Politics in America / Semantics

“Politicization is the last refuge of the scoundrel”

Politicization is the last refuge of the scoundrel. To “politicize” something — hurricanes, intelligence, science, football, gun violence — is to render it political in a way that distorts its true meaning. That, at least, seems to be the reasoning of those who use the term as an insult: We adhere to pristine, unadulterated facts and call for unity; they politicize those facts for partisan gain and divide us even more.

The word has become such a reliable epithet, smacking of petty opportunism and bad faith, that it sometimes functions as shorthand for everything wrong with our current political moment. Two days after the mass shooting on Oct. 1 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, the Fox News personality Sean Hannity devoted his opening monologue to admonishing “Democrats, liberals in the mainstream media, celebrities, late-night comedians — all predictably rushing to politicize this tragedy and predictably calling for more gun control,” as he stood outside the Mandalay Bay with yellow crime-scene tape flapping in the breeze. This, mind you, was just months after Hannity had been peddling conspiracy theories about the murder of Seth Rich, the young Democratic National Committee staff member who was shot near his home in the summer of 2016, in what the Washington police believe was a botched robbery attempt. Hannity persisted in promoting the claim that Rich’s death was a political assassination tied to the D.N.C. leaks, until Rich’s parents wrote an op-ed pleading with “conservative news outlets and commentators” to stop turning their son’s death into “a political football.”

Like so much these days, politicization is a partisan issue, with its ultimate meaning in dispute. One side berates the other for the sin of politicizing, even though calling someone out for politicizing is itself an act of politicizing, too. An issue can be encrusted with so many layers of “politicization” that an appeal to an apolitical high ground ends up looking like mere posturing. Conservatives like to complain about liberals “politicizing tragedy,” whether in Las Vegas or Newtown, Conn., but it was the Republican-majority Congress in 1996 that threatened to withhold funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unless it stopped research on firearm injuries and deaths — which sounds an awful lot like the politicization of research.

Jennifer Szalai, “Cheap Trick”, The New York Times Magazine (22 October 2017), 13-14.