John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Attention must be paid?


Perhaps you, like me, have been reading all the head-wagging in editorial and op-ed circles about the turrible, turrible polarization afflicting our great republic. And perhaps you, like me, have grown weary of all this somber frowning. I have a remedy: Stop paying attention.

Our fair republic has always been polarized. The Founders, bless their hearts, hoped that educated white gentlemen of property could sit down and run things without the horror of factionalism, which their reading of history taught them had ruined the Roman Republic. They should have known better.

The Jefferson-Hamilton split developed early in George Washington’s first term and contributed to the viciously contested election of 1800. The slavery issue — and the disproportionate representation in Congress that the three-fifths clause of the Constitution gave the South — fueled the increasingly intemperate debate in the first half of the nineteenth century that ended in civil war. The following century saw numerous divisive issues between rural/agricultural and urban/industrial interests, each side demonizing the other. Do I need to remind you of the cultural divisions from the Sixties that appear to continue troubling the nation until my generation mercifully passes from the scene? Loud disagreement is the national norm.

The mode that this disagreement takes is hyperbole — the more extreme the exaggeration, the better. John Adams was a monarchist at heart, Thomas Jefferson an atheist who would lead a Jacobin massacre of the well-off. The pattern ever since has been one of what H.L. Mencken delighted in calling “stirring up the animals.”  

I saw a mention on Twitter last week about a Rush Limbaugh essay holding that people who support President Obama don’t love the country the way that the tea partiers do, or something to that effect. I was prepared to check out the essay and sit down at the keyboard to point out that I have voted in every election but one (a minor primary) for forty years, that I pay my taxes uncomplainingly, that my wife and I have raised two children to be educated, responsible, tax-paying, voting adults, that I ...

I stopped in mid-tirade, as it occurred to me that I do not have to justify my patriotism to some gasbag.

Mr. Limbaugh, along with Messrs. Beck and Olbermann and Ms. Coulter, among many others, depend on noisy exaggeration to gain and sustain an audience. It’s difficult to tell how much they actually mean and how much is mere shouting for effect, and probably not worth your time to sort it all out. I’m opting out, and so can you.

I don’t mean that you should avoid writers you disagree with. It’s a good thing to read reasonable arguments from the opposite side, because, you know, you could be wrong. I enjoy Garrison Keillor’s column most of the time, but I have come to find Kathleen Parker’s to be thoughtful and well-informed. And there is always the possibility that you may find the clownish antics of the gasbags entertaining.

But if their noise merely irritates you without informing you, turn the page, change the channel, click on a different site. You aren’t obligated to waste your time and give these people an audience.