Sunday, August 16, 2009

American Demagogues and the Decline of Civility

America prides itself as a beacon of democracy, a model of hope and freedom for the rest of the world. We value freedom of speech and the First Amendment, citizen participation, and the right to vote. Although our system of governance is not perfect -- we are not, and have never been, above partisan bickering -- there is a history of bipartisanship in American politics that has achieved many good things. Democrats and Republicans together enacted environmental protections in the early 1970's, tax reform in the 1980's, and deficit reduction in the 1990's. Each of these things required mutual respect and cooperation among ideological opposites. It can be done.

I started following politics closely when I was nine years old, in 1968, one of the most volatile years in modern American history. It was 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; the Vietnam War and anti-war protests were at their peak in a nation divided; and race riots erupted in our cities. Since then, our political discourse has at times been nasty, mean-spirited, vindictive, and petty. I supported Barack Obama in 2008 in part because he wanted to change all of that. In distinguishing himself from his Democratic rivals, candidate Obama said that it was time to free the nation from the bitter partisanship of the past: "I don't want to see us spend the next year re-fighting the Washington battles of the 1990's. I don't want to pit Blue America against Red America; I want to lead a United States of America." In his inaugural address, the newly elected President renewed his call for unity:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.
Many commentators thought Obama's hopeful idealism naive. Paul Krugman of the New York Times predicted prior to the election that whichever Democrat made it to the White House would be forced to confront "an unending procession of wild charges and fake scandals, dutifully given credence by major media organizations that somehow can't bring themselves to declare the accusations unequivocally false." As I observe the current health care debate, I am afraid that Krugman may already have been proven correct.

Last week, Sarah Palin, darling of the conservatives, declared on her Facebook page:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society" whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
Is it any wonder that people are showing up at town hall meetings ready to rumble? If you think that the government is ready to deny your sick child medical care, or pull the plug on Grandma, you might be upset as well. But despite her down home Alaskan charm, Palin has always pitted her view of America against those she perceives as outside of the mainstream, the "other" Americans who do not fit the Ozzie and Harriet myth of middle America. During the presidential campaign, Palin falsely portrayed then-Senator Obama as a terrorist sympathizer because he served on the Board of a well respected Chicago educational reform organization with Bill Ayers, a college professor who was convicted of involvement in anti-Vietnam War bombings when Obama was a young child. That Obama, who has always condemned violent protests, was in elementary school when Ayers committed his criminal acts, did not matter to Palin, who has repeatedly demonstrated little knowledge of, or concern with, the facts. It should surprise no one, therefore, that her "death panel" statement was based on pure fantasy, entirely untrue, as not one legislative proposal has called for the creation of anything even resembling a governmental body that would eliminate care for the critically ill as a cost cutting measure (which is presumably what a "death panel" would be).

The United States has always had a lunatic fringe of self-deluded, right-wing wackos -- Jerry Falwell accusing President Bill Clinton of murder and drug smuggling; the Posse Comitatus and similar militia groups spewing hatred and plotting the overthrow of the government -- but Palin should know better. Unlike Falwell and the Posse Comitatus, Palin actually has the potential to be taken seriously. She is attractive and, at times, well-spoken. As a former Governor and Vice Presidential candidate, and as a possible presidential candidate in 2012, she has a duty to speak responsibly and to avoid emotional appeals to fear and prejudice solely for her own political gain.

It is one thing for Rush Limbaugh, a radio talk windbag, to spew hatred and lies. It is quite another for someone who desires to someday lead this country. It is the difference between Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin. While both men are disgraced demagogues of America's past, one was more dangerous than the other. McCarthy held a position of authority. When he abused his powers, he harmed many innocent people. Coughlin was a crackpot with a radio station; while he influenced the views and affected the prejudices of a large number of Americans, he had no real power. Rush Limbaugh, the modern day Father Coughlin, stirs up passions, but when he compares the President's efforts at reforming a broken health care system to Hitler's Germany, he simply exposes himself as a foolish man. And while he, Glenn Beck, and others are partly to blame for the ridiculously misinformed folks who have been showing up, yelling and screaming, at the health care forums around the country, they are just voices on the radio -- they cannot pass any laws, issue subpoenas, or hold people in contempt.

