Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Politics and Civility

I once thought anything a person thought highly enough to believe in they ought to believe in that thing passionately, and maybe I still do, but debate this country has reach a point where blind passion is trumping reason. In America today, the sake of argument is to prove anyone with an opposing viewpoint is deranged, dangerous, immoral, or just plain stupid. Being loud, rude, shrill, or just plain obnoxious is to be held as a true believer. Anything less than that is tepid support for whatever cause a person might believe is worth defending.

John Stuart Mill, the utilitarian philosopher from the mid 1800’s, wrote an excellent essay entitled, “On Liberty” in which he outlined four basic points in regard to public discourse.

We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well being of mankind (on which all their other well being de pends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now briefly recapitulate.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.
And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

Discussion these days, especially when referenced to the discussion of American politics, has become little more than screaming and name calling usually reserved for grade school disputes as to whose turn it is next on the slide. I would find all of this highly amusing but the arguments in question and the outcome as to how they are decided will affect how the country is run, and who will run the country, and set the policies that decide the fate of America. It has been suggested to me these times are times that demand passion and I wholeheartedly agree with that, but outshouting a man does not prove him wrong nor, not to put too fine a point on it, does it make the loudest more wise.

The issues of Health Care, monetary reform, judicial appointments, and Immigration, just to name a few, seem to attract groups of people hell bent on not resolving the issues but opposing some point of view they find offensive. Resolution is not found in character debates. It matters not at all what label is attached to a person if the idea that person carries is valid, but the labels are all that matters these days. In fact, a person will define not what they believe to be true, but will don the mantle of one side of the other, and therefore present a point of view via projection of an image rather than one of intellect or reason.

The national elections in America have become disgraceful affairs replete with millions upon millions of dollars of “attack ads” paid for by “Political Action Committees” whose sole and stated purpose is to elect those on one side of an argument or the other. They represent no constituency by virtue of the point no one is served by the election of one party over the other, in and of itself. No point of view is being given, no policy rendered for investigation, and no one can really say whose interest is being served, other than the interest of whoever is putting the money into action.
In the races for American Federal Senate seats, the question must be asked why any one person, or any groups of people, might spend millions of dollars in getting someone, or some party elected, if that party or person would not be in some way beholding to the source of the money, not the voters. The answer is they would be indeed owe alliance to the money, rather than the masses, and this point, more so than any other, is enough to scream aloud change is needed.
Screaming that change is needed, however, isn’t a bad way to make a living in America.
Those who shrilly denounce their favorite targets of derision sell the idea that a candidate or office holder is the ultimate in evil. Hours upon hours of this sort of talk go on every day, and I know people who set their radios on these stations and leave them there for background noise. There is a growing number of people who associate loud, table thumping, nonstop noise for debate, and there is a growing number of people who are enriched by this process. Political discourse, however, is losing out to sheer volume. The truth may indeed be out there, but those who are further out are drowning out what signal the truth might be emitting.
Middle ground has disappeared under the rising tide of partisanship. Middle America is taking a beating as those who are increasingly dollarized head closer and closer to the edge. Special interest groups have no money to gain except when their view, and their view alone, is represented, and if they can get the vote out via polarization then the voters have only themselves to blame for not being radical enough.

In Nazi Germany, the German people were facing a grim economy, rising unemployment, threats from aboard, and an internal political machine that began to swing wildly to one side of the spectrum. They bought into the idea that one man, whose lone opinion mattered, and whose fiery speeches galvanized their hearts, were all that mattered. Opposing opinions were by definition, sedition. Those who openly defied the ruling party were traitors. A subclass of Germans were blamed for the national ill, and suddenly, Adolf Hitler was handed more power than he had ever dreamed.

We Americans have lost out ability to agree to disagree. One side or the other must win, and win at all costs, dammit. The race does not go to the swiftest but those with the best public relations firm, or the best campaign manager, or those with the most money, ever it came from, or how. Civility interferes with this process, of buying elections, and it must be stamped out by those who are buying and those who are selling. In the short term, what we will have, and what we do have, is a revolving door in Washington where we vote out one set of bums one election and then vote out the next set the next election, and in infinity does the anti-incumbent sentiment reign.
The long range consequences of this are the elections become more and more a matter of money than service. Truth, the issues, civility, the nation’s best interest, and more will all become confused with the “who won” mentality that pervades.

Mill wrote on this subject for a reason, and that reason is the path you now see before America is fraught with much more peril than even Germany faced in 1937.

If we do not turn to reason you might well ask where it is we are headed.

Take Care,

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