Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do You Really Need Your Gun at a Political Event?

One of the more interesting manifestations of anger at some recent town hall meetings and at President Obama’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention is the appearance at these events of citizens brazenly displaying weapons, including semi-automatic rifles. I’m not concerned that there was any threat to President Obama’s safety; the protesters were outside the auditorium and were most likely kept far from President Obama’s ingress and egress route. I don’t know if the same can be said of the town hall events at which armed protestors have appeared.

I’m sure that some may want to talk about the Second Amendment right to bear arms. I’ve discussed that in the past and I don’t feel like rehashing the issue now. But the issue of whether people should have the right to bear arms at a political event is, to me, a red herring. The real question is this: Why do these people bring their weapons to these kinds of events? What is the purpose of brandishing a weapon — even calling the news media to be sure that they know to show up and video the display of that weapon — at a political event? I’d be curious to know if these people wear their guns and carry their assault rifles when they go to the grocery or the bank or to see their doctor or their kids in a school play. If so, I guess the question is what these people are so worried about that they feel the need to “pack heat” everywhere they go. But, if not, then the question becomes why they chose to carry — and actively display — those weapons at a political event.

I suppose if the focus of the particular event was gun control, the display of weaponry might make some kind of sense as a show of support for gun rights. But given that the focus of this summer’s town hall meetings has largely been healthcare reform, I don’t see the link between the issue and firearms. Unless, of course, the real issue isn’t healthcare reform at all, but rather, fear and loathing of the government. Bringing a gun to a political event must, it seems to me, have some kind of political statement attached to it; otherwise, why bother? After all, wouldn’t a big “I Oppose the Public Option!” sign be just as effective a means to demonstrate opposition to healthcare reform legislation?

So, if a political statement is being made with a gun, what should we interpret that statement to be? The only thing that I can think of is an implicit (or explicit) threat: “If we don’t get our way, remember that we’re armed!” What else could be the point of bringing guns to a political event? Consider the frequent recitation of Thomas Jefferson’s “blood of patriots and tyrants” quotation and see if you can come up with another explanation for the appearance of weaponry. The display of weaponry may also be calculated to dissuade proponents of healthcare reform from confronting the opponents; after all, who is going to walk up to an armed protester to strike up a discussion on a hotly debated political issue?

Some people have pointed to an incident in 2000 when members of the New Black Panther Party marched outside the convention of the Texas Republican Party with assault rifles. My view on that event is no different from my view of the current display of weaponry. The New Black Panther Party was apparently protesting then Gov. George W. Bush’s refusal to intervene in a scheduled execution. That show of force was, in essence, no different than the current show of force. Of course, in the case of the New Black Panther Party, I think that most of us can agree that they represent a decidedly fringe element of the body politic; query whether those attending political events this summer with weapons represent the fringe or the actual conservative core of the Republican party?

In any event, how are we any different from nations like __________ [insert the name of your favorite third world country] when we view it as acceptable to threaten our elected leaders, even implicitly, with violence? And does the presence of weaponry at events at which passions are running high and tempers are being lost worry anyone else? We’ve seen pushing and shoving and a few fistfights. Should we be concerned about the presence of weaponry in that environment?

People may have a right to carry a gun in public and to come to a political event armed. But that doesn’t mean that they should. The principal message being conveyed by the brandishing of weaponry at a political event is the threat of violence if those who are armed don’t get their way. America’s democratic system works through the ballot box, not through the barrel of a gun. Violence — or even the implicit threat of violence — has no place in American politics. While it may not be possible to ban the presence of guns, responsible voices should be doing everything they can to discourage people from bringing their weapons to political events. But when the only voices that a portion of the right will listen to are Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and their ilk, then not only do I not have high hopes for the tension to be ratcheted down, I’m actually concerned that passions and tempers could be inflamed further still. And that, with the presence of weapons, would be a truly dangerous combination.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

How Can We Have a Debate When People Base Decisions on Lies?

