What is Important?

Is there, or can there ever be, a meaningful notion of ‘perspective’ in political discourse? Everyone knows that ‘a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic’ (a saying that cannot be accurately attributed to Joseph Stalin and so must be officially attributed to Marilyn Manson) but is there any moderately consistent standard available of what is ‘a big deal’ and what’s not?

I wonder because thousands and thousands of people died violently in the last few weeks, but two incidents in particular seem to have had significance for entire countries.

On the one hand, we have the attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, which has not only drawn comment from innumerable public figures (so far they are all against it) but has moreover prompted a chorus of attempts to link it to increasingly incendiary political discourse in the US, many suggesting this should bring shame on Sarah Palin, among others, for “play[ing] recklessly with violent rhetoric.”

On the other hand, we have the violent death of Muhammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian man who set himself on fire after police attacked him and confiscated his last desperate attempt at a job, an unlicensed fruit stand. This, to everyone’s surprise, has turned the previous ultra-stable police state of Tunisia into an urban warzone.

Note an interesting contrast: I’ve seen people say that any major public figure in the US who doesn’t actively condemn the attack on Gabrielle Giffords should be deliberately ignored and thereby forced out of politics, but given how many people have done so this threat may never need to be carried out. By contrast, reporting and commentary of Tunisia seems to have been very muted, with the US state department expressing tepid ‘concerns’ only two weeks after it began. The Tunisian protesters seem to have received less support from ‘the international community‘ than they have from a bunch of foul-mouthed nerds in masks. This might have something to do with Tunisia’s status as a western ally, one of the ‘good’ police states.

Then there’s Keith Olberman‘s ‘simple pledge’ that he hopes all politicians, commentators, activists, and partisans (!) in the country would commit to: “Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our Democracy, and I apologize for and repudiate any act or any thing in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence.”

Two things about this: firstly, and while I know I bang this drum fairly often, the threat of violence not only has a place in said democracy, it has a central place there, as it does in any state. The threat of violence defines what a state is – the body which monopolises the power enforce its rules with violence.

Secondly, even if we collude in the corruption of language and suppose that violence is by definition illegal, it’s still not clear why this particular incident demands a response from every single politically active person in the US.

Imagine I’m Sarah Palin, and I’ve been told that my ‘incendiary rhetoric’ must cease immediately. People are telling me “Sarah, even if the causal link is extremely indirect and not at all certain, you might have dead bodies that you’re partly responsible for! Surely that must give you pause?”

Why can’t I reply “All successful politicians are partly responsible for dead bodies. Even aside from obvious things like wars, your votes on healthcare, pollution, policing, workplace safety, urban planning, welfare, transport, and half a dozen other things all carry a substantial risk that at the figurative end of the day, some corpses somewhere would be living humans if you had acted differently. That risk multiplies the longer you’re active, and rapidly approaches certainty. That doesn’t just apply to politicians – the CEOs of plenty of large corporations are probably in positions such that responsibility for at least a few deaths is more-or-less an inevitability. It’s what comes with exercising power at the level of millions of people.

Of course indirectly causing people to die is different from directly killing them. But I’m not directly killing anyone – any more than the justice system is killing the people killed by recidivists who weren’t (as they could have been) all locked away permanently in a vast underground maze.

I happen to think that my aggressive style of rhetoric attracts people to my cause, and that my cause is worthwhile. If people will accept constant, numerous deaths in the cause of being able to drive cars, why can’t I accept occasional deaths in the cause of my political goals?”

Disclaimer: the real Sarah Palin may be significantly more sentimental about human life than presented here.

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