Monday, January 10, 2011

Decency and the boiling teapot of our body politic

"I think it would be a good idea." -Gandhi, when asked about western civilization.


There has been much talk in recent days about the state of US political discourse, since the shooting rampage that wounded several people, including Democratic Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and killed several others, including a federal judge and a 9 year old girl.

I won't rehash all the debate. It's not the harshest political climate the nation has ever seen; that honor could go to the early 19th century or the 1850s or the Vietnam War area or even the anarchism-plagued era of a 100 years ago.

But suffice it to say, things have been pretty vitriolic for the last few years, certainly the nastiest political culture of my life time. It's worth remembering that Rep. Giffords was one of many Congresspeople who supported the president's health care reform who saw their office vandalized, a less severe form of violence but a precursor. A sign in front of a home in this area reportedly bemoans, "It is a tragedy that more elected officials aren't executed."

An unnamed GOP senator told Politico that the Giffords' shooting was a "cautionary tale" and that "There is a need for some reflection here - what is too far now? What was too far when Oklahoma City happened is accepted now. There’s been a desensitizing. These town halls and cable TV and talk radio, everybody’s trying to outdo each other."

The senator was simply saying that we should all calm down a little bit but was afraid to give his or her name. This is a Republican senator mind you, not a Democrat like Giffords. This is a scathing indictment of how close to the edge our political culture has veered that the senator was afraid to have his/her name attached to such a seemingly innocuous plea.

So much of the focus has been on whether the Tea Party's or Sarah Palin's vitriol contributed to provoking the shooter in Arizona. It's really not the point and doesn't really serve the interest of calming things down. This issue is nastiness and disproporionately harsh rhetoric, often having little to do with the issues of the day and how this creates a climates where reason is rendered irrelevant. The above parties certainly contribute significantly to this climate, but there are culprits on all sides. Blaming one side for this particular tragedy ignores the fact that everyone is doing the same things.

I certainly understand the frustration behind the rage. Our government is bought and paid for by corporations. The ordinary citizen feels impotent. He feels that no matter how much he may have logic or reason or right on his side, he won't be heard because he can't make large campaign bribes ("donations").

This is why, for many years, Greens and other progressives have been pushing democratic reforms to take the government from corporations and other non-citizens and back to the citizens. We the people, not we the corporations or we the unions.

This sort of democratization is essential to defuse the violent tendencies. If people feel that non-violent democratic action is fruitless, they are more like to take the next step. Some people feel that if they can't be heard via exercise of the 1st Amendment (petition to redress grievances) than there's always the 2nd Amendment. As Pres. John F. Kennedy pointed out, "Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable."

But I also think political dialogue is harmed by our culture. Part of it is because our culture values the outlandish and the strident. Glenn Beck's theatrics and Keith Olbermann's 'Worst Person in the World' are far more visually and aurally compelling than the intonations of a Ralph Nader... even though the latter's words have (and have had) a far greater contribution to make to society. The intelligent people, the rational people, the civilized suffer from the fact that they aren't 'rodeo clowns.' Politics has always been theater, even more so in the 24 hour media culture, but we still delude ourselves by saying that only ideas matter.

Even liberals, who incessantly pat themselves on the back for their supposedly superior reason, vote primarily on 'notions' and 'gut feelings.' They 'just knew' that candidate Obama was more rational than candidates McCain and the others so they didn't feel bothered to look at the fine print. Now, they feel betrayed when Pres. Obama does what he said he was going to do rather than what they assumed he would do. Now, they feel their fault is that they aren't being nasty enough to counter the nastiness on the other side.

It also matters that our media now amplifies the anonymous. People can say whatever they want on the Internet and talk radio, without name, without restraint, without accountability. One of the nastiest political climates in our nation's history was the early 1800s, an era where the primary medium of communication was unsigned or pseudonymous pamphlets.

Anonymous has its good side and its bad side. And they are the same: lack of fear.

There is a maxim in our society that you don't talk about religion and politics in polite company. I couldn't disagree more. In fact, I think this exacerbates the general incivility we're seeing now.

If you can't talk politics with your friends and family, with whom you're more likely to remain respectful because you value the relationships, then you won't learn how to discuss such things civilly.

Instead, we argue politics with strangers on the Internet or talk radio. Since we don't value those relationships, the argument is more primal. We have fewer inhibitions about being nasty.

These media are depersonalized. You are not arguing with a specific human being. You are arguing with generic leftie or generic rightie about whom you assume certain things because of his ideology. These media allow you to insult 'liberals' or 'conservatives' or whomever else without ever having the guts to directly insult someone you know personally, something which is a lot harder to do. You might go on the Internet or talk radio and call someone an America-hating socialist terrorist appeaser or a baby killing militarist who spits on our troops, even though you'd never dare say those words directly to someone's face.

This is liberating, for better and for worse. Theoretical words can have real consequences, again for better and for worse. This is a freedom, but like all the others, it must be used responsibly. Now would be a good time to start.

Parents often talk about the things they do for their children. One of the most important things they can do is be a good role model. Part of being a good role model is acting like a responsible adult. Not just in terms of providing the basics of living, but of demonstrating good character in all walks of life... including political discourse. Be passionate, be engaged but remain first and foremost a decent human being.

Addendum: I think a corollary to this is that so much of what passes for 'debate' is people (on all sides) just regurgitating the same nasty talking points they read on a blog or heard on talk radio, rather than formulating arguments in their own words. This goes to the point about arguing with a generic opponent rather than an individual, perhaps nuanced, human being. You fight generic with generic. Engaging an individual takes more thought and effort.

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