• “Politicization” doesn’t mean what Max Read thinks it means

    Max Read at Gawker says,

    There is no such thing as “politicizing” tragedy. James Holmes did not materialize in a movie theater in Aurora this morning, free of any relationship to law and authority and the structures of power in this country; nor did he exit those relationships and structures by murdering 12 people and injuring several dozen more. Before he entered the theater, he purchased guns, whether legally or illegally, under a framework of laws and regulations governed and negotiated by politics; in the parking lot outside, he was arrested by a police force whose salaries, equipment, tactics and rights were shaped and determined by politics. Holmes’ ability to seek, or to not seek, mental health care; the government’s ability, or inability, to lock up persons deemed unstable — these are things decided and directed by politics. You cannot “politicize” a tragedy because the tragedy is already political. When you talk about the tragedy you’re already talking about politics.

    There are many fine points here, but I disagree on what “politicization” means, and I bet you do too. I think when people say you’ve “politicized” something, they mean you’re being a jerk. And, in general, they’re right. I mean, how often do we associate “politicization” or “politics” with polite, compassionate, and kind discourse? If you can say it to your mom, it’s probably not “politicized.” If you relish saying it to your ideological foil, it probably is. We all know the difference.


    • You’re probably right that many people use “politicize” to signify “being a jerk.” But I think that’s really unfortunate. Politics is how we organize our society – how we settle disputes, divide up resources, and control our own lives. Politics is what we do instead of war or coups or anarchy or authoritarianism. Politics is democracy. Politics (as it exists in first world democracies at least) is a profound accomplishment of civilization. Acquiescing to the shorthand where “politicize” = “being a jerk” implicitly devalues all of that.

      Also, I think that many politicians exploit the ambiguity around what “politicize” means. I.e. they say an opponent is “politicizing” something in order to suggest he is a jerk. When, in fact, he is simply “politicizing” in the more prosaic sense of attempting to gain a political advantage because he holds a position that is more popular or more compelling than his opponent. Which is a totally appropriate thing for a politician to do. (If they didn’t, democratic politics just wouldn’t work.)

      So I think you dismiss Read too glibly. The use of “political” as a generic pejorative isn’t just a linguistic curiosity – it’s a consequence of an unthinking “all politicians are crooks” kind of attitude.

    • Nobody said it was politicizing a hurricane when people criticized FEMA’s response to Katrina.

      Claiming that one’s opponents are “politicizing” an event is more often than not a substanceless manner of criticizing a rival argument that one can’t address on the merits.

    • Max Read is responding to the people who say it is “being a jerk” (to use your definition of politicize) to start talking about access to guns and access to mental health care in the wake of the Batman massacre.

      I think he is using your definition. And I agree with both of you.

      You don’t go from being a PhD candidate to a mass murderer without some kind of series psychic break. What if we lived in a world where it was easier to get mental health care than to get guns?

    • Sorry, Austin, but I have to disagree with you on this one.

      The two commenters above have made some of the points I’d make but …

      I don’t consider a conversation or dialogue about our fear-based culture with a violent streak or gun laws or anything in this realm to be any more negative or jerk-like than a dialogue about how our health system has failed a family that lost a child or a grandfather; or a dialogue about how cuts to government led to less than ideal response to a natural disaster.

      I find Max Read’s article to be fairly articulate but the linked articles (by Weigel and Server) even more cogent.

      I’ve seen a slew of “Prayers for the victims.” … I find that more annoying given it accomplishes nothing beyond helping that person feel better about themselves than any political dialogue.

    • I seriously doubt that most people, when they use the term against someone, mean it to be, “You’re being a jerk!”

      Instead, they mean, “I don’t like what you’re saying, so I’m going to discredit your argument by pretending that this thing is outside the realm of politics and, thus, you should continue to accept the status quo.” It’s a form of ad hominem attack. Now, I haven’t read Max Read’s full piece; just the part you quoted, so maybe he makes the same point.

      But no: when people (especially those in politics) use it, they don’t just mean, “You’re being a jerk!” They’re implying that by saying, “You’re saying illegitimate things, and, therefore, you are either immoral or amoral, you bad, bad, evil person!” Even jerks might speak the truth; claims of politicization inherently deny the truth of whatever was said, and claim that the person is not just a jerk, but actively immoral.

      In other words, at least as far as this quote goes, Max Read is absolutely right.

    • Actually I think Read is right, you can’t isolate major events from the political mainstream whether they’re random but repeated acts of violence like this or a nuclear reactor failing. Frakt is engaging in a bit of casuistry here, the word politicise is simply a pejorative used by a political opponent when the other side uses some catastrophe to point out the consequences of bad policy. It’s certainly not remotely synonymous with Jerkery.