The Island comments: Arizona’s aftermath
It was the lull between Christmas and New Year’s, and Jon Stewart was on the radio. It was a repeat of an interview with the late-night funnyman about his then-pending “Rally to Restore Sanity,” and Stewart was addressing the extreme climate that has developed around political speech.
“I think we always have to remember that people can be opponents, but not enemies,” Stewart said, as our car pushed against the monotonous gray stretch of highway and bare-fingered trees toward the airport, and home. He blamed the media for failing to help people tell the difference between the two.
“The culture of corruption that exists in the media doesn’t allow us to delineate between enemies and opponents. And that’s where we sort of fall into trouble,” he said.
Stewart’s rally came at the close of what many local political observers deemed the nastiest election season on record, which included a flurry of “educational” mailers targeting some local candidates and essentially baseless labels being applied to others. And that winter day would end with the City Council’s decision to place Alameda’s top two city staffers on leave, a move that would inspire more heated rhetoric.
The line between enemies and political opponents is one that gets crossed here on the Island with a regularity that I find troubling for a community so small. Nationally known talking heads may swipe at each other and the politicians they chatter about from the comfort of their respective TV studios, but there’s little chance they’ll run into each other at Walgreens.
At a bare minimum, the vitriol has at times been gross enough to drive people away from public participation: Facing someone who disagrees with you on a parcel tax measure or development proposal or political candidate is manageable, but when someone says they hate you for your point of view and starts badmouthing your family, that’s another thing entirely. Here on the Island, there are people who fear for the viability of their business or even their personal safety because of political stands they have made – and the personal attacks they have endured as a result.
Whether a climate that seems to reward personal attacks led to the tragic murder of six people in Tucson on January 8 and the shooting of 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, no one can honestly say. And as Stewart fumbled for meaningful words to say in the aftermath of the attack, I thought about things here at home. As the cloud of ugliness that hangs over civic affairs here continues to darken and people seem increasingly unwilling to respect simple differences of opinion, I find myself wondering: How long before something like that happens here?