Saturday, May 14, 2005

Spoon and Joe part III

If you're just joining us (and where have you been?), you'll want to read the two Air America related posts below for this to make any sense.

Spoon and Joe: We're more similar than different here. I still don't see why we need to act like assholes to make our point. The link Spoon sent me is a perfect example of the perfect way to handle an asshole commentator. Did Riemer call Medved any names? No. Did he attack Medved's character? No. He didn't have to. Medved managed to look awful on his own. You fight fire not with fire, but with flame-retardant material...and then you point out who the arsonist is. That "self-defense" (to use your term) is every bit as effective--I'd say more so--than name-calling. So your example of Riemer actually goes against yoru thesis (unless you're saying that Riemer would have been better off if he'd said "You're an asshole, Medved" instead of doing what he did). This past year, Kerry didn't fight back in either fashion, and that was the Democrats' problem.

Joe..."some people deserve to be yelled at." Who? When? Who gets to decide? How much verbal abuse is okay? What kind? Is it acceptable for those at the Republican Convention last year to wear banjd-aids with purple hearts on them? Can anti-abortion protestors call patients and doctors at clinics "baby killers"? If not, why is it okay to call Pat Robertson a Jesus killer? I am simply not with you here, and need more explanation. It seems to me that, rather than drawing these sort of murky lines in our political discourse, we ought to say "be civil with people, and show your passion and anger toward issues and not towards people." What's wrong with that? When faced with silence in the face of Matthew Shepard's murder (or other examples you cite), why not quote Matthew 25 to the silent fundamentalists? Won't that work better--and reach Christian fence-sitters--better than third-grade-level name-calling would?

Spoon..."A lefty Karl Rove" might give us the win, sure. Let's go a step further. Would you like a lefty Lee Atwater? Atwater, I might argue, did more to harm our democracy than any individual in the twentieth century. If we could warp the election with the lefty version of Willie Horton--and win--would you do it? Would you like someone to research, find, and play a Gennifer Flowers card against the president? I don't. It'd mean that no issues would really be addressed anymore. We'd have both parties working towards the lowest common denominator. And when our party took over in Washington, it'd be considered acceptable to oppress anyone who disagreed with us every bit as much as the entrenched Republican majority does now. In other words, we'd still have an oppressed political minority in this country, rather than a political minority that the majority values and works with. Meet the new boss--same as the old boss.

Help me out here, guys. Am I getting anything wrong?


Joe said...

And here's where we find out that we're not that similar after all.

Is it acceptable for those at the Republican Convention last year to wear band-aids with purple hearts on them? Can anti-abortion protestors call patients and doctors at clinics "baby killers"?


I guess my feeling is that we need more political theater, not less. More walkouts. More filibusters. We need Dick Cheney and Theresa Heinz Kerry to take their Seven Dirty Words act on the talk show circuit. I don't think exciting politics is a bad thing.

But what we also need is the right imagery. "Baby killers" is a perfect example. You've boiled a complex meditation on the very nature of life down to a precise, accurate, useful two word image. That's not bad debate, Coach. It's good. It works.

On the other hand, I will admit that the issues of Kerry (and Bush) during Vietnam left me quite cold. To me, they were not relevant, and on that level, the campaigning on them failed. But that doesn't mean that it's wrong for the people who do find them relevant to debate them, and to debate them with the full symbolic and rhetorical toolbox instead of just the McNeil-Lehrer approach.

Sure, this puts an amazing responsibility on the electorate. We have to teach people to do their own research and dig past the rhetoric. We have to do a better job of providing access to the whole package instead of the sound bite. (As an information provider, I refer to this as "job security".) But I think we have to rely on rhetoric to get people motivated to do the research.

As far as what constitutes assholery, I'm afraid one man's Barack Obama is another man's Zell Miller. I don't think we can draw anything but a murky line between an attack on someone's opinions and an ad hominem attack. We can find a civil way to phrase a critique of how someone lives their religion, for example. However, except among the very closest of friends, it's not actually a civil thing to do, and no number of "my dear friend"s and "we happen to disagree"s will change that.

Let's bust it down to one sentence, Prof. "You are wrong." Civil critique or ad hominem attack?

pankleb said...

