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.


  1. My last reporting job, before I became an editor, involved covering the FCC. I was always amazed at the folks who filed detailed complaints with the FCC over radio or TV shows they considered offensive. (I will note here that, since the airwaves are owned by the public, you have the right to complain about content and the FCC has rules about what you can broadcast.) Some people filed detailed transcripts, with the offending parts highlighted. They devoted hours to compiling their complaints. The best way to deal with such shows is to change channels or turn off the radio/TV. Your blood pressure will be lower, too.

  2. Thank you, John, for another fair and balanced assessment of one aspect of our political culture.

    I could repeat your tirade, except for that silliness about taxes, and our doubled contribution to FICA contributors.

    I used to have Rush on the radio everyday because I could only receive one station in my Harford Rd. office/bunker. I have never watched Beck or Olberman, and only hear their most outrageous or newsworthy comments elsewhere. We don't have cable. The kids didn't need it when they little. I find Keeler amusing, except when he becomes another pompous political commentator.

    What caused me pause with your item was the reference to a source, Twitter. I fear you will next Wikipedia!

  3. Oh, and yes - turn it off, change the station, hit delete - do what ever it takes to keep from yelling at the idiot on the television or radio. If that is hard to do, join me for a walk in a river or stream with fishing rod comfortably at hand.

  4. I see nothing amiss with a loud shouting as long as it leads to some positive course of action ... but as you say, there are some who shout for the sake of shouting, or worse yet, shouting how we should run time backwards or jump over our own knees.

  5. This is a wonderful piece. I plan to reread it regularly. I frequently have the same experience of working up a satisfying rant and then realizing what a waste of energy it is. But the deeper point, that feeding the gasbags simply fuels the hyperbolic negativity, is really important.

    I've been thinking a lot about this during the recent economic unpleasantness. So much of what drives the economy is subjective: from the level of individual consumer to enormous multi-national institution, our feelings and premonitions and worries and assumptions and predictions drive economic decisions. Focusing on the economic bad news encourages us to make decisions based on worst-case scenarios that are more dire than real. And so the problem perpetuates, and grows.

    I've been trying to limit my exposure to "the sky is falling! This time for sure!" commentary, and pay less attention to the fine details and more to the overall trends. Or maybe I've just been selecting more positive "news" to concentrate on. Either way, I'm calmer and less disposed towards apocalyptic thinking, which has got to be a good thing.

    If we don't like the partisan political whinging, we can opt to ignore it: excellent lesson. And on the other hand, it's also instructive to remember that thus has it ever been. I get so tired of the narcissistic bellowing that Things Are Worse Than They Have Ever Been, or This Generation Is More [or Less] _____ Than Ever Before, etc. Historical perspective is alarmingly rare...and I suppose, it always has been.

  6. @Bruce - Comcast did that for me last Friday wiping out all of my cable news channels (except for CNN and CNBC). Suprisingly enough, I don't miss them... the other 30 channels I used to get are another matter entirely.

  7. You reminded me that when I was a kid we received only one TV station for a few years. We were thrilled, and feasted on programs that were awesome, even to a little kid. (I can't believe I watched M. Solomon Presents, in which women modeled fur coats that nobody in my town could afford. Morey Amsterdam and his cello was an entertaining fifteen minute show that couldn't possibly make the grade today. Then, miraculously, there were three! What had begun was something called "choice." Learning to master that phenomenon is something that continues to this day.