Thursday, May 27, 2010

Why Taking the High Road Doesn’t Always Work

It’s becoming increasingly clear that when it comes to dealing with the Right, ideas alone aren’t going to cut it. While the nation desperately needs a discussion on policy, the Right has been steadfast in its unwillingness to join in. Instead it has comported itself more like a lynch mob looking to rewrite history books and branding anyone who disagrees with it names like socialist, Nazi, un-American, terrorist sympathizer, and the like.

To be clear, divisiveness in American politics is nothing new. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson loathe each other; Teddy Roosevelt so despised William Howard Taft that he ran as an independent, thus securing the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. And in recent memory there have certainly been a few brouhahas between Democrat and Republican worthy of pen and paper. Negative politics – whether one wants to admit it or not or even whether one likes it or not – works. But of late the tone has grown noticeably malevolent. While it was never news worthy to hear personal insults and political attack ads that bore little resemblance to facts, the last few years have seen a slide into an abyss that is unique even in American politics and now threatens our very political system.

So what happened? How did a bad situation turn grave? I think we can trace the genesis of this rot back to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan years. Despite what the Right has said about it, the Fairness Doctrine NEVER restricted speech over the airwaves. I wrote a blog back in June of 2008 on this very topic called “The Broadcaster Freedom Act: The truth about what’s really behind the resistance to the Fairness Doctrine” so I won’t go over all of it here. Suffice to say what the Fairness Doctrine required was that “all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair.” Ironic isn’t it to see that phrase “balanced and fair” in an FCC transcript from 1949. Licensees were considered “public trustees” and had an obligation to permit discussion of “contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance.”

And therein lies the crux of the matter. An obligation to permit an actual discussion of contrasting points of view does not fit the paradigm of political talk radio and TV, where more often than not a ranting monologue is the preferred method of discourse. From about the late 1980s through today we have seen a flood of incendiary talk show hosts – mostly conservative – who have been relentless in their assaults and equally irresponsible in their dearth of fact-checking. With no Fairness Doctrine in place, they are free to spin whatever nonsense they choose to a mostly gullible audience. From the bombast of a Rush Limbaugh to the out and out hate of a Mark Levin, conservative talk radio now dominates most of the A.M. dial, with nary a peep from alternative sources to offer a counter argument. A non-stop, 24/7 assault on the senses of the general public over the last twenty years has produced a toxic environment that no longer invites debate, but demands of its opponents complete capitulation and stirs within its listeners a rage that holds no bounds. Even the most ardent optimist would find it difficult to escape such a conundrum. This is the America we find ourselves in, where reason is trumped by ignorance, and discussion is put aside as superfluous.  What used to be the classic conservative vs. liberal debate has now deteriorated into vitriolic insanity vs. reason.

Now what? Assuming the above is correct, where do we go? Well for one thing reinstating the Fairness Doctrine appears to be off the table. There is little stomach in Washington – even among Democrats – for putting the Jeannie back in the bottle. For all the drivel from the Right about Obama being a socialist, seems he’s not much of a progressive either. One is apt to be hit by lightning twice in the same spot as to see this president take such a courageous stand and call for reinstatement of the Doctrine.

It seems we are left to fend for our own. To coin a phrase the Right always seems to misappropriate for its own devices, we need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Of course for us the problem isn’t that we don’t counter irrationality; our problem is that we try to reason with it, like a parent reasoning with a wayward child. We take the high road and use the intellect we were given to make what we believe are cogent and rational arguments to make our point.

The problem is that such tactics, while laudable, are akin to trying to put out a fire with a water pistol. The inferno rages on and consumes the building. The building in this case is the United States and the inferno is the rhetoric of hate that is engulfing everything in its way. At the rate of consumption we run the risk of waking up one day to see a pile of ashes before us.

We cannot let that happen. But what to do? For us that has always been the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Well for one thing as tough as it might be to swallow we must realize that our own worst enemy has been our intellect. We have been far too high-minded in our debates. We have the facts on our side as well as the bulk of history to support our stances but to no avail. For we have made the colossal blunder in assuming that this war raging around us has anything to do with facts. As progressives blessed with the ability to reason and persuade intelligently, we seek reasonable resolutions to disputes. We despise lowering ourselves and quietly congratulate each other for not sinking to the level of our opponents. We must get over this aversion. It is a character flaw our opponents do not possess.

Years ago while attending an American Sociological awards ceremony where I was presenting my thesis I had the good fortune to sit at a table with a few of the more distinguished scholars of the country. Men and women of all backgrounds who had made sociology their discipline. As I listened to all of them two things immediately struck me almost simultaneously: 1. They were all very intelligent and thought provoking individuals who knew an awful lot about what they were talking about, and 2. They were about as interesting and exciting as watching paint dry. Though I loved the discipline they exhibited, I knew deep down that five minutes after we left that room, most if not all of us would probably not remember what we talked about. As students of academia we were in love with ourselves. We were high-minded and high browed, and ultimately irrelevant.

That is the curse of the Left. High-minded intellectuals who have truth on their side and then slowly and quietly put the audience to sleep with their razor-sharp wit. Our brain, for lack of a better word, has always been our Achilles heal. We are too good to roll around in the mud; it is beneath us to engage in passionate displays to refute lies and ignorance. We count on the inevitable wisdom of the public to eventually come to their senses, and then are left speechless and dumbfounded when we discover that once more the mob has turned on us. See John Kerry and the Swiftboat ads of 2004 for reference.