There's a great line in "Bush's Brain" from the guy who ran McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. I don't remember it exactly, but he basically compares Rove-ian tactics to McCarthyism. He says the American public will get fed up at some point with the lies, flip-flops, and slanderous whisper campaigns (Kerry didn't deserve his medals! Cleland is a traitor! McCain went crazy in Vietnam, and oh by the way his adopted daughter is really an illegit. love child!) used by modern Republican politicians. I agree with him. Or, at least I hope he's right.

Look -- Malloy's an outrageous goofball, but he's no worse than Time Magazine's cover girl, Ann Coulter. As far as I can tell, Ann thinks disagreeing with someone justifies calling them a Nazi traitor fascist fuckface in print. Maybe Mike thinks he's going to be on the cover himself someday.

Air America is great, though not all their hosts are up to speed. Al Franken rambles too much. Morning Sedition occasionally becomes immature and reactionary. Randi Rhodes is angry, but she "gets it" in the same way Rush gets it -- you must entertain people, and one way to do that is to use the other side's words against them. Air America blew it early on by hyping Al instead of her. She is a star.

J. Garofalo -- whatever. Portland's Air America station airs Ed Schulz's syndicated show in the afternoons. He's awesome because he has both Rush's voice and Rush's folksy, midwestern way of explaining things.

Keep listening to Air America, TRP. Even if it's too "out there" at times, it's better than listening to O'Reilly, Snow, Rush, and Hannity when they go "out there."

Joe said...

Of course, America only got "fed up" with McCarthy when he picked on the Army during the Cold War. If he'd stuck to artists, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and politicians, HUAC would still be in force today.

lemming said...

Too much yelling, too many bumper stickers.

Joe and Tom are among the finest fellows I know, and deeply thoughtful. Combind with TRP, the IQ is off the scale. Yet I thnk we all need some steps back and deep breaths. We can;' change the right now, but we can change what will be.

TeacherRefPoet said...


I don't feel things are going sour here. It feels like a legitimate, interesting, respectful exchange right now. No deep breaths needed, at least on my end. I think you're misinterpreting my tone.

Joe, did I say anything you feel is out of line?


The electorate is not living up to the responsibility you give them. "Political Theater" is not causing people to stream into the libraries to study up. It has become the end, not a means to it. I've voted 5 times now, and have felt empty every one of them because I have never felt like the free marketplace of ideas was truly at work...instead, it feels more like a snap-fest. I honestly believe that if we stopped the bumper-sticker-level name-calling and put out some ideas and some low-power backing...yup, the Jim Lehrer approach...that the electorate would rise to the occasion. They would be -forced- to, and our democracy would be better as a result. Free marketplace of ideas, not free marketplace of name-calling.

"You are wrong." Ad hominem or not? My answer to your question is a solid "it depends."

On matters of fact, it is not an ad hominem attack. If someone says "Thank God we went into Iraq. Saddam was behind 9/11." I think the factual evidence is in. We can say "you are wrong." Global Warming detractors...them too. Same reason.

On matters of opinion, it's murkier. "I believe the invasion of Iraq was a great step for foreign policy." I passionately disagree. But we've left the realm of fact here. So while it's not an ad hominem attack, it's also breathtakingly ineffective. We're on the road to the day when John Sununu said this on our dearly-departed -Crossfire-: "It bounces off of me and sticks to you."

I'm still not finding how that sort of theater is good for a democracy. But I am still listening to you.


Ann Coulter is the worst at what I'm describing...absolutely. But my response to her is opposite yours and Spoons. I do not believe our party should use her antics as an excuse to lower ourselves to her level.

Who on Air America is least likely to make me feel like I've been doing a crossword puzzle in the car? I might...MIGHT...give them a shot. But Mike Malloy--never again.

Joe said...


Heck no. No blood, no foul. Game on!

Let me say that I'm honestly very happy to see you, a high school teacher, advocating for raising expectations and believing that the electorate will rise to the occasion. That's a good sign, and on small levels, I believe it too. I'm glad for folks like yourself, Spoon, Lemming, and the list goes on, who won't let me oversimplify my views or even hold an unexamined position very long.

Unfortunately, in large groups, I don't believe in it. By and large, I tend to see that crowds dilute intelligence and virtue, and encourage only whatever momentum the lowest common demonimator already has. My experience is that large groups will not rise to your challenge. If you actually want someone to do something, logic and context aren't your friends, clarity, brevity, and imagery are.

For crying out loud, half of us don't vote at all. And I don't believe for one heartbeat that I stood in line for 9 hours last November because of well-researched opinions; I think it was "no blood for oil" and similar slogans.