It is not that these modern day demagogues are unintelligent people; they know that neither President Obama nor anyone else in the health care debate has proposed denying medical care to terminally-ill patients, children with Down's Syndrome, or the elderly. But like the witch hunters of the McCarthy era, who saw a Commie on every school board and opposed all social and political progress in the United States, the Limbaugh/Palin faction of American politics plays to fear, ignorance, and the boogie man. It has no interest in ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health care, if it means that President Obama will get some of the praise.

To his credit, President Obama has continued to reach out to all factions. Part of his greatness as a leader is his willingness, indeed desire, to engage his opponents in a civil and respectful manner. When he gave the commencement address at Notre Dame University in May, the President asked, "As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?" Obama knows, and has the courage to insist, that we as a country will not get to where we need to be on issues surrounding health care, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, race relations, and foreign conflicts, until we cease demonizing the opposition. At Notre Dame, he said:

The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem-cell research may be rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved.
Perhaps applying lessons learned as a community organizer, the President takes a respectful, conciliatory approach to policy disputes. He believes in America as a shining city on a hill, and recognizes that, in a democracy, true reform will only be advanced by demonstrating respect for one's opponents and inviting them to a conversation about what needs to be done to solve the problems at hand. He knows that, if people are acting in good faith, even those philosophically opposed, a reasonable solution can be found in most instances.

Sarah Palin has a choice. She can act responsibly and join Americans of goodwill in finding a workable solution to our troubled health care system, or she can continue to engage in deceit and misinformation. As the Reverend John Jenkins, President of Notre Dame University, said when introducing President Obama at the May commencement, "Easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge" of our time. "If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others."


  1. Let’s get right to the point: partisanship is good and needed now more than ever. It was not an unfortunate by-product of this country’s founding, but integral to its creation. Passionate partisanship prevents one party and one philosophy from dominating the direction the country moves and slows down the enacting of laws that could have disastrous effects on future generations. We desperately needed more partisanship in the 1930s when FDR was reshaping the American character with his policies that forced, over time, citizens to become wards of the state.

    You glowingly quote President Obama:

    “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear (Who was fearful? Why does electing someone with less executive experience than Sarah Palin make me hopeful?), unity of purpose over conflict and discord (Unity? Was there free Kool-Aid that I missed? Did President Obama win by a landslide?) . On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises (My concerns are petty? What false promises did McCain make?), the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics (Dogma? Such as the belief that government should be as small as possible?). We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”

    Now close your eyes and imagine President Bush saying these exact words at his inaugural, and deny that you would be calling him a sanctimonious, arrogant ass. Imagine President Bush dismissing his opponent’s opposition to his philosophies as childish or that now, with the election over, everyone agrees with him. The truth is that the above quote, flowery though it may be, says nothing, except to reveal President Obama’s contempt for those who disagree with him.

    Your sights are then turned on Sarah Palin, who, given the media hostility directed towards her, must be the one person Democrats fear the most. I agree. She calls Obama Care evil and you take offense, but what is less evil than partial birth abortion? Only one thing: letting a child who manages to survive a failed abortion die without giving it medical aid. Both are supported by President Obama, so is it really a stretch, knowing our president’s indifference to some human life, to suggest that a government run, rationed healthcare system would result in less care being given to those deemed less worthy of life: the very young and the very old. The fact that, “not one legislative proposal has called for the creation of anything even resembling a governmental body that would eliminate care for the critically ill as a cost cutting measure,” is not reassuring. After all, just because HR3200 doesn’t currently call for a new Department of Soylent Green production, doesn’t mean that the logical results of rationed care would not be horrific. As President Obama himself stated: “Maybe you’re better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller,” and, “If you only need one test, why do you want five tests?” The nightmare will begin altruistic enough, with the president explaining that if the government is paying for a fat man’s diabetes medicine then the fat man should be required to exercise for his own good and, on a regular basis, have his blood tested for Krispy Kremes.

