To All Elected Local, State, and National Political Leadership:
No American needs anymore to name specifically the tragedy or the media and political responses because all have become both commonplace and predictable.
I will name nonetheless, not because these are unique, but because they are sobering messages that must not be ignored.
In recent days, a bomb exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and during the subsequent news cycle as well as political tributes and rhetoric, the U.S. Senate failed to act on gun legislation that was prompted by the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that also spurred 24-hours media coverage and political tributes and rhetoric.
I want first to note that as a scholar and poet, I understand the need to frame tragedy in words. I wrote commentaries—“‘They’re All Our Children,’” “Misreading the Right to Bear Arms”—and a poem, “calculating (the erased),” after the school shooting and was once again moved to poetry, “they ran (15 April 2013),” in the wake of the marathon bombing.
Also I concede that words matter, and for me, writing is a type of activism.
However, like Hamlet came to feel about marriage, I am compelled to say to politicians, We will have no more tributes and rhetoric.
Political tributes and rhetoric—as well as media discourse—fail in two ways: (1) They offer misleading distractions from authentic political action, and (2) they replace action.
From political perches of privilege, tributes and rhetoric are condescending since politicians read speeches others write for them and act only in ways that serve the moneyed interests who demand their policy.
Political tributes and rhetoric allow one existence for the power elites while preserving an entirely different existence for everyone else. In education reform, this is calling for and implementing policy for “other people’s children” that is unlike what those in power secure for their own children.
Dramatic tragedy such as mass shootings and bombings, then, becomes theater—stages upon which those in power can recite soliloquies about a certain kind of justice-as-revenge. But these hollow calls for justice-as-revenge mask that no action is taken for social justice.
And while each life lost or scarred by these tragedies-as-theater is precious and the acts of violence and terrorism can never be justified, Americans daily are subject to death and scarring from violences and terrorism that appear not to warrant political tributes and rhetoric or 24-hour media coverage.
Americans and America’s children are increasingly finding themselves victims of poverty. While some international rankings seem to preoccupy politicians and the media, hardly a word is spoken about U.S. international rankings in terms of the conditions of our children:
In terms of action related to the well-being of our children, the U.S. ranks near the bottom, and the ways in which the U.S. ranks at the top leave much to be desired, as detailed by Schwayder:
The United States is No. 1 on many other lists: It spends more on the military than the next 12 nations on the list combined; it’s the best in the world at imprisoning people; and it has the most obese people, the highest divorce rate, and the highest rate of both illicit and prescription drug use.
As children died at Sandy Hook Elementary and the Boston Marathon, as lives were scarred forever, children and adults die and have their lives scarred daily by poverty and violence that are as commonplace as the tragedy news-and-politics cycle.
America’s politicians and their tributes and rhetoric allow children to perish in poverty and a culture of violence—a culture of violence that is never genuinely addressed because that same political tribute and rhetoric have manufactured a New Jim Crow in which African American males are as disposable as our children in this era of mass incarceration that starts in schools-as-prisons and the rise of the working poor.
Racism, classism, and sexism corrode the lives of Americans while politicians pay tribute and make speeches.
The United States of America is the most powerful and wealthy society in human history. Every condition in our society is either created or tolerated by those with power.
To all elected local, state, and national political leadership, I say we will have no more tributes and rhetoric.
This is not, however, a call for politicians to be perfect. In fact, this is quite the opposite; it is a call for politicians to be fully human, not in words, but in deeds.