Politicizing Gabby Giffords

January 26, 2012

By all accounts Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is a remarkable
woman: A respected, conciliatory colleague in the contentious House of
Representatives long before the tragic shooting in Tucson; a hardworking
politician deeply committed to the concerns of her constituents
(which is why she was in a suburban parking lot that fateful Saturday
morning); a supportive spouse; a faithful friend.

It was impossible not to be moved by the genuine outpouring of
affection for Giffords on Tuesday evening before the President’s state
of the union address, and on Wednesday as she delivered her letter of
resignation to Speaker Boehner and a full house in the House. On both
sides of the aisle the tears flowed.

I don’t question the motives of any of those paying tribute to
Giffords. I take their expressions of gratitude for Gifford’s
friendship, their claims about her character and service as sincere and
heartfelt.

And yet.

There’s something about the way we tend to treat people with certain
illnesses or infirmities. How we canonize them (is Gabby Giffords really
“the brightest star Congress has ever seen?” What does that even
mean?). How we patronize them, even infantilize them. How we
sometimes regard them as objects (rather than subjects) onto which
we project any number of our own feelings: pity, guilt, fear.

Certainly Giffords’s recovery from the shooting has been something of
a medical miracle. She’s obviously tenacious, focused, optimistic, and
magnanimous. (She has also, unlike many of her fellow Americans, had
access to top-notch health care). But she’s not superhuman. Does our
need for tidy, inspirational scripts — innocent victim becomes national
hero – deprive people like Giffords of the capacity to be what seems
more believably human: by turns tenacious and wavering, focused and fearful, optimistic and anxious, magnanimous and selfish? Have we burdened her with expectations that serve our needs more than her own?

And if Giffords can bring together Democrats and Republicans who
unanimously praise her as an example to follow, a model of political
magnanimity to emulate, why don’t they just do that — follow her
example, model her magnanimity? Even while meaning what they say about
Giffords, their subsequent actions (back to squabbling about taxes,
tearing down opponents) reveal them to be the masters of doubletalk who
continually leave us weary and cynical about all things political.

And we’re back to Gabby being unintentionally used as a prop, as a
way to garner goodwill. But the politicians’s walk doesn’t match their
talk. And the very human Giffords, whose gait is unsteady and whose
speech still unsure, but whose witness profoundly affected all who
worked with her, has left the building.

Originally posted at Intersections.