    (to be con’t…)

  2. (con’t…)

    You then claim, “Palin falsely portrayed then-Senator Obama as a terrorist sympathizer because he served on the Board … with Bill Ayers, a college professor … convicted of… anti-Vietnam War bombings when Obama was a young child.” Left out is that on 9-11-2001, when President Obama was all grown up, Ayers claimed he was unrepentant and didn’t do enough. I would add that President Obama’s recent World Apology Tour gives comfort to those who want to kill us and his moral equivalence between Israel and those who want to exterminate her, by suggesting that both sides are responsible for the bloodshed, also highlights his odd way of looking at good and evil, all to the benefit of the evildoers.

    And to top it off, you attack the myth of the Ozzie and Harriet America. I live that myth with my wife and children, as do most of my friends. Many who don’t, have denied it to themselves by the choices they make.

    Regarding Rush, you use an old tactic: make a general statement with no facts to back it up. Please list the hatred spewed and the lies told. In the meantime you claim Rush and others are misinforming people, yet if not for them, President Obama’s lies would go unchallenged including the biggest, that there are 46 million Americans that are uninsured. From Rush I learned these statistics: of the 46 million, 9 million are already on Medicaid; 3.5 million are eligible for existing coverage; 20 million can afford insurance. This leaves 13.5 million, who are accounted for by the 7 to 20 million illegal immigrants. Add to that the Congressional Budget Office’s claim that 45 percent of the uninsured are actually only uninsured for four months or less.

    Now you may dispute some of these statistics, but thanks to Rush and other windbags, you now have actual numbers to check. If President Obama really cared about addressing the healthcare problem he would welcome a healthy debate, starting with a defense of the 46 million claim. You liken Rush to Joe McCarthy, “who saw a Commie on every school board,” while forgetting that the Communist threat was real and while they may not have been present on the school board, they certainly were in the Whitehouse (suggest Googling The Venona Project and Alger Hiss as a starting point). Contrary to what you claim, Rush and company have not played to irrational fear, ignorance, or the boogie man, but to what has historically been the most dangerous enemy of mankind: a power hungry government that believes it knows best.

    To prove President Obama’s “willingness, indeed desire, to engage his opponents in a civil and respectful manner,” you quote… his speeches. But where exactly is the engagement? He talks of the challenges we face as the problems he inherited and that he would prefer that those who created the problem get out of the way. You would never know he was a senator helping to create the problems he eventually inherited. He has never acknowledged the other ideas that are out there. Remember President Bush’s Health Savings Accounts? The Heritage Foundation has studied the problem and has come up with alternatives that have the added benefit of not enslaving the American People to the whims of bureaucrats who couldn’t succeed in the real world.
    I wonder what your thoughts were several years ago when President Bush was expending some of his substantial political capital (at the time) to push for Social Security reform, a much more important problem than healthcare. Did you applaud his courage for taking on the Third Rail of American Politics? Did you chastise those who stifled debate while claiming Social Security was sound?

    And perhaps the most important question of all: What was it in your past experience as a federal employee that makes you so confident in the government’s ability to identify a problem, let alone solve it?

    You're sorry you ever emailed me, aren't you?

    Rich R.

  3. Rich,

    Always good to hear from you. But we will have to agree to disagree. You may not acknowledge it, but you cannot even see when someone is being conciliatory and when someone is being a demagogue. Explain to me how Palin's comment about "death panels" has any element of truth? Explain to me how Limbaugh's comparison of Obama's health care plan to Nazi Germany is antyhing but offensive? Their comments do not suggest that they are willing to have a rational conversation about a serious policy debate. You may not like Obama and may disagree with him about everything -- but he is reaching out to all sides and at least trying to engage in participatory democracy.