In my recent posts on the healthcare debate and the town hall protests, a point that I've tried to make is that the functioning of our democratic system is premised, in part, on a healthy, open, and honest debate about issues. I've expressed worry and concern that lies are controlling the current debate over healthcare.

There are legitimate arguments both for and against reform and both for and against some of the current reform proposals. What will it cost? How will that cost be paid for? What will be the impact, if any, on employers? Will people be entitled to choose their own doctor? These are just a few of the legitimate concerns that should be discussed (I won't take the time to list the reasons to support healthcare reform; I think that I've done that previously.)

But so long as much of the "debate" is focused on falsehoods (and rebutting those falsehoods), then we're not spending our time actually debating the real issues. I suspect that is precisely the plan of those who are involved in helping to orchestrate the astroturf opposition to healthcare reform: If we keep the discussion from the real merits of the proposals, then we can scare people and make them oppose those proposals which they might support if they knew the truth.

Well, now there is evidence to support the concern that people are basing their decisions on healthcare reform, at least in part, on Sarah Palin's fears of "death panels" and of other falsehoods that have become opposition talking points. According to a new NBC Poll: Myths Endure on Health Care, Highlighting Doubts on Overhaul:

Nearly half of Americans believe that a proposed overhaul of the health care system means the government will decide when to stop providing medical treatment to senior citizens, according to the latest polling by NBC News released this evening.

Some 45% said they believe the plan is likely to include such a provision that has become known as “death panels” despite bipartisan efforts by President Barack Obama and the provision’s author, Republican Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson to dispel the idea. (Isakson, in a recent interview with the Washington Post called the confusion “nuts.”)

To be sure, 50% of respondents said they believe the bill was unlikely to include such a provision, but the deep split over the veracity of “death panels” underscores the difficulty Democrats have had in selling their overhaul to the public.

Further, a majority of Americans (55%) believe the bill will extend health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants even though no proposals currently under negotiation would do so. An equally high number (54%) believe the overhaul will lead to a “complete” government takeover of the health care system, although there is also no actual proposal for that, either.

Additionally, 50% believe that the overhaul will use federal tax dollars to pay for abortions. While it is unclear if the final bill would do so, current law bans federal funds from being used to fund abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the mother’s life. The president has said he is not interested in expanding abortion rights in the health care package. “I’m pro-choice, but I think we also have the tradition in this town, historically, of not financing abortions as part of government-funded health care,” Obama said in a July interview with CBS.

Think about some of those findings for a moment. 45% of those surveyed believe that the healtchare reform proposals include "death panels". Several things about that scare me. First, it scares me that people are willing to simply listen to the fearmongers and won't take the time to try to learn the truth (of course, going to a town hall meeting to hear from a member of Congress won't necessarily be of much help; at some town hall meetings, Republican members of Congress fail or refuse to refute the lie and at others there is so much shouting that the elected representative cannot effectively communicate).
Second, I worry about why people would believe these sorts of lies. Is it because President Obama is a Democrat? Or is it because he is ... gasp ... black? Do people really, really think that President Obama or Nancy Pelosi want to euthanize grandma? And if they really, really do think that, ask yourself why. Why would President Obama want to euthanize grandma? What have those people -- or any Democrats, for that matter -- done, that would make people really, really believe that they want they government to euthanize people? Is it because Democrats support reproductive choice but opposed forcing Terri Schiavo to be kept alive? What makes people think that Democrats are really that evil?

Third, the media (well, all except FAUX News, I suppose) has been reporting on the fact that there are no "death panels" in the legislation. Yet people -- 45% apparently -- still believe Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and their ilk. Obviously people have heard that there are "death panels" from some source and yet they refuse to believe other sources that tell them that the information is incorrect. Why? Why are people both willing to believe the obvious lie and so unwilling to believe the refutation of that lie?

