“If words have no meaning”: History, metaphor and violence in Arizona

Five years ago, I heard Arizona poet and essayist Richard Shelton read at a ranch outside of Tucson. He was included in a lineup of poets who were known for invoking environmental or political themes in their work; having taught creative writing in prisons for thirty years, Shelton was no stranger to the dark side of the Arizona justice system. Before his reading, he told the audience he rejected the idea that writers had to steer clear of “political poetry,” but rather that it was “political rhetoric” we had to keep out of our poems; that rhetoric constricted the meaning of our words, thus limiting the possibilities that poetry could reach.

Years later, Jared Lee Loughner would ask Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, “What is government if words have no meaning?” Her dismissal of his question enraged him enough to plan her assassination. In the aftermath of his murderous rampage, the country started talking about words. Some in the media blamed Sarah Palin’s gun-sight metaphors for goading Loughner’s homicidal tendencies, while others pointed to a rather vague definition of “rhetoric” as the trigger for that violent act, not quite realizing that rhetoric is a linguistic tool almost impossible to untangle from our day-to-day speech. As humans do after any shocking tragedy, we struggled to understand why. Some heinous political policy, some deficit in care, had to be the culprit. Prematurely pointing the finger at right-wing rants was a poignant choice; it means most of the country is at least aware of the rise of reactionary political lines. But it’s not unlike blaming a symptom on another symptom. Twisted words have consequences, yes, but they are rarely where the violence starts.

Early attempts to paint Jared Loughner as a right-wing Alex Jones drone haven’t held up. Indeed, it seems he doesn’t have coherent politics so much as incoherent rants. There’s a tendency, in reaction to massacres like this, to assign a definitive reason to the killer’s actions. Despite claims from liberals and progressives that Loughner’s rampage was indirectly inspired by reactionary hate speech, that connection has proven tenuous at best. He seems to have been influenced by most of the usual forms of entertainment for young alienated white guys: death metal, chat rooms, conspiracy theories, MySpace, philosophy, YouTube, gun culture, Ayn Rand, and yes, even Karl Marx. Cherry picking any of the various things he was into and pinning them onto his motive is like the mistaken claims that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered their Columbine classmates because they played video games and got bullied. It might not be impossible to understand minds so deeply troubled, to trace a real (if convoluted) path from point A to point B to point Mass Murder. It might not be impossible to untangle their motivations, but such heinous acts of violence are almost never going to be the result of one too many Glenn Beck podcasts.

But there are two things that we, as socialists, always acknowledge when analyzing events like this one. 1: People don’t exist in a cultural vacuum. Though we’re responsible for our own choices, our consciousness is largely shaped by the systems that form our world, by material conditions. And 2: History matters.

So let’s look at the history of the Grand Canyon State. AltoArizona.com has created an interactive timeline of political violence in Arizona, spanning 24 years. It’s more difficult to isolate Loughner’s assassination attempt as “random” when placed next to the death threats received by Raul Grijalva, Isabel Garcia, and Gabrielle Giffords herself, last year. (And for the record, assassinations are never “random.” That’s what makes them assassinations and not murders.) Zoom out even further and one gets a picture of a decade of vigilante justice and flourishes of neo-Nazi activity; it’s not unexpected in a state that’s always had a demographic of elites who pride themselves on a “rugged individualism” they interpret as “free reign over desert land I earned and which I am entitled to.”

And that’s just the violence that’s officially condemned by the State.

Meanwhile, the violence legitimized by uniforms and badges is even more insidious. As expected, the media have thrown around some clichés about “losing innocence” and “the world changing” after the Giffords shooting. But Arizona did not “lose its innocence” on January 8th anymore than the U.S. lost its innocence when JFK was assassinated. A state that sees the death of over 200 immigrants in the desert each year is not innocent. A state with border patrol who shoot unarmed Mexican boys jumping the fence is not innocent. AZ SB1070, HB2281 (the anti-Ethnic Studies law), Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio are just the latest in a history of what Joel Olson calls “corrupt cowboy capitalism“.

So while it’s limiting to conclude that Loughner shot twenty people at a Safeway because Republicans and Democrats don’t use civil words with each other, we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t place these murders within the larger context of increasing violence, both condemned and sanctioned by the State, in Arizona. This includes not just the rise of hate groups, vigilantes like The Minutemen, and death threats against public officials, but intensified border militarization, and a nativist hostility towards Mexicans, Chicanos and the Indigenous. There is unseen violence in Arizona every day. The choices we make as to what shocking deaths constitute an “unspeakable tragedy” in our discourse, which murders warrant a Presidential speech, is the elephant in the convention center.

The material conditions that facilitated Jared Loughner’s madness and pointed his rage towards Gabrielle Giffords are omnipresent in Arizona’s depressed white working class. They’re the same conditions that give creedence to Brewer’s, Arpaio’s, Senator Russell Pearce’s and Superintendent Tom Horne’s fearmongering against Mexican immigrants and the white folks who stand in solidarity with them. That crowd is attempting to restrict the meaning of words like “citizen” and “justice” through their own use of rhetorical devices. Those in power use language as a weapon.

Not enough information has been gleaned regarding why Loughner chose Giffords as his target; he may well have just as easily chosen a right-wing Republican who refused to answer his kooky questions about grammar-control. He might not belong to the same class of white anti-government terrorists who follow in the footsteps of Timothy McVeigh. But if anything, he is yet one more sign of an increasingly frightful Arizona.

The theory of dialectical materialism tells us that revolutionary change is created through contradictory conditions. That means in a state like Arizona, which lately seems to have a new outrageously racist bill introduced every day, there is, miraculously, hope for progressive change. Reactionary forces bite back the most sharply when they feel threatened. And those who want less justice and less peace in Arizona have reason to feel threatened. Border justice organizations are strengthening, building their base, waging campaigns against institutionalized racism. Students are sitting in, risking arrest in defense of their Mexican-American Studies classes. People march, organize, connect, lobby, speak out and link arms. In Tucson, communities are doing what they can to heal, donating to blood banks and food banks, trying to build an Arizona that looks nothing at all like the one Loughner imagined.

It is for that reason that Arizona is one of the most important places for revolutionaries to be right now. It’s a state of immense possibility. The historical moment that created the tragic reality of Jared Loughner’s mind is the same moment that created an alienated and unemployed middle class looking for some vengeful alleviation in the form of tightened borders and laissez-faire capitalism. But it’s also created the raised consciousness of a diverse working class, with middle-class allies, that persists and struggles, struggles and persists. La lucha en Arizona can use language not as weaponry with a target, but as a tool with multiple uses, meanings, possibilities, like the best, most radical poetry.

Lauren Eggert-Crowe is a member of the Editorial Team. She lives in Santa Cruz but her heart (along with several boxes of books) is in Tucson.

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