    I don't like it when anyone, on any side of the political divide, resorts to offensive name calling -- thus, when left wing nutbags compared George W. Bush to Hitler, I found that offensive as well, not because I agreed with Bush on most things (I did not), but because he was the President and I assumed he was acting in good faith -- as is President Obama. The name callers, however, are not acting in good faith, and that is my problem with Palin/Limbaugh et al.

    Obviously, I do not share your disdain for the federal government. I have seen government bureaucrats in action, and I have seen corporate bureaucrats in action, and I fail to see much of a difference. My experience with Big Insurance, when it comes to health care coverage, has not been great. Medicare is a pretty good system, and most people are pretty happy with it. We can disagree as to what sort of health care options and coverage people should be able to choose, but to suggest that our health care system is what it should be, is to be blind.

  4. Mark,

    We have a tendency to believe that a historic person, whether good or evil, was always a historic person, but that of course is not true. Adolph Hitler was not born Hitler, killer of millions, but became this Hitler over a very long period of time. Likewise, Ronald Reagan was not born Reagan, vanquisher of the Evil Empire, but became this Reagan over a long period of time. The same is true of governments. When Hitler took power he did not immediately begin the extermination of Jews, but instead began consolidating power in seemingly benign ways. In fact, his rise was so slow that millions of Jews who could have left Germany did not because they did not see, or could not believe, the evidence before them. They were unable or unwilling to take what was happening and extrapolate it into possible future events. German Jews who fought bravely in World War I could not bring themselves to believe that their Germany would ever become a place of concentration camps and mass slaughter. The same can be said of Stalin and Soviet Russia, but on an even bigger scale. So when people use the analogy of Nazism, to warn against government expansion, those who believe all Germans possessed a special evil gene and were destined to commit war crimes, take offense, while others who recognize that Germany, a democracy, over time became evil in direct proportion to how much power the government amassed, understand the analogy and are not offended.

    So when my government, for example, tells me that my health and my finances are the business of the government, I become alarmed. When I am told that the government has to approve who I marry through the issuance of a license, I become alarmed. When I am told I need the government’s permission to arm myself for self defense, I become alarmed. Now let’s stop here for a second because I can see you rolling your eyes. It is my understanding – please set me straight if I’m wrong – that free citizens before the civil war did not need government approval to marry or arm themselves, but only when the government – the same that wants control of banks, car makers and healthcare, so far – became worried about freed black slaves marrying white people and securing weapons did they institute the need to secure government approval. This same government has since said that my earnings are its business (income tax); my retirement plans are its business (Social Security); my wages are its business (minimum wage); my vices are its business (obscene tobacco taxes, although oddly enough there are no exorbitant taxes on gambling winnings?); my property is its business (Kelo v City of New London); and so on.


  5. As far as Palin’s death panel comment, I believe I did address that, but let me add that a government that finds a right in the Constitution to murder the unborn is then obligated to provide that right. Federal Healthcare, especially under the control of the party that champions abortion at any and every stage, including an undetermined amount of time after birth, will surely take my money and pay for those who want to exercise that right.

    You are wrong when you say President Obama is reaching out to all sides to have a rational conversation about a serious policy debate. To prove me wrong simply provide an example of President Obama even mentioning any of the alternative plans that are out there, let alone suggesting that there might be some good ideas there. I have never claimed that our health care system is what it should be, but the answer is less government and more capitalism; less regulation, more entrepreneurial spirit.