One more set of numbers that I think further illustrates the issue. Daily Kos/Research 2000 conducted a poll on August 10-13. Look at these two questions and the results. Pay particular attention to the difference in responses between Democrats and Independents on one hand and Republicans on the other:

1. Do you think the health care reform plan being considered by President Obama and Congress creates "death panels" which have the authority to subjectively determine whether or not a gravely ill or injured person should receive health care based on their "level of productivity in society"?



Not sure


















2. Does the health care reform plan being considered by President Obama and Congress require elderly patients to meet with government officials to discuss "end of life" options including euthanasia?




Not sure

















What is causing Republicans to have such a different understanding of proposed legislation?
A debate and discussion on the necessity of healthcare reform is essential. A debate and discussion of the form that any healthcare reform takes is necessary. But neither of those debates can occur while we're wasting our time arguing about things that nobody has proposed. And neither of those debates can occur when all we do is yell and scream and not take a moment to be quiet, listen, and most importantly think.

Incidentally, if you're interested in reading the provision, it can be found at the website of the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, direct linking seems to fail (the links time out after a day or so), so I've provided instructions that we accurate as of the date of this post as well as the full text of the relevant section at the bottom of this post. To get to the bill, click the link to the Library of Congress, then click on the link for HR3200: America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, click on the link for Text of the Legislation. Then do a find (Ctrl-F) for 1233, click on that link , and you'll finally be at the bill. Try to find a reference to "death panels" or euthanasia.

And, in order to make things even easier, the full text of Section 1233 is reproduced below (sorry for the lack of formatting):

Section 1233 of House Resolution 3200:

