and blogs.7
Tweak any of the above (switch the target from a Federal Official to a State Offical, move the shooting from Arizona to a more Northern and “Blue-er” state, shift the day it occurred to Tuesday, or the time to being at night, etc.) and you can imagine different possibilities for how the discourse developed. But once you combine the decisions/actions of a specific unhinged individuals (along those of other people, including some incredibly heroic individuals), the specific place where it occurred, and the particular sociohistorical moment that encompasses all of this, there was no way I see that this could not have been politicized.
In part, that’s because politicization is a way which we can bring order to chaos. Like the Azande’s use of magic, which according to Evens-Pritchard, is used to explain radical contingency (why the grain tower fell of me (70−5) ), the idea of political motivation allows us to take a random event and fit it into a larger cultural system. And, at the national level, there is perhaps no more common integrative tool than politics – especially among those most predisposed to closely follow the news.
What also led to the politization was the public nature of many of the reportage platforms. Even before *professional* pundits8 had begun to politicize the event on the airwaves, people were working to understand this event through the creation of a politicized narrative (the shooter represented the Tea Party (or was a Marxist) or it wouldn’t have been if there was more gun control (or if the laws allowed more people to carry). And the public nature of this speculation and ordering, going on in real time via Twitter, discussions boards, and comment threads in blogs, only inspired more commentary.
Thus, despite the fact that the shooter was not political, the shooting always was. But what’s also important to realize, getting back to wrestling with causality, is that this sort of framing, storytelling, and rationalization has gone on with every major cultural event. Perhaps, why this one feels so much more charged (beyond our immediacy to it) is the way the platforms that we experienced it through, made that process of framing so immediate — allowing us to watch as, along side reporting, we saw layperson and professional alike doing their best to argue for their perspective. And, given the glut of information they had at their disposal, it was pretty much possible to argue for anything.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E., & Gillies, E. (1976). Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (p. 265). Oxford University Press, USA.
- Redfield, P. (2005). Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis. Cultural Anthropology, 20(3), 328 – 361. doi: 10.1525/can.2005.20.3.328.
- Sahlins, M. (2004). Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa. University of Chicago Press, USA.
- This is an intellectual cousin to Mel Brook’s quip that “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” [↩]
- Orwell ominously notes this cultural making and remaking of history in 1984 when he writes in chapter 3: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” [↩]
- On the subject of timing, note that 1955 wasn’t Parks first experience of discrimination on a bus. In later interviews, she recounted personal stories, dating back to 1943, of various discriminations committed to her on public buses [↩]
- In the interests of space, I won’t go further into the specific cultural facts and frameworks that assisted in the “elevation” of Parks into the public/historical consciousness. See her Wikipedia page for a good summary. [↩]
- election days and presidential inaugurations being the other two [↩]
- note also that the decision to remove the ad from the Internet, only increased the association between the image with the ongoing event [↩]
- In fact, one of the most prolific sources of “new” news of the event Twitter, Anthony De Rosa (@antderosa) mentioned to me that if this had not been Saturday, its unlikely he would have been able to dedicate as much time to the issue. If he was removed from the equation, Caitie Parker (@caitieparker), the source who provided much of initial substantive background on the subject, might never have come to light. The material Parker provided, in turn, provided an important role in bolstering the early accusations/speculations (again from both sides) about the political ideologies and motivations of the shooter. [↩]
- note also that the very business of punditry, where one’s reputation is often based on their perceived record and verbal performance (identity politics on both sides) versus their actual predictive abilities, means that there’s little possibility to step down from inflammatory rhetoric. Any attempt to really step back undercuts the pundits reputation. At best, if all sides had called for a truce then there would have been a temporary pause. But like Economists playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma, successful pundits know that the moment that one person starts taking instead of coorperating, it’s typically in their best interests to take as well. [↩]