    Now onto the general theme of your last post: If you want to develop your obvious skill as a writer and essayist, you must not, under any circumstances, “agree to disagree.” If we were having a beer, I would tell you not to be a... well you know. You must challenge your opponent; pick apart his arguments, look for flaws, make him think twice, while defending your position with facts and logic. For example, I was much too flippant with my comment about the federal government, giving you the impression I view it with disdain. I should have been more specific and say that I believe it does well carrying out its enumerated responsibilities, especially defending this country from enemies, foreign and domestic. Our military is the best on the planet and only a lack of will on the part of our leaders can bring about defeat. And regarding the domestic enemies, you and I know from experience that bad guys don’t stand a chance if they are targeted by dedicated officers and attorneys. It’s when the government overreaches that I become concerned. It is what terrified the Founders and why they put such tight limitations on what the federal government could and could not do. Regardless of how wonderful our government is, and it is nothing short of a miracle in the history of the world, it is still a government made up of human beings, no different than the humans who walked the streets of Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Imperial Japan, and who today walk the streets of the People’s Republic of China, Jong-il’s North Korea and General Shwe’s Burma. When our federal government grows it does so by taking responsibilities away from towns, counties and states, and by taking rights away from its citizens. Americans, especially those who have endured totalitarian regimes and other oppression before becoming citizens (legally), are a special breed who understand freedom and know when it is threatened. But because we are not genetically different from the monsters of history, we can lose our freedom if we are not vigilant and if we don’t defend every freedom, no matter how small or unimportant. We must defend even those freedoms that are not wise, like the freedom not to prepare for retirement; the freedom not to finish school; the freedom not to abstain from harmful vices or behavior, even if we will suffer the results of those freedoms later. The thirst for power is not new and Americans are not immune. Remember that at our founding, after throwing off the yoke of the British, there were Patriots who wanted George Washington to be king; remember the presidents who never seemed to want to leave office; and remember those who have made a career in the House and Senate.


  6. So don’t let me off the hook; hold me accountable for my reasoning and I will do the same. It will make us both better advocates for our beliefs. At the end of the day, just because I may think of you as a flaming liberal (or is it “progressive” these days, I lose track), I still value your opinions and friendship, and I will not be offended if you think me a right-wing conservative – in fact, I insist!

    By the way, have you told Bill G. about your blog? If not, can I? Please!

    Rich R.

  7. Rich,

    First, absolutely tell Bill G. and anyone you would like about my site -- anyone who wants to take the time to read it certainly has my appreciation.

    Second, on issues such as abortion, you cannot change my mind, and I suspect I cannot change your mind. Thus, we must agree to disagree. I believe that the concept of "liberty" -- which is in the Constitution -- means nothing if it does not encompass a right to privacy. This is called a reasonable and valid interpretation of language found in the Constitution. I am sure you do not agree, but there is nothing you can say to convince me that the government has a right to interfere with a woman's intimate, personal, and at times painful decision of whether to have, or not have, a child. I do not believe abortion is a good thing -- and in many instances, I believe it is not the morally correct choice. But it is a choice that belongs to the woman, not the government. The rights of a woman of child bearing age outweighs the "rights" of a fetus. Nothing eloquent about that, but it is a matter of balancing rights. We can try to work together in preventing unwanted pregnancies, and thus reduce the number of abortions -- indeed, the Obama administration is working with certain evengelical Christians, such as Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and mainline protestants and Catholics, to develop programs and policies that, while not interfering with a woman's right to choose, will help reduce the number of abortions -- but I will never be able to agree that the government can by law force unwanted pregnancies to term.

    Third, your insistence on trying to defend a comparison of Obama to Hitler is no less offensive than if I suggested that Bush, Reagan, Cheyney, et al., were just like Hitler. It is so preposterous, I can't believe you actually believe what you wrote. Hitler systematically gassed 6,000,000 Jews, and killed millions of others (gypsies, dissenters, etc.); and believed that the Aryan race was superior to all others. He exploited a long-running strain of anti-Semitism that had existed for centuries; took advantage of the silence and acquiescense of the Christian churches; and the complicity of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans and Poles, who carried out his eliminationist policies. Call me crazy, but I fail to see an analogy to our President, a fundamentally decent man of good will.