(a) Medicare-
(1) IN GENERAL- Section 1861 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395x) is amended--
(A) in subsection (s)(2)--
(i) by striking `and' at the end of subparagraph (DD);
(ii) by adding `and' at the end of subparagraph (EE); and
(iii) by adding at the end the following new subparagraph:
`(FF) advance care planning consultation (as defined in subsection (hhh)(1));'; and
(B) by adding at the end the following new subsection:
`Advance Care Planning Consultation
`(hhh)(1) Subject to paragraphs (3) and (4), the term `advance care planning consultation' means a consultation between the individual and a practitioner described in paragraph (2) regarding advance care planning, if, subject to paragraph (3), the individual involved has not had such a consultation within the last 5 years. Such consultation shall include the following:
`(A) An explanation by the practitioner of advance care planning, including key questions and considerations, important steps, and suggested people to talk to.
`(B) An explanation by the practitioner of advance directives, including living wills and durable powers of attorney, and their uses.
`(C) An explanation by the practitioner of the role and responsibilities of a health care proxy.
`(D) The provision by the practitioner of a list of national and State-specific resources to assist consumers and their families with advance care planning, including the national toll-free hotline, the advance care planning clearinghouses, and State legal service organizations (including those funded through the Older Americans Act of 1965).
`(E) An explanation by the practitioner of the continuum of end-of-life services and supports available, including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services and supports that are available under this title.
`(F)(i) Subject to clause (ii), an explanation of orders regarding life sustaining treatment or similar orders, which shall include--
`(I) the reasons why the development of such an order is beneficial to the individual and the individual's family and the reasons why such an order should be updated periodically as the health of the individual changes;
`(II) the information needed for an individual or legal surrogate to make informed decisions regarding the completion of such an order; and
`(III) the identification of resources that an individual may use to determine the requirements of the State in which such individual resides so that the treatment wishes of that individual will be carried out if the individual is unable to communicate those wishes, including requirements regarding the designation of a surrogate decisionmaker (also known as a health care proxy).
`(ii) The Secretary shall limit the requirement for explanations under clause (i) to consultations furnished in a State--
`(I) in which all legal barriers have been addressed for enabling orders for life sustaining treatment to constitute a set of medical orders respected across all care settings; and
`(II) that has in effect a program for orders for life sustaining treatment described in clause (iii).
`(iii) A program for orders for life sustaining treatment for a States described in this clause is a program that--
`(I) ensures such orders are standardized and uniquely identifiable throughout the State;
`(II) distributes or makes accessible such orders to physicians and other health professionals that (acting within the scope of the professional's authority under State law) may sign orders for life sustaining treatment;
`(III) provides training for health care professionals across the continuum of care about the goals and use of orders for life sustaining treatment; and
`(IV) is guided by a coalition of stakeholders includes representatives from emergency medical services, emergency department physicians or nurses, state long-term care association, state medical association, state surveyors, agency responsible for senior services, state department of health, state hospital association, home health association, state bar association, and state hospice association.
`(2) A practitioner described in this paragraph is--
`(A) a physician (as defined in subsection (r)(1)); and
`(B) a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant who has the authority under State law to sign orders for life sustaining treatments.
`(3)(A) An initial preventive physical examination under subsection (WW), including any related discussion during such examination, shall not be considered an advance care planning consultation for purposes of applying the 5-year limitation under paragraph (1).
`(B) An advance care planning consultation with respect to an individual may be conducted more frequently than provided under paragraph (1) if there is a significant change in the health condition of the individual, including diagnosis of a chronic, progressive, life-limiting disease, a life-threatening or terminal diagnosis or life-threatening injury, or upon admission to a skilled nursing facility, a long-term care facility (as defined by the Secretary), or a hospice program.
`(4) A consultation under this subsection may include the formulation of an order regarding life sustaining treatment or a similar order.
`(5)(A) For purposes of this section, the term `order regarding life sustaining treatment' means, with respect to an individual, an actionable medical order relating to the treatment of that individual that--
`(i) is signed and dated by a physician (as defined in subsection (r)(1)) or another health care professional (as specified by the Secretary and who is acting within the scope of the professional's authority under State law in signing such an order, including a nurse practitioner or physician assistant) and is in a form that permits it to stay with the individual and be followed by health care professionals and providers across the continuum of care;
`(ii) effectively communicates the individual's preferences regarding life sustaining treatment, including an indication of the treatment and care desired by the individual;
`(iii) is uniquely identifiable and standardized within a given locality, region, or State (as identified by the Secretary); and
`(iv) may incorporate any advance directive (as defined in section 1866(f)(3)) if executed by the individual.
`(B) The level of treatment indicated under subparagraph (A)(ii) may range from an indication for full treatment to an indication to limit some or all or specified interventions. Such indicated levels of treatment may include indications respecting, among other items--
`(i) the intensity of medical intervention if the patient is pulse less, apneic, or has serious cardiac or pulmonary problems;
`(ii) the individual's desire regarding transfer to a hospital or remaining at the current care setting;
`(iii) the use of antibiotics; and
`(iv) the use of artificially administered nutrition and hydration.'.
(2) PAYMENT- Section 1848(j)(3) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1395w-4(j)(3)) is amended by inserting `(2)(FF),' after `(2)(EE),'.
(3) FREQUENCY LIMITATION- Section 1862(a) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1395y(a)) is amended--
(A) in paragraph (1)--
(i) in subparagraph (N), by striking `and' at the end;
(ii) in subparagraph (O) by striking the semicolon at the end and inserting `, and'; and
(iii) by adding at the end the following new subparagraph:
`(P) in the case of advance care planning consultations (as defined in section 1861(hhh)(1)), which are performed more frequently than is covered under such section;'; and
(B) in paragraph (7), by striking `or (K)' and inserting `(K), or (P)'.
(4) EFFECTIVE DATE- The amendments made by this subsection shall apply to consultations furnished on or after January 1, 2011.
(b) Expansion of Physician Quality Reporting Initiative for End of Life Care-
(1) Physician'S QUALITY REPORTING INITIATIVE- Section 1848(k)(2) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395w-4(k)(2)) is amended by adding at the end the following new paragraphs:
`(A) IN GENERAL- For purposes of reporting data on quality measures for covered professional services furnished during 2011 and any subsequent year, to the extent that measures are available, the Secretary shall include quality measures on end of life care and advanced care planning that have been adopted or endorsed by a consensus-based organization, if appropriate. Such measures shall measure both the creation of and adherence to orders for life-sustaining treatment.
`(B) PROPOSED SET OF MEASURES- The Secretary shall publish in the Federal Register proposed quality measures on end of life care and advanced care planning that the Secretary determines are described in subparagraph (A) and would be appropriate for eligible professionals to use to submit data to the Secretary. The Secretary shall provide for a period of public comment on such set of measures before finalizing such proposed measures.'.
(c) Inclusion of Information in Medicare & You Handbook-
(A) IN GENERAL- Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall update the online version of the Medicare & You Handbook to include the following:
(i) An explanation of advance care planning and advance directives, including--
(I) living wills;
(II) durable power of attorney;
(III) orders of life-sustaining treatment; and
(IV) health care proxies.
(ii) A description of Federal and State resources available to assist individuals and their families with advance care planning and advance directives, including--
(I) available State legal service organizations to assist individuals with advance care planning, including those organizations that receive funding pursuant to the Older Americans Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 93001 et seq.);
(II) website links or addresses for State-specific advance directive forms; and
(III) any additional information, as determined by the Secretary.
(B) UPDATE OF PAPER AND SUBSEQUENT VERSIONS- The Secretary shall include the information described in subparagraph (A) in all paper and electronic versions of the Medicare & You Handbook that are published on or after the date that is 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act.


