Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Little Edge

     [I wrote what follows fifteen years ago. It first appeared at the old Palace of Reason on July 22, 2003. It appears I was more of a Pollyanna back then, though I had no more reason for it than I do today. -- FWP]

     If you're politically engaged, you might have gotten the impression that a lot of people are in a really bad mood. The major Establishment conduits of opinion are doing their damnedest to give you that impression.

     Your Curmudgeon tends to stay away from the opinion-mongers of print and broadcast journalism. Law And Order reruns are all very well, but Rather, Brokaw and Jennings shall not deface his ProScan PS65000's screen. His one exception is the Sunday edition of the New York Times, which his lady love regards as a staple of gracious living, and which stimulates the spleen for his Sunday screeds.

     So, being largely disconnected from "mainstream" exhortation, condemnation, and prognostication, your Curmudgeon must judge the actual State of the Union from less monochromatic, less formal sources: conversations with friends and neighbors, water-cooler gossip at his place of employment, and, of course, the Internet. Though unorganized, these provide their own, surprisingly coherent portrait of American preferences and temper.

     A great part of America is indifferent to politics.

     That's not to say that most Americans don't have opinions about, in Rush Limbaugh's phrase, "the way things ought to be." Of course they have opinions; everyone does. Opinions are more ubiquitous than the common cold, and quite as impossible to dispel. What they don't have is the inclination to duke it out with differently-minded others, in a struggle for the power to impose their opinions upon the nation by force of law. Moreover, they regard those who do suffer that ailment with increasing weariness and skepticism.

     That's not carved in stone, of course. Sufficiently dramatic events -- the Black Tuesday atrocities; the 2000 stock market collapse; the demise of Buffy -- are capable of turning us all into political junkies, at least while the lead is flying. But in the intervals between such 200-proof disasters, most Americans prefer not to be bothered.

     This is anathema to the Blabocracy: the ring of analysts, commentators, and policy cranks whose fixation, whether remunerated or provided gratis, is the expression of political opinion. These folks -- yes, yes, your Curmudgeon qualifies for membership in their ranks; now can we kindly move on, please? -- dislike to think that their oraculations might be dismissed, or worse, ignored.

     Increasingly, the Blabocracy's approach to bidding for our attention has been to put a little edge on its offerings. Sometimes, a lot of edge. Something that cuts, that draws blood.

     In part, this is an emulation of demonstrably successful voices, persons whose gifts of flamboyance and sarcasm have won them wide and devoted audiences. But flamboyance and sarcasm are the tools of an entertainer. Sincere use would require that the pundit present himself as an entertainer, too, to the detriment of his reputation as an objective analyst. Sound, carefully phrased logic on serious policy matters seldom contains a lot of laugh lines.

     But in still larger measure, the edge is a response to the recognition that it's easier to galvanize "the base" by offering it an enemy to despise than by presenting it with evidence and logic. Both sides can offer evidence and logic, at least in theory. The resulting soft-voiced exchange would lull most of the public right to sleep. So instead, pundits desirous of a strong reaction from a large audience caricature their opposition as an undifferentiated mass with low motives, and then excoriate the resulting construct with a maximum of scorn.

     It's not pretty. And few commentators are entirely innocent of it.

     It continues to be true that nearly all Americans are well intentioned toward their fellow man. (We'll come back to the malevolent minority.) They wish no one harm; they simply don't want to be harmed themselves, whether by private action or through the agency of the law. But some can be persuaded that shadowed forces with ominous labels -- "liberals," "conservatives," "radicals," "reactionaries," "the religious right," or what have you -- are working to harm them. That will get them out of their recliners, at least far enough to read the op-ed page of the regional paper.

     Because of the coercive nature of governance, there's frequently enough objective truth to such allegations to make it important to listen to them. The trick is to detoxify them in the process.

     When men are benevolently disposed toward one another, and recognize their agreement on ends, their politics is about means: how to get us from where we are to where we would all like to be. When men see one another as members of mutually hostile factions, their politics degenerates to war, a negative-sum game whose players have irreconcilable objectives. Even the winner emerges poorer than before.

     If we recognize our overwhelming benevolence and commonality of goals, we can avoid the sort of rhetorical warfare that would destroy good will among us. But what then remains? What are we to make of the few percent who really do wish to harm someone, and are willing to lie, distort, and obfuscate to get the power to do it?

     Perhaps it's enough to recognize them for what they are. As Louis Nizer has said, when a man points a finger at another, his other fingers are pointing back at himself. Therefore, test each accusation against what you know of the accuser and his goals, express or implied. Make up your mind from there. And above all:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it -- no matter if I have said it! -- unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. (Gautama Bodhisattva, also known as the Buddha)

     Now there's an edge to cut through the blather with.

No comments: