More Light, Less Heat

By Maynard Thomson

The health care mudfest has brought home how much we all—right, left and ‘tweens--need to raise the level of policy debate.  Some suggestions:

1.  Ignore the messenger.

Much that’s rhetorically dysfunctional falls under this rubric.

Example:  who cares if Obama’s the last living Red (well, excepting college professors and most of Hollywood), or was born on Pluto?   Only his policies matter, and labels won’t change them, while turning off those who gave up “he’s a poo-poo head” argumentation in grade school. 

Likewise impugning motives:  our adversaries are far more likely wrong than evil, and ascribing malign purpose to them more likely absurd than persuasive (viz. Cong. Grayson’s “Republican’s want you to die.”)

Another example:  calling national health care opponents insurance company “dupes” hardly answers the objections—suggesting they’re well taken.  Only losers expect labels to do reason’s work.

Then there’s the argument that reduces, in essence, to a schoolyard “You’re one too!”

This has become as predictable as talk show rants.   Example:  NYT columnist Tom Friedman writes that anti-Obama rhetoric is dangerously provocative.  The righties reply:  “Oh, yeah?  And where were you when libs were likening Bush to Hitler?”

 While almost irresistible, such tit-for-tat doesn’t address the substance of the other party’s claim; it charges inconsistency, rather than error.  The proper response is on the merits; in the case of Friedman’s vapid pontificating, for instance, it’s that the barbs aimed at Obama are mild by historical standards, as ILLUSTRATED by those leveled at Bush and his predecessors, back to Jefferson. 

2.  No slack for allies.

Those people in the other party are drooling sociopaths, right?  Whereas your team defines virtue.  So insist those representing your party be toilet-trained.

This means, for instance, no GOP excuses for creepy Gov. Sanford.   No “but he had a point” for Cong. Wilson, interrupting Obama’s speech.   And for the Dems?  Call out crooks like Rangel, and tell Obama to get class—the time for blaming Bush ended Jan. 20, the time for denigrating America never started.  And unless he wants to out-lout Rep. Wilson, tell him to stop calling nay-sayers “liars”.

3.  Leave straw men to the lightweights.

A favorite, and increasingly hollow, Obama device is to position himself as the man cutting through the underbrush of stale thought:  “Some say we must choose between X or Y; I reject this false choice.”

Well, it IS a false choice, since no one is actually arguing for “Y,” which is some fantasy Obama has confected solely for the purpose of setting up this bogus antithesis.  What the people he purports to be thus confronting are actually arguing is something else entirely, something Obama prefers not to address—or can’t.  Phony third-wayism, delivered in portentous tones, may have impressed the kids at Harvard smokers, but it’s a sophomoric trick that insults the listener. 

Another example is a recurring feature of abortion debate.  THIS neanderthal believes abortion will, and should, remain broadly legal even if we manage to rid ourselves of the execrable Roe v. Wade.  Nonetheless, I’m amazed that abortion supporters routinely trivialize this morally fraught issue with the claim that their opponents “want to control women’s bodies.”

Whether they agree or not, all but the terminally stupid know that opposition to abortion bottoms on the conviction that the fetus is a human, with a human’s right not to be murdered.  I’ve met no abortion opponents wanting to keep women from, say, piercing their noses or getting liposuction.  If you think we’ve no business telling people what they can do with their own bodies—my view—then let’s legalize prostitution and drugs, and abolish wage and hour laws.  People meeting profound moral concerns with bumper-sticker reductionism like “keep your laws off my body” debase civil discourse.

4.  Honesty, anyone?

Reason concedes the defects in its desires.  If  Obama had intellectual integrity, he’d acknowledge that of course insuring millions more will increase costs, thereby requiring price controls, rationing, and higher taxes on the middle class.  He’d then argue that the plusses outweigh these negatives (if he even views them as negatives, other than as marketing problems), and he’d have the credibility of an honest man, instead of  a carnie barker.

Likewise, a GOP serious about smaller government has to come clean:  the scam of promising to balance the budget by cutting “waste, fraud and abuse,” is played out.  Proposing to eliminate corporate and agricultural subsidies, and to means-test soon-to-be bankrupt Medicare and Social Security, would be a start.  If that kills us with the middle class, tough.  Governments that attempt to (mis)lead the electorate where it wouldn’t knowingly go have no place in a democratic republic.

5.  “You’re an idiot.  Now, let’s have a drink.”

Political differences in a democratic republic needn’t occasion personal differences.  Let the combatants battle joyfully and then, win or lose, retire without rancor, to fight another day.

In this spirit, the county GOP challenged our Dem counterparts to meet us in public debate, the subject to be decided—a raucous, good-natured clash of titans, to amuse and edify our fellow citizens.  Alas, our lefty neighbors haven’t replied; perhaps they’re too busy saving mankind to have time for manners.  The offer remains open.

Meantime, I’ve written two local critics, suggesting our insult swaps needn’t preclude friendly relations.  Regrettably, both responded churlishly. This bespeaks a lack of confidence, or a destructive conflating of personal and political. 

It need not be.  Abraham Lincoln, speaking with the clouds of war dark upon him, said:

 “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

Let us fight the good fight, battle joyfully for our causes, skewer each other with savage wit.  Then shake hands and celebrate together the fortuity that we live in a country in which politics need not be blood sport.  Let our common cause be that it remain so, and that other peoples may come to be so fortunate. 

We must not be enemies.