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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Barney Frank Responds to Comparison of Obama to Hitler

This short video sums up much of the current healthcare debate:


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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

IN Touch: Keep religion out of alcohol sales debate

My tenth post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. I'm going to keep re-posting those entries here (at least until someone from the Star asks me to stop). Go ahead and visit the post on the IN Touch site, anyway.

A recent article in The Star ("Panel thirsts for facts in Sunday alcohol sales debate") discussed some of the pros and cons of Sunday retail alcohol sales. Among the arguments promoted by the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers against expanded Sunday alcohol sales was this: "Remember the Sabbath: Sunday is a religious day. Liquor shouldn't be sold on it." There are, of course, two problems with this particular argument.First is the recognition that alcohol is already sold on Sunday in bars, restaurants, and at sporting events. The issue is not whether alcohol should be sold on Sunday, but whether retail sales should be allowed. I doubt many Hoosiers would support a return to the ban on restaurant alcohol sales on Sunday.

Second, and more problematic, is the suggestion that "Sunday is a religious day." Well, it is for some, but not all. Jews worship the Sabbath on Saturday, Muslims on Friday, and others not at all. Some religious traditions ban all use of alcohol while others include alcohol as an important part of religious observance. If government is going to legislate on the basis of religious tradition, how should government reconcile those competing positions?

It should not be the job of the government to regulate what people can and cannot do on religious grounds. If your religious views tell you not to purchase, consume, or sell alcohol on your Sabbath, then that is your right. But those religious views should not be enforced, through governmental action, on others who may have honestly held but divergent religious views (or no religious views at all). There may be good arguments against Sunday retail alcohol sales, but religious belief should not be among them.

(Note that in the above-copy I've corrected several typos that were created by the editing that was done to the original version of the post that I submitted. I also added the link to the original article that my post referenced.)

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IN Touch: Uncivil dissent (update)

A few days ago, I posted my most recent IN Touch blog entry, "Uncivil dissent". Along with my post, several other recent posts on IN Touch have dealt with the issue of the nature of the debate on healthcare reform. Perhaps more importantly, a review of the comments to those posts may serve to illustrate just how off-kilter the entire process of political debate and discourse has gotten.
One of the most troublesome lines being taken by those who I'm guessing are on the right (or at least oppose the efforts at healthcare reform) is to say, "Aha! But Democrats/liberals/the left engaged in uncivil debate in the past." Sure there may have been episodes of those on the left (or right) being uncivil, but whether it was of the nature and to the extent of the current healthcare debate disruptions, I'm not sure. From what I've seen and read, it appears that both the frequency and prevalence of disruptive behavior by "the left" and the nature and magnitude of that disruptive behavior was different. I don't recall MSNBC actively promoting tea bag parties or having its anchors stage faux poisonings of Republicans in Congress. I don't recall the left talking about "refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots". I don't recall "leaders" from the left (of the stature of Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh) advancing out-and-out falsehoods (e.g., "death panels") in order to scare people. Did Al Gore ever argue that President Bush intended to use the Patriot Act to kill grandpa?
But even if the left did engage in that kind of behavior in the past, it doesn't make it right now. And that is the next part of the current meme being advanced by those who appear to support the current spate of town hall disruptions. The argument being advanced is that people like me who advocate for civil discourse and debate and against mob behavior and disruption are hypocrites because we didn't do so when Republicans were allegedly being shouted down. For example, take a look at this comment thread to my "Uncivil dissent" post:

