Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Re-Thoughts on "Civil Discourse" (UPDATE BELOW)

I'm currently in the midst of a devastating personal crisis, and I'm probably crazy to even attempt to comment on any serious subject. It's a diversion from what's really on my mind, and, while that can be welcomed when thoughts are as bleak as mine, it's never a good state of mind for creating thoughtful discourse. I'm going to give it a try, anyway. If it doesn't turn out to be one of my best, it's something of a little miracle if I finish it at all.

The attack, by a deranged gunman, on a crowd at a public political gathering in Arizona has led, in the last few days, to some criticism of the political climate created by the right, which, in turn, led to a massive pushback by the right (far larger than the almost-non-existent original criticism). The cretinous Sarah Palin emerged from her Alaskan bunker to climb up onto her cross and deny rhetoric can play any role in such violent atrocities, while simultaneously asserting that the rhetoric suggesting that it may cause it can inspire violent atrocities, pretty much mirroring the tone of the entire conservative reaction. Writing over at "In My Humble Opinion," the overworked Niceguy Eddie has offered up some thoughts on the matter of civil discourse, but I take issue with what he says, to a degree, and decided I'd try to write about it.

First, Eddie:
"I’m not saying that we SHOULDN’T be more civil in our discourse, but using tragedy to highlight even THAT (which to some people STILL constitutes an “agenda”) is still politicizing it."
I think you miss a much more important point. One of the most serious problems we face in the U.S. flows, at base, from the efforts of those on the right to intentionally demonize, delegitimize, and dehumanize their enemies. What passes for public discourse from the American conservative elite (and is accepted without any significant skepticism by a lot of their followers) is little more than a string of personal attacks with that kind of total destruction as a goal. The right shows absolutely no regard for the truth when they're about this. They don't try to personally destroy someone based on the actual views and actions of that someone; they just, to put it bluntly, make shit up. Obama isn't opposed because of anything he actually does or is; he's opposed because he's a Kenyan Bolshevik who wants to set up government death panels to kill the elderly and infirm, manage a government takeover of industry, and destroy capitalism. The narrative, offered by the American conservative elite, of what happens in the U.S. rarely even touches reality. By it, there isn't even any room for honest disagreement. Those who disagree are enemies, and those enemies are the enemies of mankind itself.

The elite of the right has a gargantuan, omnipresent, multi-media machine to spread this narrative. It's like nothing that has ever existed in human history, and for a huge portion of the population (a distinct minority, but still huge), that narrative is holy writ.

This isn't just a problem in the ridiculous political food-fights we have every day, most of which don't amount to a hill of beans. It has, among other things, the potential to cause incredible amounts of violence. If you spend 24-hours/day, every day, telling your credulous followers that their enemies--those with whom they politically disagree--are out to destroy them, it's only a matter of time before a lot of them are going to get it in their heads that they'd better pick up a gun or a bomb and "save" the country. But violence isn't even the biggest problem we face as a consequence of this narrative. It's much bigger. It is, in fact, a literally existentialist matter. Forget about "civil discourse." Public discourse itself has been all but destroyed in the U.S. by this, and that's the death of a democratic society. Increasingly, people can't talk to one another in any meaningful way, they certainly can't disagree with one another, and for those who have seriously bought into the narrative as it is seriously offered, allowing any influence at all over public affairs by someone who disagrees--an enemy--begins to seem absolutely intolerable. Maybe even just living next to them will starts to seem intolerable.

Political rhetoric appears to have played no role in what happened in Arizona, but if the incident draws some attention to this wretched state of affairs, that's something positive that can come from the horror. I understand your concern for the feelings of the victims, Eddie, but I don't think dealing with this is any offense to them (though the ranting and bumper-sticker fix-alls offered by some of those clowns you mentioned are certainly thoughtless and inappropriate). The dead are gone. The rest of us still have to live, and part of that is addressing this problem.

It isn't addressed by noxious censorship, or anything like that. It can only be addressed by something we've fallen out of the habit of doing: having a real national conversation.

That said, I really don't think it will be addressed. Not as a result of what happened in Arizona, in any event. What little critical commentary that has emerged in recent days has focused, almost entirely, on things like Sarah Palin's use of phrases like "don't retreat; reload," and on defeated senatorial candidate Sharron Angle's suggestion that "Second Amendment remedies" could be a response if the right person--read: her--didn't win an election, and on Republicans' use of a map that put crosshairs on the districts of congressmen they're "targeting." This is totally misguided criticism. The problem isn't with things like this (most of which are of little consequence, and are relatively innocuous). It's with the context in which things like this are offered. It isn't with scattered comments involving allusions to violence. It's with the right's overall narrative. Focusing on the scattered comments will prevent it from being addressed.