    Fourth, I do not believe that our freedoms are sacrificed by people, like myself, the President, and most moderately liberal Democrats, who believe that income taxes are needed to pay for the world's greatest military; that all Americans should be entitled to affordable health care; that AK-47's should not be sold in 7-11's; and that corporations should not be allowed to dump an unlimited amount of waste into our rivers. Is this really like Nazi Germany? Do you see any distinctions here? Do references to "death panels" and comparisons to Hitler advance rational policy discourse? Or does it, like I suggested in my post, portend a decline in civility?

  8. Mark,

    You got me. We will have to agree to disagree about abortion. I will never convince you that the unborn, despite having its own distinct DNA, is entitled to the same right to live as you and me. I will never convince you that there is nothing magical about the end of a woman’s uterus, instantly bestowing upon those that escape it, a government sanctioned soul requiring certain protections. We will agree to disagree that there is something twisted with a society that says a mother may kill her unborn child with immunity, while a father who does the same will be charged with the murder of a human being.

    Now one final thought about the theme of your essay and follow-up posts, which you begin and end the same way: the "decline of civility" since the 1960’s. For this I refer to two pages in a great book by Stephen E. Ambrose, "Undaunted Courage." 160 years before the scourge of the 1960s, there was in the summer of 1802, “a juicy scandal full of invective and slander, leaks from men in high places, hush money, blackmail, and charges of immoral sexual conduct and miscegenation by (Thomas) Jefferson.”

    The scandal actually began earlier when Jefferson leaked information to a journalist and wanted to be referred to as an "unnamed source" (sounds very modern, huh?). Jefferson even initially approved of a book the journalist was writing, but he changed his mind, describing the book as "full of such spleen and scurrility," and fearing that its "extreme language" would end up helping the other side.

    Although the writing of the day proved that they knew how to insult with more intelligence, style and wit, their attacks were no less savage than today. The journalist described George Washington as the, “grand lama of Federal adoration, the immaculate divinity of Mt. Vernon.” He described John Adams, and this may be my all-time favorite insult that describes many bosses I have known, as a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

    The journalist was fined and jailed for his writings and was later pardoned by Jefferson after the election, but the writer thought he was due the position of postmaster in Richmond and attempted to blackmail Jefferson to secure it. He also said “it would have been advantageous to Jefferson’s reputation if his head had been cut off five minutes before he began his inaugural address.” Jefferson refused to be blackmailed and the journalist began his attack. Some of the charges put forth were that Jefferson had a slave mistress who bore him children; he “had approached another man’s wife when the man was away,” and Jefferson had cheated on a debt. Jefferson admitted to the second charge but Ambrose doesn’t indicate whether or not Jefferson first used the defense used later by Clinton.

    The other party, of course, made full use of the scandal in an attempt to bring Jefferson down, but failed.

    Ambrose describes it all as “vicious partisanship and vile political journalism.”

    So there has never been a time when American Politics, like politics everywhere, was viewed as anything less than total war. Some in political war observe a type of Geneva Convention, which still leaves room for the killing of reputations and other violence, while others have a more Jihadish view and fight without conscience.

    Rich R.

  9. Rich,

    Thanks for the historical anecdotes. You (and Stephen Ambrose) make a very good point, that political discourse in this country has never been all that civil. But it does seem more intensely vicious at times, given the noise-level and seemingly unlimited nature of the news media today. As for your comments on abortion . . . oy vey.

  10. This may be the best point-counterpoint debate I've ever read. Boy, there is just no substitute for discussion like this between two well-spoken, well-read, smart people who respect these qualities in each other, even while they disagree profoundly on the substantive issues they debate. But, doesn't the dynamism happening here prove the point which was (did we forget?) the power of civil discourse? Where good people argue from facts, history, logic, and not from raw emotion -- and they can appreciate the good intentions of the person on other side -- that's when we can actually begin to hear each other. Where people are shrill and vitriolic in their delivery (liberal or conservative), it gets awfully hard to hear their message. I think everyone falls into a quagmire when they compare public figures whose history is not yet written (Obama, Palin, Limbaugh) to historical figures who are remembered for reaching the high water mark of evil or power-obsessed (Hitler, McCarthy). The present is more nuanced than the historical past. Now that news is 24/7, and the shrill messages have more entertainment value than the quiet ones, we are driving ourselves into a national nervous breakdown if we don't settle down and listen to each other. That requires both sides.

