The Problem of Choosing Symbols Over Substance

by William Skink

When Democrats are incapable of substantive action, they go for symbolic gestures. Nearly a decade ago, with the Iraq war raging, municipalities across the nation passed resolutions to “get us out of Iraq”. Missoula wasn’t first in line with a resolution in Montana, and that frustrated Jay Stevens, who claimed passing a resolution would not be a useless gesture in a post titled Butte wants out of Iraq; what about Missoula? From the link:

To many, this may seem like a futile gesture. It’s not. If enough cities, counties, and states vote on resolutions like this, it will slowly seep into the political consciousness of those living within the Beltway that we, the people, want out of Iraq.

My only question: where’s Missoula? Shouldn’t we be leading this effort?

That was 2007, when opposition to the Iraq war propelled then-candidate Barack Obama to win the primary and eventually the presidency—another symbolic victory for Democrats.

And yet, despite passing resolutions and electing a Democratic black man to the White House, the only reason troops finally left Iraq is because the Iraqi government held the US government to Bush’s Status of Force Agreement, pushing back against the efforts of Obama to keep a residual force of 10,000 troops in country.

Oh, and let’s not forget, 8 years later, that the Obama Administration continues to advocate for more troops in Iraq:

WASHINGTON — President Obama is open to expanding the American military footprint in Iraq with a network of bases and possibly hundreds of additional troops to support Iraqi security forces in their fight against the Islamic State, White House officials said on Thursday.

As Iraqi forces struggle on the battlefield, aides said Mr. Obama would consider establishing a series of outposts where American advisers would work with Iraqi troops and local tribesmen. The bases would be run by Iraqis, and Americans would still not engage in ground combat, but they would play a more active role closer to the front lines.

Democrats in Missoula have moved on from futile symbolic gestures toward foreign policy to enacting a municipal ordinance closing the gun show loophole within city limits. In my last post I agreed with Dan Brooks’ sentiments on this effort. Pete Talbot also seems to agree with Brooks’ logic, but at the same time celebrates this move by council as an important symbolic victory worth the predictable backlash. Here are Pete’s reasons for supporting this ordinance:

1) If the ordinance prevents just one homicide or suicide, it’s worth it.

2) Although it may be more symbolic than having any sweeping impact on gun sales, symbols are important. They speak to the values we hold dear in our community. I remember a decade ago when the council passed a resolution opposing the Iraq War. The resolution didn’t end the war but it did show where we (and many other communities) stood, morally. That’s important.

3) It will give Gary Marbut conniptions.

Ok, let’s speak about the values we hold dear in our community. For those of us not hyper-focused on gun violence, a broader picture of violence in our community begins to develop, and that picture is dominated by two factors: addiction and mental illness.

I browsed the Missoula County jail roster this morning to see what kind of arrests happened in the last 24 hours. There were the usual charges one would expect from a Saturday night in a college town with a drinking problem: DUIs, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, and a misdemeanor PFA (partner family assault). The one charge that stood out, though, indicated someone had a very violent night last night.

Jason Sanders was charged with felony aggravated assault-permanent or life-threatening injury, felony assault with a weapon, felony kidnapping, and a misdemeanor unlawful restraint, among other charges. Not knowing anything else about these charges, I think it’s a safe bet to assume some type of substance abuse contributed to this violence. Maybe that assumption is wrong, but I doubt it.

Substance abuse, especially alcohol abuse, creates all kinds of violence. Earlier this year an attempt to get retailers to voluntarily remove certain products, in addition to developing a no-sell list, didn’t go anywhere because the values of our Missoula community seem to prioritize money over public safety:

Tim France, owner of Worden’s Market and a BID board member, likened the training to the state’s serve-safe program. He voiced support for the no-sell list, though he remains skeptical of the proposed single-serve guidelines.

While the spirit of the proposal is good, France said, it may penalize retailers in the central business district who sell the listed items. It may also penalize those who obey the law and simply want to grab a beer to take home after work.

Irresponsible alcohol sales is a problem that those who profit from don’t want to address. Earlier this month a Missoula police officer had to use his gun after a drunk individual tried to hit him with his car. That individual had a BAC of .267 after drinking a reported 11 pints downtown. It’s a small miracle no one was seriously injured.

Which downtown business sold that individual his last pint?

If Missoula is serious about addressing violence in our community, then taking a hard look at the role substance abuse plays is absolutely necessary. Dealing with that factor will be more effective than passing a feel-good ordinance to close a loophole within city limits.

It will also be more difficult because there are influential people in our community who value profits over public safety.

That needs to change.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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1 Response to The Problem of Choosing Symbols Over Substance

  1. steve kelly says:

    What is America without our unique brand of violence? Awareness is always the hardest, and perhaps most important, first step toward change. This won’t be easy.

    “In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” (link is external) where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball (link is external) into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president (link is external), it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.”

    “I say violence is necessary. It is as American as cherry pie.”
    – H.Rap Brown

    While I do not agree with Brown’s statement that violence is “necessary,” he does have a point there.

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