Why We Should Politicize Tragedies

Last month, Americans witnessed history as two Category 4 hurricanes struck the states of Texas and Florida, respectively, within days of each other. Government officials quickly filled the airwaves telling of devastated infrastructure and submerged municipalities to implore congress to pass a relief package, which led punditry to confront them about their past statements impugning the overuse of federal funds and the existence of climate change to highlight the hypocrisy of their requests. This fazed no one, as officials simply stifled discussion with false dilemmas demanding we focus on storm victims instead of the root causes of the storms.

MSNBC anchor Katy Tur christened this cycle by confronting Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about his vote against supplementary federal aid for Hurricane Sandy in 2012, since he is now demanding a similar relief package for victims of Hurricane Harvey in his home state. Cruz feigned indignation, retorting, “There’s time for political sniping later. I think our focus needs to be on this crisis.” When Tur did not yield, Cruz allowed that he voted against it, but insisted that he did so to hamper pork-barrel spending.

Cruz’s claim is misleading, if not false. Almost all the money in the relief bill went to rebuilding efforts in states affected by Sandy, while the rest went to similar efforts in states with approved disaster declarations. Tur did not correct him. Though it’s possible that Tur didn’t detect the error, it’s suspicious that she accepted a stock answer after Cruz suggested that she was exploiting storm victims to slander a political adversary. That is, she ostensibly let the issue go after being accused of politicizing a tragedy, a violation of an unwritten rule often accepted without challenge.

Though popular, this convention fails to hold up under scrutiny. One of the only times when the media has the attention of both politicians and the average American is after a catastrophic event. If anything, the wake of a tragedy seems like the exact time to discuss the policy ramifications involved, especially as it pertains to policymakers who might share in the blame.

Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, sought to preempt such political inquiry as Hurricane Irma approached, telling reporters that “to use time and effort to address [climate change] at this point is very, very insensitive to [the] people in Florida.” In other words, to criticize the Trump administration's climate-denialism is to inflict further harm upon storm victims.

Pruitt’s statement shouldn’t be taken at face value. Whether or not a majority of Floridians wish to discuss why unprecedented natural disasters keep happening remains unknown, and the notion that storm victims take more umbrage with discussing the problem than they do with losing their homes strains credulity. Climate change clearly exacerbated the degree of the storm, and since polls find that a majority of Florida voters consider climate change a serious problem, now might be the time to start to talking about it.

Local officials in Florida don’t seem to object to these discussions. In fact, a few days before Irma roiled the peninsula, the mayor of Miami, Republican Tomás Regalado, exhorted the EPA to act swiftly on global warming, telling the Miami Herald, “This is the time that the president and the E.P.A. and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change.” He’s not the only one. Many Florida aldermen and university professors have been urging state officials to address changing weather patterns since Republican Governor Rick Scott banned the use of the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in Florida Department of Environmental Protection proceedings.

One finds similar problems with Pruitt, an outspoken climate change denier who sued the EPA thirteen times before President Trump, also a climate change denier, appointed him to head the department — the same department now tasked with aiding Texas and Florida in their recovery efforts. Indeed, Pruitt has not only denied that environmental problems exist, but contributed to them by moving to eliminate a record number of regulations for the duration of his tenure. And now he’s invoking the hearts of storm victims to avoid answering critics of his untenable rash of deregulation.

Since the existence of climate change has reached consensus in peer-reviewed research, we may need to flag denial of climate change as a disqualifier for office. Whether it be through town halls, letters to congressmen, or interviews with the media, we need to broach this topic with government officials and hold them accountable; ditto for other controversial issues.

Which would be possible if our discourse wasn’t constantly broken up by outrage brigadiers. These officers of outrage show up to scold us for discussing gun control after mass shootings, chide us for scrutinizing precincts after instances of police brutality, and now reproach us for examining the impact climate change has had on natural disasters after a historic raft of hurricanes.

In general people don’t like causing offense, which makes the idea of affronting storm victims genuinely horrifying. And since members of the media are increasingly perceived as coastal elites thriving off the exploitation of tragedies, they too ask questions with a lingering anxiety. This allows outrage brigadiers to wield people’s feelings like a cudgel against interlocutors who dare point out the root cause of a tragedy — in this case, climate change.

Our best recourse is to acknowledge that causing offense may be a necessary condition for discourse. This is America. People love guns, lionize police, and doubt scientists. If we shared our true feelings someone would likely get offended. But there would also be a chance that fewer people would be dead or otherwise impaired.

Instead we talk about these issues like it’s in bad taste to talk about them at all. The procession of events following a tragedy are almost ritualistic: first, commentators unleash a flurry of think pieces concerning the tragedy; then, other commentators bleat about how exploitative it is for the media to politicize misfortune; finally, the public moves on and forgets about the issue, having felt uneasy about discussing policy prescriptions while everyone was still paying attention.

This provides ammunition to outrage brigadiers, who often protest that people only care about an issue after something bad happens — a criticism that doesn’t explain why these discussions shouldn’t occur. Nobody has the time or exposure to care about all things bad in the world. Since tragedies capture people’s limited attention, the media should use them as proxies for policy discussions so we can trace problems to their roots and deracinate them. Otherwise, we’ll forget about the issue until the next calamitous event.

There is no reason to choose between helping storm victims and talking about the causes of the storms. We can do both, and choosing between one or the other would only partition us from the problem, allowing it fester. Democracy works through a nexus adjoining policymakers with free-flowing exchanges of ideas. That nexus is discourse, and if we do not speak we cannot expect to be heard.