One Nation, OMG

My favorite political quotation in the last two decades was spoken by former Governor Picker, the fictional competition to the fictional Bill Clinton in the movie, Primary Colors. Governor Picker, portrayed by Larry Hagman, is addressing a thunderous crowd at a speaking event where he begins laying the groundwork for his campaign:

“Thank you…would all of you do me a favor? Don’t shout quite so loud. Thanks. I really mean it. I wish everyone would just calm down a little. When I say “everyone”, I mean the press and the TV crews and all my colleagues, and all the people who advise my colleagues. I think we need to calm down some.

You know, this is a terrific country. But sometimes we go a little crazy. Maybe that’s part of our greatness, part of our freedom. But if we don’t watch out and calm down, it all may spin out of control. The world is getting more and more complicated. Politicians have to explain things to you in simpler terms, so that they can get their little oversimplified explanations on the evening news. And eventually, instead of even trying to explain, they give up and start slinging mud at each other. And it’s all to keep you excited, keep you watching, like you watch a car wreck or a wrestling match.

That’s just what it’s like – professional wrestling. It’s staged and it’s fake and it doesn’t mean anything… but it seems it’s the only way we know how to keep you all riled up. So what I want to do is quiet things down and start having a conversation about what sort of country we want this to be in the next century.”

Of course, the “crazy” Picker refers to in that scene isn’t meant to describe the delusion or insanity of someone like Jared Lee Loughner, accused of shooting 19 and killing six in a shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona on 8 January 2011; instead, it refers to ordinary citizens whose passions have escalated beyond enthusiasm, when a finite focus becomes so intense that we fail to see anything else. We can all get a little crazy sometimes, over things as diverse as sports, media, and most certainly, politics.

Unfortunately, we tend to define that “crazy” as the actions of others. It’s rare that we recognize the blinders in our own vision because we understand the purity of our own motivations: Each of us looks at the facts and draws logical, even obvious conclusions; anyone who draws a different conclusion isn’t paying attention to the facts. Surely that person is a puppet being bamboozled by a talk radio entertainer, or is simply an idiot.

In the wake of the Tucson shooting, Jon Stewart made a poignant commentary on the former(!) The Daily Show about the slippery slope of political rhetoric, saying, “I think it’s a worthwhile goal not to conflate our political opponents with enemies, if for no better reason than to draw a better distinction between the manifestos of paranoid madmen and what passes for acceptable political and pundit-speak.” In the ensuing weeks, the volley of blame and hostility made it clear that America’s politicians, media, and most vocal citizens did not aspire to the same goal.

The crux of the problem with calls to tone down potentially inflammatory political rhetoric is that everyone sees everyone else as the problem. Apparently, America’s hipsters are using up all of the irony, because there is a decided lack of it in the ranting of people of both political persuasions who claim victimhood to the opponent’s outrages. I read an online comment celebrating Keith Olberman’s dismissal from MSNBC because he “tries to silence anyone who doesn’t agree with him, and I will not be silenced.” To me, that’s ironic — heralding the silencing of a voice because he silences voices. But there was no “wink” emoticon after the post.

That phrase, “I will not be silenced”, is appearing with increasing frequency in social media and on the news, and I do not understand it. We enjoy, or perhaps endure, a constant torrent of opinions from every point in the political spectrum from liberal news outlets (as the right describes them), conservative news stations (as the left describes them), from thousands of blogs, from Facebook and Twitter, from vitriolic exchanges in the comments sections on everything from YouTube to magazine web sites to Yelp. It’s not plausible to me that any major political point of view is being silenced. In fact, most never shut up.

And I like that. I don’t want any voice to be silenced, because I appreciate that people care enough that they feel their voice should be heard. I like that passion. But when passion for an idea devolves into righteous rhetoric, the idea gets lost. Yet when asked to tone down their language to accommodate a genuine discussion, many will thump their fist on the First Amendment to the US Constitution and declare they have the right to say what they want to say.

In my opinion, many people who claim that the First Amendment protects their right to say anything they want are missing the essential point of that constitutional right. The First Amendment protects us from being punished for what we say, it allows us to speak our minds without compunction; it is not a carte blanche invitation to spew whatever vitriolic, inflammatory barbs come into our heads. We all have a responsibility to participate civilly in the melting pot of ideas and voices that makes America amazing. The Pledge of Allegiance speaks of, “One nation…indivisible”, so along with the right to speak our minds, we should honor our responsibility to that pledge. Saying that you will not be silenced, then trying to yell so loud that others cannot be heard, is probably not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.

I’m concerned that Americans no longer value the notion of agreeing to disagree. It’s de rigueur to disparage those who disagree with us because it’s fun, it amuses the people who agree with us, and it hardens our own beliefs. Civility is dying a slow, public death, and petulant people on the news and in the comment sections stand watching, blaming the other side for not taking action to help. And as long as we wait for the other person to act first — no matter who that “other” may be — this cultural condition will only get worse.

Governor Picker was on to something when he called out the failings of the process as, “the only way we know how to keep you all riled up.” America is plenty riled up, and despite my deep streak of optimism, I have no expectation that the media will change how they report on that (you being riled up is how they sell advertising) or that politicians will pledge to reform their language (you being riled up is how they raise campaign funds.) But broadcasters claim they are providing the content that people want, and the politicians insist they are representing their constituents. If these things are true, then the tone of the political debate is in the hands of the viewers, and the voters. In other words, in the hands of the people.

“One nation…indivisible.” To borrow a line from Jon Stewart, indivisible seems like a worthwhile goal. But that’s just my opinion. You are welcome to disagree.