    Although I'm politically liberal (whatever that means), I found your arguments very though-provoking, Rich. Keep 'em coming. By the way, I already rebuked Mark about one of the things on which you and I agree totally. Leave "Ozzie and Harriet" alone! I grew up with them, too (and they were always respectful to others during disagreements, a lesson I took to heart). Of course, we have to be careful about whatever era we lionize. "Mad Men" is also a pretty good portrait of the '50's, but I, too, prefer to remember it from the "Nelson household."

    Anyway, what this country needs is to take the two of you on the road to demonstrate how this civil discourse thing is done.


  11. Andrea,

    You nailed it when you wrote, “Now that news is 24/7, and the shrill messages have more entertainment value than the quiet ones, we are driving ourselves into a national nervous breakdown if we don't settle down and listen to each other. That requires both sides.” Although I love a good smack-down as much as the next person, I’m left with nothing more than a Newt-really-knocked-it-out-of-the-park with-that-one moment, which I expected in the first place. I’m left with nothing new to think about. I blame it all on MTV and Miami Vice, which introduced us to the fast edit, eye-candy form of entertainment, where what is said is less important than how it looks. The last time I was ever impressed with a balanced news story on an important topic was years ago when I stumbled on a news story about abortion. As I watched it I was amazed at how it presented both sides of the argument evenly, giving equal time to both view points. In the end I was shocked to discover that I had been watching the 700 Club!

    Unfortunately, news programs today think if they don’t keep the energy up that viewers will switch channels. So they pit five talking heads against each other, giving each just enough time to make themselves look stupid.

    The one person that I can think of that makes your point – and you’re initially going to loves this – is Ann Coulter. Even to her fans – and yes my hand is up – she can come across on television as abrasive and shrill. But Coulter and the rest have mere seconds to discuss incredibly important issues and if they aren’t theatrical, they may not be back. But when you sit down and read a Coulter book, you find that the hilarious and sarcastic Coulter is still there, but her snipes and jabs are backed up by facts and infallible logic. In other words, like in these posts, when you can put your thoughts together in quiet and have the pages to flesh them out, you can actually advance an argument, and if not convert someone to your way of thinking, at least force them to confront some tough realities. Case in point: single mothers. Even Republicans fall all over themselves to kiss the feet of these noble and selfless survivors of life’s tough breaks. No one could be critical of a single mother in the span of a sound bite and come across as anything less than a heartless monster. But the next time you’re at Barnes and Noble sipping a Starbucks’ white chocolate mocha frappuccino, take your Nation magazine and hide between its pages Coulter’s “Guilty” and turn to chapter two, “Victims of a Crime? Thank a Single Mother.” You may not like what you read but I’d be impressed if you could prove much of it inaccurate.

    Maybe the answer is less watching and more reading. Even with the welcome departure of Colmes from what was always Hannity’s show, I find I watch him less and less because I know what everyone on his panel, conservative and mentally ill alike, is going to say before they say it.

    I’m glad we found common ground with Ozzie and Harriet, although I’m more of a Ward and June Cleaver-type, not that I’ve ever been successful in getting my wife to greet me at the door in an apron and pearls.

    Rich R.

  12. Thank you for your thoughts both in this post and the comments on my post, I think Andrea is also corrent about 24-7 news cycle, though I would add becuase of the news cycle format, a story in such a short space reduces the telling of the news into simple narrative structures: begining, middle end, good guy/bad guy motif, single conflict-resolution stream. The problem with is how do you fit a complex issue like health care into such limiting story form. The debate has quickly become less about health and more on who are bad guys, Palin or Obama. We all lose then.