Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Pretty Safe Job, Actually

In her New York Times article "When Congress Was Armed and Dangerous," Prof. Joanne Freeman of Yale University notes that the violent American political culture of the current (Tea Party) era has a clear antebellum precedent. In the mid-nineteenth century, Freeman writes, it was increasingly common for Congressmen to carry weapons with them in public and in the halls of Congress, and in at least two cases in the 1850s a legislator either drew a gun on a colleague or thrashed a Senator to unconsciousness.

On closer examination, however, the political violence of the 1830s, '40s and '50s appears to have been mostly rhetorical, a display of violent masculinity that probably impressed the voters but didn't actually threaten more than a few Senators and Congressmen. Indeed, it's rather surprising how few of the 10,000-plus men and women who served in the American Congress since 1789 actually died of non-natural causes while in office. reports that 50 or so serving Congressmen and Senators died in vehicle crashes or killed themselves, and only ten were victims of homicide. Of those ten, three died in duels, one (Senator Baker of Oregon) died in the Civil War at Ball's Bluff, one was shot "by an insane son," one was shot by religious cultists and Kool-Aid connoisseurs, and four (two Senators, Long and Kennedy, and two Congressmen) were assassinated. In noting this, I don't mean to imply that Americans are peaceful, just that we prefer to direct violence against people who are weak (like the reporters mentioned in Freeman's essay) or belong to racial minorities (Chinese immigrants, African-American freemen and slaves, Native Americans). Generally, Congressmen and Senators haven't met either of these specifications. While saying so will bring no comfort to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her family, it's a pretty safe job.


Susan M. Frey said...

“…send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” John Donne, 1634

My heart goes out to Giffords, her family, and the others who suffered Loughner’s assault. Violence is abhorrent. However I note that, once again, the media is making a meal out the tragedy of a public figure. Pundits have described this attack on Giffords as an attack on all public servants because, “if you attack one of us, you attack all of us.” Whenever I learn of these shameful attacks on public figures or celebrities, I do wonder about the poor, disenfranchised, marginalized, or downright unattractive citizens we habitually ignore. Though no Marxists, I cannot help but draw parallels to Lenin’s claim that in the capitalist state the media focuses on the welfare and activity of the “haves” and ignores the interests of the “have-nots.” What’s more, he posited that the exclusionary practices of the elite in a society can be so habitual as to be almost invisible to that society. To me, the elephant in the room is that the attack on Giffords threatens the powerbase of the elite. It’s frightening to learn that the life of a powerful member of our society, a member of Congress, can be as tenuous as that of the smelly, homeless outpatient who rides the bus all day, and thinks that his personal god is a packet of onion-flavored potato chips. Being smart, attractive, hardworking, lucky, supported, encouraged, valued, and successful makes you a winner and we LOVE winners in our country. Why not? I admit to being seduced by these attributes as much as the next person. But we don’t want to be reminded that our super heroes are vulnerable. It saddens me that Giffords is suffering. I’m in her corner, delighted by her fighting spirit, and rooting for her recovery. But what about the masses of schmoes who also suffer from violence? Where is their press secretary? Rather than believe that an attack on Giffords is an attack on all who serve in government, perhaps we could expand our view and consider it an attack on everyone.

Dave Nichols said...

Thank you for your comment, Susan. I think you're right that the Giffords shooting attracted so much attention because the central victim was A) a member of Congress, B) relatively young (for a Representative), C) attractive, D) blonde (which makes her a more newsworthy victim, at least according to Nancy Grace), and E) married to an astronaut. How many of us can name the six people whom Mssr. Loughner actually killed? I can't, and one of them was a federal judge (but old, and male, and probably not a fixture of the Washington social scene).

A corollary to your observation about the rich and attractive is that Americans really loathe the poor and lumpish. I suspect we inherited this hatred from the English aristocracy, and the Protestant ethic fostered the additional belief that poverty was the product of poor choices and immorality, rather than circumstances beyond someone's control (like poor health or economic downturns). Lee Papa discusses this in his recent blog entry on Frances Piven, currently Public Enemy Number One in Becktardia. (