Boy...we sure are lucky none of this type of foolishness happened when the last
administration was in office.

I mean a faux poisoning on TV...what if they made a faux movie about assassination of the sitting President...oh wait, already been done.

And calling the President-to-be a terrorist, what if they printed up signs with his picture that said #1 Terrorist...oh wait, already been done.

What if they shouted down political speakers and even tried to make a citizens arrest for what they thought those politicians were breaking the law for...oh wait, already been done.

Man, I'm having a hard time coming up with something that hasn't already been done.

I hope you realize this happened for 8 years before you finally opened your eyes and acted like it was some sort of travesty.

Like I've said before, what's good for the goose ain't so good for the gander.

(from Kevin Schmidt, who wrote his own IN Touch post on the subject: "Selective amnesia"). My response:

Sorry, but a movie about an assassination is very, very different from the host of a "news" show staging a faux poisoning on his program. A movie is clearly fiction and I suspect that most Americans understand that. On the other hand, when members of the media who Republicans identify as "leaders" app[e]ar to advocate assassination... well that is a very different situation. If you can't recognize that difference, both in terms of magnitude and meaning, then perhaps we've identified part of the problem.

It is also worth noting that "Death of a President" was not made by Americans, but rather, by the British. And it was made in order to advance discussion of certain political issues. How does talking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi facilitate discussion of healthcare reform?

As to shouting down politicians, yes there was some of that during the Bush administration, but I would contend that it was neither to the extent or extreme that it has been taken now nor was it largely based on lies and falsehoods being intentionally repeated in order to sow fear and distrust.

Finally, you seem to suggest that I've endorsed violent political rhetoric in the past and only condemn the current wave of disruptive activity. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think that the lack of civility, from whatever quarter, is dangerous for our system. But I think that it is even more dangerous when it appears to be endorsed by so-called leaders.

And Kevin's response to me:

I think, after watching what Glenn Beck said, more as joke, than anything pales in comparison to the "kill Bush" rhetoric that existed during the Bush administration. If you want an example, take Chris Matthews who heaped praise on the Green Party candidate for NY Governor after he stated that he only supported capital punishment in the case of President Bush being tried for treason. And need only Google "kill Bush" to find numerous stories of people advocating either through art or otherwise the death of President Bush.

Does it make what Beck said any less stupid, no...but it does prove my point that none of this is new and as usual, Republicans are tared and feathered for doing something Democrats consider the norm.

I'm sure you don't think it's productive from either side of the aisle, as do I, but I'd find it more believable had you condemned the same actions when they happened to Republicans.

I don't know, perhaps you did, but I would highly doubt it.

On what basis does Mr. Schmidt "highly doubt" that I condemned disruptive behavior from the left? Or consider these other statements from Mr. Schmidt in responses to comments to his post (and I don't mean to pick on him in particular or suggest that he is unique in his view; it was simply expedient for me to use his words as an example of the rhetorical arguments being advanced):

[T]he left can't have it both ways and that's what they want.

When it was the Iraq war and Republican Congressmen being shouted down it was a-ok. Now that the shoe is on the other foot it's time for peaceful dissent?

Give me a break.

You are the face of hypocrisy.