I'm with you in wanting to encourage people to actually research and think, and I do think that's an area where "Rock the Vote" and "Vote @ Your Library" and similar slogans don't work. To return to theology, I think that's the kind of change which will come from base communities (not unlike this discussion). But this is an actual change in American values, and it doesn't address the makeup of our government in our lifetimes.

In part, this is because our two-party system necessarily oversimplifies the vast range of political issues into him-or-me elections. I've been crying for 20 years that what we actually need is a parliament and coalition government, in which third (and fourth and fifth and ninth) parties actually have a shot. We can say that we're fed up with the two parties we have, but the deck is stacked against more than two existing. Now we've gone from defining civil discourse to a second constitutional convention.

(And as far as this being a modern phenomenon, fill in the blanks: Ma, ma, where's my --? I will not be crucified on this cross of ----. 54'40" or -----. Remember the ----- (two allowable answers). An ---- ------- has descended across the continent. At long last, sir, have you no -------? Soundbites go way back. Because they work.)

I guess I don't see an inconsistency in wanting to change the way Americans think about citizenship on one hand, and wanting to actually take back the government now.

tommyspoon said...

Gosh, Lem, I think we three need to hire you on as our collective press agent...

I reached in my rhetorical quiver for an answer and came up empty. So I turned to my wife, who is more savvy about politics than all of us put together. I'll get to my question and her one word response in a moment. (Ooh! A comment tease!)

I'm writing this to you from Chicago. The land is a bit flatter out here than back East, and thus you can "see for miles and miles." The perspective is a different one, and it has made me somewhat reflective upon this whole topic.

Perhaps you're right, TRP. If we raise the level of discourse then we can grab the center with our ideas instead of our vitriol. But I suggest to you that if Air America turned your stomach, then you may not be ready to engage the other side.

Perhaps you're right, Joe. We need more noise and more heat, not less. Noise and heat get energy moving, which can get crowds moving in certain directions. But I suggest this activity for you in the near future: participation in an abortion clinic defense. I think you may find your position on the term "baby killer" might change.

Perhaps I'm wrong about the power of liberal/progressive media outlets. But I still believe that funny can be just as effective as thoughtful.

I think that my wife has it right, and we three are grasping at the threads that make up the rope of her solution.

"Sweetie, what do you think is the best way to raise the level of political discourse in this country?"



So, here are our marching orders from my wife:

TRP, continue to educate the young that politics are important and meaningful. She suggests starting at the local level and track legislation -- the more controversial the better.

Joe, generate as much noise and heat as you can through direct action in local and national politics. Your blog entry about your nine-hour voting odyssey is a good start. Do more! Be witty! Be outrageous!

For Myself: Continue writing letters to the editor and supporting Air America and other liberal and progressive media. I may even subscribe to Mother Jones, The Nation and The New Republic.

Together, we may just change this country that we love so much.

pankleb said...

Just to clarify ...

Coulter gives me hives. And it does bother me that Malloy thinks the proper response is to be Coulter-ish back at her. Sadly, it seems the train has left the station on slamming the hell out of people who disagree with you, well beyond the point of political theater. People like that always seem to be changing both 1) the rules of fair play, and 2) the meaning of what was said before (Example Numero Uno: over the past two years, "finding elements of a weapons of mass destruction program" replaced "finding weapons of mass destruction" as a justification for the war).

Anyway, for what it's worth, I could never sink to the level of Coulter or Malloy, even if I get pretty damn mad about this stuff sometimes. Years ago, Jack Germond of "The McLaughlin Group" was interviewed (by Moyers?) about the declining level of political discourse in this country. He admitted that the show was an example of outrageous political theater, lacking the sane, civil tone required for real political discourse. And then he said, "But that show sent my kids to college." Sometimes I wonder what Coulter and all those other pundits really think, besides, "Wow, look at that paycheck!"

Murky Thoughts said...

We communicate anger in part with language and anger is information, especially when it comes to compromise. You need to know how much you hurt the other person by doing what it hurts you not to do. We all have intimate relationships and we all have ourselves to observe in anger, so we know how high the human anger needle goes, and we know it doesn't just stay in the civil range. So in public discourse I think you subtly undercut your intended message by staying civil. I think that's part of why British MPs don't have public debates with members of the IRA, for example.