Tuesday, October 12, 2010

taking it down a notch

So, I'm taking it down a notch. As opposed to John Stewart who I think may actually be taking it up a notch - 'it' being open for interpretation. This isn't a criticism, as I think his brand of activism is more beneficial than not. But really, John Stewart is leavening, not . . . whatever the opposite of leavening is. (baking soda?)

Back to me, though. Recently I unsubscribed from e-mail lists of some political organizations. It's not that I don't support many of the goals of these organizations, it's just that the rhetoric they use occasionally makes me choke on my own bile. I despise arguments that exacerbate the war of words and ideas in order to tap the ever growing wellspring of fear in the populace. Hyperbole is a literary device, not a way of life. And as I begin to despise the people who use hyperbole in their wars, I know it's time to get some perspective. In my experience, it's prudent always, always to mistrust arguments that impugn the motives of opponents and define those opponents as adversaries.

Given the current atmosphere and the perennial impossibility of consensus, it's increasingly important for politicians and voters to remember, despite popular rhetoric, it is possible to reach a compromise without compromising one's values. Bob Bennet was a good example of how to compromise effectively, and he suffered his demise for his efforts. Even though I have an ideological preference concerning most issues, I sincerely hope that no one side or party always gets its way because of what that would mean for the citizens whose party is out of power. Alienation has never been a great policy. But those who won't compromise make alienation an alluring option.

Character attacks and analysis that go no deeper that pointing out hypocrisy contribute to the drunken frenzy of American politics and, more to the point, the breakdown of civil discourse. The proliferation of the idea that the ends justify the rhetorical means - ie. getting My Way justifies repeating half-truths until people believe them or spit venom in every direction in order to foster enough fear to motivate the masses to get off the couch - or rather, stay on the couch at least long enough to listen to an illogical rant with chalkboard as visual aid and watch some money-generating ads. (No, Glen Beck is not the only culprit, just the most schizo and the one I am most ashamed of. He talks big about unity and values, and in the next breath he's "also talking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi, or choking to death Michael Moore, or beating to death with a shovel Charlie Rangel." In my America, murder is not a shared value, Mr. Beck. Whatever your opinion of his politics, it's clear that his tactics are devicive and insendiary.) This kind of "entertainment" should never be mistaken for news, nor is it non-partisan or bi-partisan.

I guess what I'm saying is, have an opinion - your own opinion both formulated and expressed without popular partisan talking points. It's important to be informed from several relatively unbiased sources because lack of first-hand knowledge, or second-hand in this case, leaves people vulnerable to outrageous interpretations from all sides. Personalities who want to tell you what the framers meant are often after something else, and anyone who says he belongs to the Party of Lincoln or the Party of Jefferson should accept those parties no longer exist; too much has changed to claim otherwise. (Incidentally, I believe this is also true of the party of Reagan in several ways. Amnesty, anyone? This conservative icon wouldn't be nearly as popular today if he were president and not conveniently among the departed, a symbol left open for selective interpretation.)

Two basic interpretations of the Constitution are represented at either end of the spectrum. One is broad. One is narrow. Both are equally legitimate and important to the kind of plurality that supports a vibrant democracy. People will defend their interpretation of the constitution as gospel with loud voices, so why don't many people defend democracy with equal amounts of spittle? Could it be because many of those who purport to defend the constitution find implementation of their interpretation more important than the kind of democracy enshrined in the document itself? If there are broadly shared American values - and I believe there are - shouldn't commitment to democracy be chief among them? Ideally, this should be paired with an ethic of civility, but in order for that ethic to triumph it has to be practiced at both the lowest and highest levels.

Since kindness begins with me, I'm taking it down a notch myself. If you care about democracy and civility, tune out the extreme rhetoric. Turn off your cable news and talk radio - and consider the issues yourself instead of digesting the commentary of the various pundits. This isn't about beign passive or not participating, but framing your point of view in a thoughtful way. I'm still practicing, and as I do, I find that citizenship becomes more meaningful. Once you consider the problems from various angles, you realize the impossibility of reaching consensus. Contemplating in this way may bring a renewed dedication to practicing small 'd' democracy and breed compassion for the compromisers who generally keep our country from extremism.