“Life springs from ultimate resignation”

I’m guessing everyone who reads this blog has already heard about the shooting in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday. It’s not yet known how many people were killed, nor whether or not Representative Gabrielle Giffords will survive, although doctors are apparently optimistic. A 9-year old girl and a federal judge, John Roll, along with 4 others are known to have died.

Giffords had received threats over her vote on last year’s health care reform. She was on MSNBC on March 25th to discuss the threats, as well as being targeted for defeat in the midterm elections by Sarah Palin. The clip is available here. This excerpt is chilling, in retrospect:

We need to realize that the rhetoric, and the firing people up and … for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s ‘targeted’ list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted, we’re in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people …do that, they’ve gotta realize that there are consequences to that action.

This is the map Giffords was referring to:

Politics is war by other means. Despite being a a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, and a strong opponent of gun control (which helped her get elected in a relatively conservative Arizona district), Giffords became a target of the most extreme rhetoric and now the most extreme violence*. There’s a lot of discussion on the interwebs right now (and presumably the 24 hour punditfest) about how much blame to heap on Sarah Palin. Frankly, it all seems like a sideshow. I can’t quite formulate the words for it, but I don’t think we can pin this problem on any particular act of ill-fated, overblown campaign rhetoric. Nor can we stop at the conclusion that this was an isolated psychopath, and cease any attempt to explain what happened in terms of broader forces.

I’m loathe to treat Sarah Palin as the cause of our political woes as much as a symptom. Something has broken in our collective ability to productively disagree. I haven’t lived through sufficiently many political cycles to know how atypical this breakdown is, but it seems pretty bad. And if this is somewhat typical, well, it’s still pretty bad. I’m grappling for words here. I think I’ve always disliked Habermas because I wished so badly that he were right, that we could create spaces where rational discourse prevailed, where people put aside their personal interests and spoke to each other as equals and really communicated. “I want so badly to believe that there is truth, that love is real.” The Enlightenment remains a seductive project, and a powerful dream. But the world we live in seems as far from such a project as ever, and now a crazed individual can kill six and wound dozens in a few moments, with a legally purchased weapon.

I’ve been reading a lot of Karl Polanyi lately. The last chapter of Polanyi’s most famous work, The Great Transformation, is titled “Freedom in a Complex Society”. For Polanyi, society referred to the radical interdependence of human beings on one another. To accept society was to abandon the notion of the autonomous individual, and thus to abandon classical notions of freedom. We cannot create a society without power (a utopia), but rather we must resign ourselves to the omnipresence of power and attempt to make of it the best we can. Polanyi’s book ends with this striking paragraph:

Resignation was ever the fount of man’s strength and new hope. Man accepted the reality of bodily death and built the meaning of his bodily life upon it. He resigned himself to the truth that he had a soul to lose and that there was worse than death, and founded his freedom upon it. He resigns himself, in our time, to the reality of society which means the end of that freedom. But, again, life springs from ultimate resignation. Uncomplaining acceptance of the reality of society gives man indomitable courage and strength to remove all removable injustice and unfreedom. As long as he is true to the task of creating more abundant freedom for all, he need not fear that either power or planning will turn against him and destroy the freedom he is building by their instrumentality. This is the meaning of freedom in a complex society; it gives us all the certainty that we need.

I’ve never been certain I knew the meaning of Polanyi’s words. But at this moment, I think part of it makes sense, because right now I feel resigned to live in this crazy, absolutely facacta world as it is and at the same time impelled to search for ways to “remove all removable injustice and unfreedom.” Perhaps I should have stuck with the pithier Vonnegut quote: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”

I hope Representative Giffords recovers fully. For those who died, I have no words.

Giffords was one of the many representatives who read the Constitution into the record at the opening of the House’s session this past week. It seems fitting to end with her reading of the First Amendment:

* Though, we are at this moment still only inferring that Giffords, rather than (for example) Judge Roll was the target. The shooting took place at an event organized by Giffords, so that assumption seems reasonable, and early reports on the exact event and shooter seem to confirm that Giffords was the target.

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