It is this writer’s recommendation to the editors of Time magazine that they add the name of Clarence W. Dupnik to its short list for “Person of the Year” in 2011.
Less than two weeks into the new year, this outspoken and articulate sheriff of Pima County, Arizona, home of the horrific murders and assassination attempt against U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, spoke for an entire nation by indicting the rise in the politics of hate in the land.
Sheriff of Pima County since 1980, it didn’t take proof of any specific connection of the murderer in this case to any political or hate group for Dupnik to condemn all the political peddlers of anger and hate in the entire nation.
This seasoned lawman could see the impact of words on actions in ways that the dissemblers of the political right and many in the cowardly national media have tried to obfuscate.
“People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that,” Dupnik said during a press conference the night after the shootings. “That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”
Earlier in the day, he told a TV network, “It’s time that this country take a little introspective look at the crap that comes out on radio and TV.”
Elected seven times to his post, the 73-year old Dupnik made national headlines last summer for his outspoken refusal to enforce what he called a “racist” new immigration law. “This law, it’s just irresponsible,” he said. “It makes them (Arizona legislators) look like racists.”
In the immediate aftermath of the shootings Saturday, Dupnik wasn’t the only one to raise his voice in anger against the climate of hate that political demagogues have fomented. In a live interview within a couple hours of the shootings, an Arizona Daily Star columnist and cartoonist David Fitzsimmons, a life-long resident of Tucson, called Arizona a “gun-happy state” (some CNN coverage Saturday originated from a TV station with the call letters “KGUN” there). He added that the “rabid right” was “stoking hate and rage” in the state.
Despite Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s insistence to the contrary, words do matter, and individuals cannot solely be held accountable for their actions. Former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey said similar things on a national TV talk show Sunday.
If anyone is responsible for “turning up the heat” in the use of angry, rude and disruptive words and threats against U.S. elected officials, it is Armey. His “Freedom Works” organization was hired by moguls of the nation’s health care industry to fuel hate, hysteria and paranoia to disrupt and shout down officials in dozens of town hall meetings in the summer of 2009.
I witnessed such an occasion on Aug. 25 that summer in a packed and unruly Northern Virginia high school gymnasium. Those mobilized to show up in opposition to health care reform (with many fundamentally opposed to President Obama for unsavory reasons) were encouraged to yell profanities and interrupt the meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran. It was replete with tasteless and reprehensible signage displayed outside the gym. The major media focused its coverage on the most disruptive cases.
The scores of similar ugly scenarios that took place that summer spilled over into the political discourse of subsequent political campaigns and represented a sea change toward the incivility of discourse.
According to a statement this week from Media Matters for America, a Washington, D.C. media watchdog group, “The assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was not an isolated incident. For the past two years we have seen a rise in acts, and threats, of anti-government violence. At the same time, we’ve seen an eruption in dangerous, often violent, anti-government rhetoric embraced and mainstreamed by the right-wing media in America.”
In short, it matters not if Saturday’s murderer was a devotee of any particular piece of the hate choking the nation’s air waves. Angry words and threats have become the national backdrop against which we all live out our lives these days.