It should also be most forcefully noted that this is a problem with the right, not with the rest of us. If, in the phony games of "balance" traditionally played by the press and in conservative efforts to deflect the issue by presenting a few scattered examples of inappropriate rhetoric by liberals, this is lost, then so will be any effort to address the problem.

The biggest reason it won't be addressed, though, is because of its sheer size. It isn't about those stray remarks. It's about what a huge portion of the population has been told to believe, and has accepted as reality. That's not something that can be turned on a dime. It may not be something that can be turned at all. A turn, in this case, requires people to begin questioning nonsense they've accepted as gospel for years. More importantly, it would require those who peddle it to them to stop peddling it, and that would entail that big right-wing machine going entirely out of business, because that's all it has to offer. Fat chance. And how do you have a conversation with people who, as a matter of fundamental ideology, regard you as an enemy whose every word is a lie, and refuse to indulge in any real conversation?

We have to try, though.

What else is there?



UPDATE (20 Jan., 2011) -- NiceGuy Eddie replies in comments, and my response ran a little long, so I'll put it here. Eddie:

" can't simultaneously accept the truth that having 'civil discourse' will affect the Right's behavior 90% and the Left's just 10% and NOT call that 'an agenda.' That I happen to SHARE that agenda with you doesn't change the fact that it's AN AGENDA. And while you and I will rightly call it an AMERICAN agenda or a MORAL agenda or a PRINCIPLED agenda, given the affect it will have, and on who, the Right can reasonably call it a LEFTIST Agenda. That's bullshit of course, and it's their fault for moving to the Right of SANITY, but from their POV, it's still TRUE."

That's a symptom of the very malady I outlined in what I wrote before, though, and you can't cater to that. If you try, you lose before you even begin, because that's the outcome their narrative is designed to produce, the only one. If, as a precondition to having that conversation, you have to wait until the right doesn't act that way, that conversation will never happen.

As for angry ranting, it is often not only appropriate; the lack of it would be inappropriate. There's a big difference between angry ranting based on something that should provoke angry ranting and the sort of manufactured outrage that flows from (and sustains) the right on a daily basis. That's why the narrow focus on mere "civil discourse" is so misguided. There's no reason at all to be civil about things that legitimately provoke incivility. The reason the right's incivility is a problem is because it's based on nonsense. One lie on top of another on top of another.

When those on the right were fighting the health-care bill because it set up death panels to kill old people, they weren't disagreeing with the health-care bill; they're just making up shit to try to dehumanize their enemies. The same is true when they opposed it because it provided government health-care to illegal immigrants. No permutation of it ever did, and this was thrown out merely to fan the flames of racism and rip at the fabric of society (that clown Wilson, who, at Obama's address to congress, shouted "YOU LIE!" became a hero on the right for doing that). The same is true when they oppose it because they're against "socialized medicine." The bill that was passed doesn't "socialize" any aspect of health care. (and, further, the idea behind that--that any government involvement in business is properly characterized as "socialism"--is also a part of what I'm talking about, as is the fact that, in the right's usage, "socialism" is both a synonym for "liberalism" and an invocation of Bolshevism).

Now, the health care bill was, it's true, a monstrous piece of legislation. There were more painfully real reasons to genuinely oppose it than could be easily listed. I wrote article after article denouncing it at the time. The right wasn't opposed to it because of any of those real reasons. As I pointed out repeatedly, it was, in fact, a Republican bill that was passed. It was modeled on Romneycare in Massachusetts, and almost exactly the same legislation had been proposed, in recent years, by Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, and by former Republican Sen. Bob Dole. The first iteration on it was created by congressional Republicans back in the '90s when Clinton was working on health care--it was their proposed alternative (that's where Romney apparently got it). When Obama adopted it as his own, Republicans dropped it like a hot rock, and attacked it with the sort of rhetoric I just outlined.

There's a huge difference between outrage based on something actually outrage-worthy and this kind of bullshit. If I offer up an angry rant on an angry-rant-worthy subject and I'm tagged, by the right, as a hypocrite for doing it because I denounce their angry ranting (which is based on bullshit), that's symptomatic of their own problem, not an indication that I'm "rightly" branded a hypocrite.

As much as I've gone on, I don't think I've even started to do this subject justice. I'm just having an incredibly hard time right now. As bad as everything else is, a "friend" chose this, of all times, to manufacture an absolutely absurd drama and use it to drop another atom-bomb on me a few days ago (a few of them, actually). I try not to hold it against her, and I know I'm not even in any shape to judge what happened or anything else. I thought I'd already hit rock-bottom these last two months; she made a great stride in proving me wrong. A lot of what I've "written" here, was cut-and-pasted, with modifications, from some earlier things I'd written, because I'm just not up to writing right now.