English Language

First Words: Why Is ‘Politicization’ So Partisan?

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While Grote might have assumed politics was an enlightened pursuit, by the mid-20th century, a coarser meaning of “politicized” had emerged. In 1948, The Times of London reported that Gaullists had accused France’s former prime minister “of trying to ‘politicize’ ” the army. Nazi generals, writing self-serving memoirs after the war, blamed Hitler’s having “politicized” their own beloved army for their complicity. In the United States, the Nixon administration was criticized for, as The Times put it in 1971, “injecting politics” into bureaucracy and, later, going so far as to pressure federal agencies to withhold funds from two advocacy groups for the elderly, because such groups were deemed “ ‘enemies’ of the President.”

Yet a more sincere definition persisted. “Blacks and other minorities must politicize their numerical strength and collectivize their economic power,” an African-American pastor told 2,000 schoolchildren gathered at his Brooklyn church for a 1972 ceremony memorializing Martin Luther King Jr. That same year, a reporter for this magazine described how feminists had decided that “rape is the issue they intend to politicize”; at the time, New York law required two witnesses to corroborate sexual assault, even though there are very rarely “impartial witnesses standing around watching the rape.” To “become politicized” in this sense is to become politically aware; to “politicize an issue” is to make it a matter of public concern and to demand change.

Change, of course, is inherently destabilizing. It upsets an existing state of affairs that might be unbearable to some but suits others just fine. Which is why accusations of “politicizing” might seem like so much mudslinging but often reflect deeper assumptions and arguments about what is objective, what is natural — what is the truth, in other words, free from the distortions of political interference. For those who benefit from the way things are, a raised consciousness is a threat. What else is the “all lives matter” rallying cry but an attempt to neutralize Black Lives Matter and portray it as both exclusionary and gratuitous? Such a strategy isn’t just the work of cynical operatives; no doubt there are plenty of white people who sincerely believe that affirming the value of “all lives” states something simple and neutral and matter-of-fact, while Black Lives Matter activists are needlessly politicizing the issue. But such innocence presumes that we have been living in a kind of American Eden, a place where your treatment by political and legal authorities has absolutely nothing to do with the color of your skin, while even a passing knowledge of American history — of actual government policies — suggests that innocence thrives only because of a myth.

When underlying conditions are already suffused with politics, doing nothing can itself constitute a political act. Which is perhaps why some Democrats, many of them traditionally enamored of unifying rhetoric and technocratic fixes, have started to reclaim the idea of openly “politicizing” certain issues, especially gun violence. In 2015, when a 26-year-old Oregon man walked into a community-college classroom and opened fire, murdering nine people before killing himself, President Barack Obama told Americans they would have to put pressure on their political representatives if they wanted gun laws to change. “I’m going to talk about this on a regular basis,” he said, “and I will politicize it because our inaction is a political decision that we are making.”

Obama was departing from the script of his first term, when he criticized Republican politicization of the Keystone XL pipeline and “international family-planning assistance” (assiduously avoiding the word “abortion,” which was bound to set off conservative alarms). But if Obama started out believing he would be accepted as the enlightened statesman, transcending the racial and political divide in order to dispense sensible solutions to a fractured republic, the relentless obstructionism of Republican lawmakers presumably disabused him of those illusions. Self-proclaimed small-government conservatives had figured out the neat trick of generally expressing a mistrust of politics except when it came to abortion or Benghazi, while furiously working behind the scenes on gerrymandering and repealing parts of the Voting Rights Act to consolidate the Republican hold on political power.

A politicized issue is one that’s still a matter of public debate. Admitting as much can feel risky — not only to conservatives but to liberals too. Centrist elites, whether to the right or to the left, want to believe in truths universally acknowledged; politics becomes easier and smoother and less rancorous that way. Indeed, Americans in general have long professed a commitment to practicality and a general distaste for politics. (Conservatives especially like to talk about individual responsibility and individual souls.) But part of what has allowed a vicious populism to fester and flourish was the antediluvian attitude that the history of the United States — its brutal racism, its ruthless economic inequality — had healed rather than remained an open wound.

According to popular lore, part of what made totalitarianism so dangerous was its “politicization of everything,” but Hannah Arendt, who should know, insisted in a 1958 essay that the opposite was true. It is “depoliticization,” she wrote, that “destroys the element of political freedom in all activities”; depoliticization is what makes political action seem futile and moot. To strip an issue of its political dimension is to assume it’s settled or to try to make it so — not by argument, which would be to politicize it, but by blithe dismissal or brute force.

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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