Thursday, April 22, 2010

How not to conduct political discourse: three case studies

Three news stories have caught my attention of late, all of them tied to the notion of unintended consequences, indeed of (presumably inadvertently) undermining the cause one purports to support. I’m in political agreement with the protagonists in two of the three scenaria… so let’s start with the one I don’t.

The Republican Party has, on a national level, become remarkably adept at creating and then attacking straw men. A rational populace would regard this obviously vapid ploy for what it is: a cynical but quite possibly successful attempt to manipulate the emotions of an under-educated and frankly rather stupid base, and indeed to distract attention from the party's collective failure to generate any solutions to any real problems. The particular target of the right’s wrath in Georgia (and apparently in other states, as well) is a completely and utterly fictional provision of the recent health care bill that supposedly calls for the implanting of microchips in American citizens.

Naturally, the fact that neither the bill that was ultimately passed nor any version of the legislation that was ever under consideration includes anything like such a provision is, of course, completely irrelevant to those legislators more interested in getting their name in the paper than in doing any real good, and that would be… let me see… yep, all of them. Thus we get SB 235: Microchip Consent Act of 2009 (not voted on until 2010), which would “prohibit requiring a person to be implanted with a microchip.” (OK, am I the only one amused by the fact that the primary and secondary sponsors of this claptrap are both named Chip?) Anyway, apparently legislators in Georgia can think of no better way of spending their time than in holding hearings with an eye to criminalizing behavior that doesn’t currently exist and that literally no one has any interest in having exist. One might also note that even if so-called Obamacare actually did include a microchip implantation provision, any state law to the contrary would be trumped by the federal statute.

Oops. Sorry. Apparently I was misinformed. Because, you see, according to a column on the website of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “a hefty woman who described herself as a resident of DeKalb County” testified that, against her will, a “microchip was put in [her] vaginal-rectum area” by “researchers with the federal government,” specifically the Department of Defense.

In columnist Jim Galloway’s words, “It was not funny, and no one laughed.” Well, the illness that afflicts that poor woman is indeed anything but funny… but the legislators who solicited her testimony, who put on the little charade at which her delusions were revealed—these morons do indeed deserve to be the subject of ridicule. Governor Roy Barnes may elicit an intentional laugh with his quip that “if someone holds him down to insert a microchip in his head, ‘it should be more than a damned misdemeanor,’” but the bottom line is anything but chuckle-worthy: this transcendently silly bill passed the Senate 47-2 in February, and was favorably reported out of the Assembly last week: shortly after the graphic demonstration of just how inane this legislation truly is.

Another story that has appeared in the last couple weeks concerns an apparently liberal idiot named Jason Levin, who created a website called On it, and in subsequent interviews, he called for his supporters to infiltrate Tea Party events in order to make the TP crowd appear to be even more stupid than they already seem. Thus, he advocated, for example, having his minions in Tea Party drag claim President Obama is “an alien from outer space.”

The website now consists of nothing but an attempt to sell “tea-shirts” to raise funds: Levin, a teacher in Beaverton, OR, was placed on administrative leave until the district can determine whether he used school computers to work on his political website or did so on school time. These, not the site itself, would be violations of district policy. And I suspect that there will be a lot of folks who would like him gone: the Tea Party crowd out of vengeance, and the sane people because he’s a cretinous yahoo.

Let’s face it, this incitement is downright dumb on a number of levels. First, it advocates dishonest behavior, which I thought was something those of us who aren’t tea-partiers sought to fight against, not endorse. Second, the tea party crowd does really well at coming across as “homophobes, racists or morons” without any outside help. Any American who pays the slightest bit of attention to the news and who cares even a little bit about the relationship between rhetoric and evidence already has a pretty good idea that the average tea-partier is neither an intellectual giant nor the poster child for racial enlightenment (there’s less evidence of homophobia; that accusation seems based more on a characterization of the tea party “type” than on specific evidence). If you’re turned off by a gaggle of stupid white folks trumpeting their ignorance and paranoia, you’re probably already not a fan of the Tea Party. So leave 'em alone, Mr. Levin. To cite Paul Begala’s riff on a Napoleonic original, “never interrupt your opponent when he’s destroying himself.”

But thirdly, and by far most importantly in political terms, you have got to know that that website is going to be seen by someone who disagrees with you, and that it won’t be long before Fox News takes one jackass’s website and spins an elaborate conspiracy theory whereby any idiocy ever uttered, every misspelled accusation that Obama is a “socilist” or the “commander in theif,” every racial slur directed at the President of the country: all these instantly become the product of left-wing infiltrators. I’ve seen it happen already—a friend of mine recently put a link to the “Teabonics” page linked above on her Facebook page. Within minutes, there was a response saying—and the irony is just lovely—“thanks to the ‘Crash the Tea Party’ movement they're [sic] plans include showing up with misspelled signs, racist signs, and using other means to make the tea party look bad.”

And finally, there’s a local event: I’ve been a supporter, monetarily and otherwise, of Amnesty International for over 30 years. As a faculty member I presume I am not eligible to become a member per se of the SFA affiliate, but I did "fan" their Facebook page, so I get periodic announcements of upcoming meetings, events, etc. So it was that a couple of days ago I received an announcement for an event advertised as "SFA Waterboard a Prof." Really? This is an event sponsored by the university's chapter of Amnesty International? It turns out that this is nothing more than an old-fashioned dunking booth with proceeds benefiting a good cause.

Still, there is practically a cottage industry on the right--Sean Hannity and Dick Cheney are at the front of a very long list--to pretend that waterboarding is just an innocuous little persuasive devise instead of the method of torture that any thinking person (including John McCain back in his sane period) knows it is. Making light of waterboarding is what we might expect from the Milos Gloriosus crowd in the Young Republicans, not from an organization devoted to human rights. Waterboarding is not cute, nor is playing little word games about it cute. It is neither witty nor appealingly glib to link a simple, controlled, dunking to one of the vilest mechanisms for torture ever employed in the name of the American people. Words matter. Truth matters. And, fortunately or otherwise, perception matters. Playing along with the right's diminishment of what waterboarding really is and making jokes about it isn't clever at all. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

There are those who want everyone to agree with them. Not me. I'd just as soon the morons were on the other side, where they'd be less likely to do my point of view any harm. Some people would charge me with elitism for saying that... whereupon I call upon the full force of my rhetorical and persuasive powers and respond: Yep.

1 comment:

Steve said...

You're getting to be one of my favorite op-ed writers, Rick —