Saturday, August 25, 2012

Thoughts on Coarsening of Discourse, and What I Plan to Do About It

If there is one narrative that is dominating the 2012 Presidential Race in the United States, it is that of the deterioration of our public discourse. Yes, there has been plenty of talk about women’s rights issues, a surprising lack of talk about the economy, and a fair amount of discussion about the social safety net, but the main overarching theme that has united all Americans in a state of pained anger is the one concerning the thought of “do these guys have a fucking clue as to who they’re supposed to be representing?”

You have misleading ads already popping up with the election still two and a half months away, with Mitt Romney blasting Barack Obama for ending welfare reform “as we know it”, and the President countering that by alleging that Romney was somehow responsible for the death of a woman whose husband was let go from this job.

This mudslinging has only been made worse by the proliferation of shadowy Super-PAC money into the campaigns, and even though they have innocuous names like “Citizens for America” and the like, they are truly turning discourse on its head, and are emphasizing the polarization of this country in a way that has never been attempted before, and if we continue to allow our nation to carry down this path, our political system might suffer damage that is simply irreparable.

I myself have seen the damage that the cheapening of dialogue into soundbites and rallying cries has wrought. For the record, I am intending to vote for President Obama in the upcoming election, and I have a bumper sticker that emphasizes this choice. Earlier this year, I was driving near my home in Phoenix when I noticed a motorcyclist behind me. Remembering every ad I’ve ever seen that says “BE AWARE”, I naturally was attuned to his presence. What I wasn’t expecting was for him to pull up alongside my car at the next stoplight, flip me the bird, and yell “FUCK THAT NIGGER!”

Another incident that comes to mind was the evening I was working at the front counter of Walgreens and noticed someone crouching down behind my car. Now, I wasn’t sure exactly what this person was doing, or if they were potentially hiding from someone, so I went out to check. What they were actually doing was trying to peel my bumper sticker off of my car, and when I confronted them, they took off wordlessly.

Now, in fairness, I have also seen evidence that liberals pull the same gestapo crap on conservatives. When I was a precinct committeeman in Illinois during the 2004 election cycle, I was driving voters to the polls on Election Day when I happened across a house with a white sign in their yard. Now, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I knew for a fact that this house had been loaded for bear with Republican placards in the days leading up to the election, and they were all gone. In its place was a simple white sign with a handwritten message saying “To whomever took our signs, we sincerely hope that your expression of free speech is enough to make up for your oppression of ours in your twisted mind.”

I ended up knocking on the door of this house, and apologized to the owner on behalf of all citizens who are of the belief that everyone is entitled to their opinion, whether I agree with them or not.

Obviously, these incidents are confined to the last eight years, but there has always been a degree of malice and shock jock culture in our politic al system. In 1800, for example, Vice President Thomas Jefferson accused President John Adams of being a hermaphrodite, and also of being involved in an attempt to become part of King George III’s court (you know, the same king we rebelled against in a war 20 years previous to the election). In response, Adams claimed, among other things, that Jefferson was of half-black and half-Indian descent. He surprisingly didn’t mention Jefferson’s affair with his slave Sally Hemmings, but perhaps that would have been too gutter-politics even for Adams.

Making it a family affair, Adams’ son John Quincy was referred to as a “pimp” for the Russian tsar during his time in that country by his challenger Andrew Jackson in the 1828 campaign for the Presidency. Adams then countered with the charge that Jackson was a murderer, which was actually a pretty fair accusation because of Old Hickory’s fondness for dueling.

We could also go into Rutherford B. Hayes being accused of stealing money from the families of dead Union soldiers after the Civil War, or a multitude of other directions, but we’ll wrap up the history lesson with Lyndon B. Johnson, famous for saying that he loved the feeling of being in power and “having the other fellow’s pecker in my pocket.” He allegedly made up a story during a Congressional race in Texas that his opponent was fond of having intercourse with pigs. When one of his advisers told him that “you know he doesn’t do that,” Johnson replied “I know. I just want to make him deny it.”

This story probably has the same level of truthfulness as the tall tale that publisher William Garrison Hearst uttered the phrase “you furnish the pictures; I’ll furnish the war” in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century, but the point remains the same. Insane accusations and scandalous talk are nothing new in our politics, so those people praying for a return to the “good old days” of civility simply do not have a clue as to what they are talking about.

As a matter of transparency, I have to admit that I have written about civility in discourse before. Back in January, when Gabrielle Giffords resigned her seat in the House of Representatives, I implored my readers to remember her example of being civil in trying times, and that if we aren’t careful with our inflamed rhetoric, it could lead to similarly appalling acts as the one that felled her back in January 2011.

What I did not say in that piece, however, is that there was some golden age that we could hearken back to in our attempts to aid the quality of our civil discourse. Rather, I hinted at a point that I want to make in a fuller context now, and that is that we as Americans are always capable of making ourselves better than previous generations, and that’s exactly what I would love to see happen now. We are capable of informing ourselves in ways that older citizens couldn’t have dreamed themselves of doing. We can read pieces of legislation, keep up with news in all corners of the world, and check statements by politicians about their records in office for their veracity, and that clearinghouse of information that is the internet has driven all of that forward.

Unfortunately, our “Microwave Culture”, as I have termed it, is insistent on instant gratification, so instead of fully arming ourselves with an arsenal of accurate information, we tend to latch onto those sources that make the most sense to our already embedded prejudices, and we end up simply spouting talking points that others have concocted. Cable news networks and blogs have taken up the mantel of informers from newspapers, and they have run with it, encouraging us to become walking dittoheads without minds for ourselves. It’s simply easier to spout whatever Michael Moore or Rush Limbaugh fills our minds with, rather than truly thinking for ourselves and making informed decisions.

People constantly bemoan the state of news as something that is meant more to shock us than to inform us now, but our limited attention spans in the age of technology has made this technique necessary to gain page views and keep viewers’ eyes glued to the television screen for longer intervals. We have no one to blame but ourselves, so instead of constantly griping and then falling back into the cycle of seeing who can shout the loudest and using that metric to determine the winner of a debate, we need to make it a priority for ourselves as an electorate to seize the positive potential of the information age and use it to our benefit as a citizenry.

In the coming weeks, we are going to see a barrage of statements from both camps as Americans return from a summer of intellectual vacation to the grim business of choosing the next leader of our nation. I, for one, flatly refuse to buy anything wholesale that either candidate will be selling, and you can bet your ass that I will do my part to combat disinformation and to trumpet the truth behind stories for the rest of the election cycle. I know I may not have the audience of a Rachel Maddow or the bombastic appeal of a Glenn Beck, but I do have a functioning brain, and I refuse to allow this culture of instant gratification to continue to determine the way in which it processes information as the election nears.


  1. It seems like the divisiveness you refer to was manufacture by politicians themselves to make sure people stay elected who in a more transparent culture or have a more vigilant media who wouldn't otherwise succeed at anything else.

    p.s. I don't remember our discourse being anything less then infantile and childish and oh so much fun.