We shouldn’t be shocked or awestruck. Shakespeare nailed the human condition perfectly in “Julius Caesar.” How many times must we see the likes of a Marc Antony rile up the crowd before we admit that Brutus was an idiot? The sobering truth is that for all its seeming accomplishments most of the human condition can be reduced to those few paragraphs in that epic play.

Since its early days – whether one prefers the biblical interpretation of an Adam and Eve in a garden or the more anthropologically correct interpretation of us crawling out of the cave – homo sapiens have been easily led astray and manipulated. They are about as steadfast as a rudderless ship caught in a gale. The countless wars, tragedies and pestilence reveal not an enlightened race, but a sadly misbegotten one. Hoping against hope that out of this throng called civilization something remotely resembling order and sanity will prevail on its own with no prodding is like heading out to the middle of the Atlantic and waiting for the Titanic to raise itself out of the water.

How in God’s name can we be so naïve? We need to stop being so damned high-minded and polite and start shouting back. We must put aside that age-old axiom that served us so well in our classrooms, but which affects nothing but the amusement of our opponents. And we must realize we do have opponents. Even if we do not like the idea, they are there. They are not afraid to call us their opponents and their relentlessness is, if nothing else, interminable. So ours must be as well. It is not our lack of intelligence that is at issue here; merely our lack of resolve. Deep down we despise the methods used by the hate mongers; we cannot bring ourselves to believe that such ugliness is that pervasive. It is, and we must end our denial over it. It isn’t going to back down, so neither must we.

At the risk of going a little Glenn Beck here, there is a parallel from history, which should serve as a sobering reminder of what complacency and complicity can lead to. The Jews in Germany during the 1930s could scarcely believe what they were seeing in their beloved country. They had witnessed prejudice against them in the past, but nothing like this. To a man and woman they believed that cooler heads would prevail; that the ranting and raving of Hitler would eventually be dismissed by the bulk of the public in good time and that in the end things would return to normal. They were wrong and six million of them died in the death camps.

There is always a price to pay for silence; but not just silence, snobbishness, aloofness, call it whatever you wish. A belief that it is beneath oneself to rise up and confront the foolishness of others is the lesson of history. It is a lesson we keep on learning mainly because we still don’t get it. We needn’t be doppelgangers of the bullies on the block to be effective agents of change. What we must stop doing is being the proverbial punching bags for such miscreants. We needn’t carry a club into the brawl; but we must resist the urge to bring just a pen. Our lungs may go weary, and our hearts faint, but we must not wither. It is not just for our sake but for the sake of all we hold near and dear. In Christendom there is a saying: love the sinner, hate the sin. We must realize that hate, when it is used properly, can be an effective tool. It must be our tool. We do not have the luxury of worrying about our stature or reputation; such things are transitory any way.

In the end, this isn’t about making those who are offensive to our common senses see the error of their ways. More than likely we will stoke a few more fires way before we put some out. No, it is not for the hate mongers that we do this; it is for the millions of rudderless souls whose future hangs precariously in the balance. For those who think this a rather laborious and debasing exercise, ask yourself just one question. Would Brutus have needed to flee Rome had he not ceded the stage to Antony?

We need to stand our ground. Emoting is not our enemy, anymore than pure intellect is our friend. We must use both the pen and the sword to thwart the evil that lies in men’s hearts. Yes, I realize there is always a danger that we too might be consumed by that very same evil. But being a reflective recluse is a poor excuse for a lack of will and a weak constitution. Once more we hear the cry, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” How many times must we hear the words before we rise up and grab the podium? We can turn the ship around; we can help chart a new course away from hate and toward sanity. But to do it we must be willing to do what does not come naturally to us. We must abandon our tried and failed methods and employ a little of the enemy’s playbook.

The cause is just and the moment is now!


Jon Trott said...

I agree in principle. But before we begin with our new more feisty selves in the public sphere, let's not toss ethics. Even if the other side often seems to do so. We should remember that helpful word, "balance," as in "fair and balanced" -- no, just kidding (FOX News!)... rather, "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord."

As I understand the best of progressive thought, it emphasizes the essential humanity of every human life. Even Rush Limbaugh's. Thus, we can go after Limbaugh and be pretty rough with him... yet refuse to stoop to dehumanizing him or treating him as he treats others.

Progressive thought should also highly value truth -- no matter what. So go after our political opponents... but do it truthfully. That doesn't mean being selective, either. The conservative blogosphere majors on doing just the latter, and I can't stand them doing it. So why would I myself want to be caught doing it? Again, "a false balance is an abomination."

Progressives should be funny. C'mon, people! Who is more convincing, Keith Olbermann or John Stewart? Sure, I do watch Keith... and usually like what he has to offer. But John Stewart! He's the one I play youtube clips of for my right wing friends...

Progressives should be kind. When Michael Moore gave thousands for a right wing Moore-hatin' blogger's health bills (not telling the guy until it was all over), that to me was what I'm talking about. Accuse Moore of grandstanding, fine. But he *was* kind. It smacked of Christian thinking to me... Christian being another name for Progressive in my book.

Peter Fegan said...

Agreed, that is why I said, "We needn’t be doppelgangers of the bullies on the block to be effective agents of change. What we must stop doing is being the proverbial punching bags for such miscreants. We needn’t carry a club into the brawl; but we must resist the urge to bring just a pen."

And may I add Jon Stewart is Da Man!

Jon Trott said...

Argh... JON not JOHN... Stewart, that is... people always do that to me, and here I do it to Stewart. Funny.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Pete and Jon. I think Michael Moore is a good example,too. Humor is a powerful tool. Even though he admittedly struggles with his faith, he seems to get Jesus and the big picture better than most evangelical believers I know.