“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Most of us heard that little nugget of wisdom when we were children, and I don’t imagine many of us believed a word. We grow up in a world where all of our authority figures punctuate their arguments with a name. Atheist, idolater, harlot, bum, bigot, fool, weakling, coward…it sometimes seems that fully half of our native tongue is devoted to the verbal assault on our fellow man. In politics, the art and science of name calling has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise; those who are possessed of the talent and will for true nastiness are the gatekeepers of power.
The last two years have seen America rise to the pinnacle of this less than noble pursuit; no longer does the application of a name or label have to employ even the slightest grounding in reality. In fact, we the people have become so good at calling each other names, that if a term brings the appropriate level of cruelty or spite to a conversation, we need only redefine it to suit our needs. This isn’t a new talent, teenagers of every generation have fundamentally changed the definitions of words like “hot” and “cool”, but now we have the ability to apply the same process to the names and places of history. We have heard “Marxism”, “Communism”, and “Fascism” thrown around the media like so many grains of wheat. But when it comes to historical names, none has such power to stir up fear, anger, and violent rage quite like Adolf Hitler.
Do you ever get the feeling that we have gone right off the deep end? Our conversations in this country, if we are to believe the nonsense on ANY cable channel, have devolved into shouting matches where the winner is who can call their opponent the crummiest name. Political opponents are radical practitioners of “Whateverism” and their supporters are “Whoeverists”; it makes no difference what “side” you are on. The notion that bloggers and a 24 hour news cycle would reveal the name callers for their cynicism and lack of substance has been revealed as fallacy, largely because those two forces have become accomplished practitioners of the labeling that drives the machine.
The (finally) concluding health care debate provides a textbook worth of examples of this phenomenon, beginning with the idea of the strawman. The concept of the strawman in a debate is to create a false enemy that can be systematically pulled apart, without the mess of having to argue your real enemy. “They don’t love their children the way we do…” is a classic strawman. It has proven to be a common tactic in war, where getting humans motivated to kill before they are shot it is tricky business. In politics, it is a tactic used often when one party or group believes that it can’t win arguing the facts.
There is a great deal about traditional conservatism that fits comfortably into my worldview. I was raised in a traditional household by married parents (still going strong after 38 years mind you). I was educated in the Catholic tradition, attended church regularly, served as an altar boy, and was read to from the Bible by my father. The last 15 years of my life have been spent as both manager and student of the world of business, and I am certainly a capitalist. My greatest heroes growing up were soldiers and airmen (there are few children who would list their idols at age ten to be Generals George Patton, Claire Chenault, and Vinegar Joe Stillwell).
That my parents are liberal Democrats who did not force religion on their children or believe in mixing their strong patriotism with xenophobia, remains a powerful force pulling me firmly to the center-left of our often silly political structure. I do believe that a liberal interpretation of the commerce clause of our Constitution is the one reading most responsible for the economic power of our nation. The uniformity of our laws, levels of education, capacity for law enforcement (civil and criminal), and infrastructure have provided the platform for local businesses to grow into world-beaters over the last century-plus. This uniformity ONLY exists with a strong federal system, which by the way, we all have a voting stake in.
A television spot voiced by Sam Waterston for the political magazine, The Nation, features the line; “…and that famous liberal media bias you just can’t get anywhere else.” The recent comments by a White House communications staffer that Fox News was not a news company but a propaganda arm of the GOP, has renewed the focus on the question of media bias. The venerable Bill Moyers summarized the problem for media today in a somewhat different manner; Fox is a Republican machine, but the “mainstream” is motivated by ratings rather than Democratic agendas. As Moyers points out, this leaves nobody to do the business of the American people.
Free speech is the most abused right in the Constitution. The concept that is used as a crutch by paparazzi and rabble rousers is meant to protect the speaker (or writer) from government reprisal. It does not protect Rush Limbaugh from accusations of racism, nor does it protect the President from accusations of being a Communist or Muslim. The concept allows a free media or individual to investigate and/or report on the relevant actions of the government and its officers/agents on behalf of the citizens. This notion is, unfortunately, a dying ideal due in large part to the reality of our short attention spans and limited education. Real reporting on government activity is conducted on several of the better organized internet sites in addition to programs on PBS and the BBC. The reporting is fully formed and meticulously cited because the time exists to support the technique.