Friday, July 9, 2010

Talking past each other

As part of a moralistic essay in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks contrasted the hard work of the fictitious "Ben," a fellow who "labored when others didn't," with those whom "Ben" saw in Washington, DC:
People in Washington spent money they didn’t have. They just borrowed it from the Chinese. People in Washington taxed those with responsible homes to bail out people who’d bought homes they couldn’t afford.

"Ben" feels that neither the mainstream Republican nor mainstream Democratic candidate suits him, so he picks one of the more polarizing candidates on left or right. As Brooks warns:
In a few years’ time, Ben is going to be disappointed again. He’s going to find that the outsiders he sent to Washington just screamed at each other at ever higher decibels. He’s going to find that he and voters like him unwittingly created a political culture in which compromise is impermissible, in which institutions are decimated by lone-wolf narcissists who have no interest in or talent for crafting legislation. Nothing will get done.

Brooks' moral:
[T]hese days, the political center is a feckless shell. It has no governing philosophy. Its paragons seem from the outside opportunistic, like Arlen Specter, or caught in some wishy-washy middle, like Blanche Lincoln. The right and left have organized, but the center hasn’t bothered to. The right and left have media outlets and think tanks, but the centrists are content to complain about polarization and go home. By their genteel passivity, moderates have ceded power to the extremes.

I agree that the center is all but unrepresented in this country's governance, but perhaps that's because the center has been all but completely discredited in our national debate -- unfairly so, in my opinion, but discredited nonetheless.

Satirist Stephen Colbert's shtick is discomfiting because it more accurately reflects the failure of our national debate than any of his fans, including me, would like to admit. When he thunders, "Pick a side: we're at war" on every trivial issue, his peremptory challenge to his opponent (not his "guest") is funny because it's absurd -- yet the bluff, discourteous outburst is altogether too representative of the bluff, discourteous way in which "debate" and even "discussion" are conducted today.

We don't speak to each other: we yell at and past each other. We have been encouraged to do so by decades of polarizing rhetoric on left and right. I have my own feelings about which is more responsible, and you do too, but we're past the point where the infamous "blame game" is going to serve any useful purpose.

Actually, that's not true. I know who is to blame, and I think it would do an enormous amount of good if we could shame the guilty party into facing its culpability.

So ... who is it?

Us.

I'll lay a few cards out on the table, just so we have a concrete basis for discussion. I think Fox News and conservative talk show radio are mean-spirited and feed their audiences' basest instincts. I think they love to assume that liberals and leftists are compassionate beyond all reason (the shorthand is "bleeding heart"), and that those liberals and leftists want to use government to take every dollar from every citizen to redistribute according to the warped priorities of every failed socialist/Marxist/Communist theoretician and revolutionary in history so as to bring about some kind of paradise on earth.

It's a terrible caricature of liberalism and progressivism. Yet I can see how some quite rational and concrete fears could underlie this twisted picture.

For instance, somebody with progressive tendencies needs to explain how Social Security and Medicare are going to continue to operate when as far as I can tell, intake of funds is and will continue to be insufficient to cover current obligations for the foreseeable future.

What about illegal immigration? If you don't want to build a border wall, what do you want to do about the problem? (I think a border wall is a stupid idea -- it didn't do much for East Berlin, did it? -- but I'll admit, I don't have any alternative suggestions.) And by the way, can't we admit that it is a problem, by virtue of being illegal? You don't need to impute other motives, such as the handy charge of racism, which is altogether too easy to make and too hard to refute. If you think that the folks who are here illegally should be here, the argument should be about our immigration laws, not about how we enforce them. Changing immigration policy is a tough row to hoe, I'll agree, but that's the situation we're in.

Yet conservatives, it would be nice if you'd admit your world view has a number of holes in it, too. You may think that fighting terrorism should be the government's highest priority, but do you know exactly what that means? How heavily should government control the production and distribution of raw materials that could be turned into an explosive or toxin, for instance? Should there be a national identification card? (For the hard-core "Obama birthers" out there, by the way, if he should be required to show his birth certificate, shouldn't we all?) Should our private communications be subject to random monitoring? (They already are, sadly.) Perhaps the bottom-line question on anti-terror: if fighting terrorism ends up drastically modifying the society in which we live, haven't we done the terrorists' work for them?

What about Grover Norquist's vaunted government-you-can-drown-in-a-bathtub? Is that really what you want, fiscal conservatives? Do you want all our roads to be privately owned? Do you wish for agencies like FEMA not to exist, or would you like them to be privately owned, too? I can't say that the recent actions of BP, or the records of our contractors (like Halliburton and Blackwater) in Iraq, convince me that the profit motive is the best guarantor of good services in all situations.

How's that drug war going? Do you still think the best way to fight it is to quash supply, when that supply is far, far away but the demand is right here? Are you sure that you have all the facts on marijuana and its real dangers relative to, say, alcohol, or tobacco? Is there anything we could learn from our experiment with Prohibition nearly a century ago?

None of the points I've raised has an easy solution. We'd do well to stop pretending that they do, and to stop vilifying "the other side" when they object to our pet schemes on rational grounds. That's how we might rediscover "the center." We're never going to stop arguing (nor should we), but let's at least try to make the arguments go somewhere by figuring out how to listen -- and to talk -- to one another again. And let's not wait for those increasingly mythical "moderate politicians" Brooks seeks.

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