I'll cut you some slack if you can show me where you denounced those shouting down Republicans. If you can't don't bother commenting.


I agree with you about civil protest and don't agree with what is being done at town hall meetings right now. And trust me, I've had my fair share of experiences being the unwelcome Republican.

As long as you can show me where you complained about the same tactics that were employed by those on the left when George W. Bush was President we'll get along just fine.

Otherwise you can join the rest of the partisan hack hypocrites in the corner.


[M]y point isn't that this kind of protest is civil or the right thing to be doing, it's that when the shoe was on the other foot, it was the "highest form of patriotism" and now it's Nazism and the Klan come home to roost. It's the hypocrisy that upsets me.
What are we to take away from those sorts of posts?
In other words, if I (or others concerned about the tone of civil discourse) didn't come out and criticize the left during the Bush administration, then I am being a hypocrite now. I've only been writing publicly since the end of 2007 (and only writing for IN Touch since earlier this year). I don't think that I've ever advocated violence and I don't think that I've ever given a "free pass" to bad conduct because I approve of the speaker or the issue. Those who know me and with whom I've discussed politics over the last few years (or even longer) can probably attest to my concerns with the decline in political civility; in fact, it is a recurring theme in my political discussions. I recall talking about the subject when Rush Limbaugh had harsh things to say about President Clinton and when Rep. Dan Burton made his crazy allegations regarding Vince Foster. But I also recall having similar discussions about the "9/11 truthers", Cindy Sheehan, and disruptions at events like the G8 summit in Seattle. I just wasn't writing about it back then.

It is also, of course, worth remembering the old adage that "two wrongs don't make a right". Even if some on the left did behave badly, does that mean that the right should behave badly now? Because a right-winger killed policemen in Pittsburgh, should a leftist kill bankers? Because a right-winger killed an abortion doctor, should a leftist kill an anti-abortion advocate? Because the Bush administration ignored the Constitution and imprisoned people without the right to counsel or trial, engaged in illegal wiretaps, and used torture, should the Obama administration confiscate guns or allow illegal aliens to vote? Of course not. And I'd be curious to know if people like Mr. Schmidt who were apparently upset at the level of discourse during the Bush administration spoke out during the Clinton administration (and of course that line of inquiry can be taken back ad infinitem to the point of ridiculousness).

Or consider this comment to "Uncivil dissent" from someone identified only as "dabs":

Seriously? An attorney that displays a blatant ignorance of both the First Amendment AND legal precedent? I suspect business is not very good for Mr. Wallack.

In addition to all the responses here that point out SCORES of examples of other "hate speech" demonstrations by "progressive groups" (which I suspect Mr. Wallack considers justified protests), he obviously misses the fact that these American citizens would not even have had the chance to exercise their RIGHT to free speech had the Congress gotten their way and hurriedly shoved this socialist tripe legislation down our throats before the August recess.

But alas, even patently partisan people like Mr. Wallack have the right to voice their opinions... a right that he seems to want to deny others who don't share his radical idealogy.


And my response:

"Radical ideology"? Sorry, but I don't understand how the belief that I system is better served by civil discourse than by yelling, screaming, pushing, and threats is a "radical ideology". Dabs, come down off of your holier-than-thou pedestal, go back and look at what I wrote, and stop trying to put words or ideas in my mouth. I did not advocate for or against the proposed healthcare reform legislation. Nor did I suggest that anyone be prevented from expressing their opinion. Nor have I ever condoned hate speech, whether from the right, left, middle, or otherwise. I think that if you look at what I've written, you'll find that I'm worried about the impact of hate speech in all of its incarnations. And I think that you'll find that I encourage people to take time and learn the facts so that they can be properly informed to participate in the political process.

My comments were about the tone of the debate and the fact that yelling and screaming and threatening are not debate at all. If you'd like to debate the healthcare reform proposals, please do so. And let others share their thoughts and opinions, too. Don't scream about "death panels" or yell about socialism. Instead, talk about whether a particular policy is good or bad and why. And take some time to listen to the other side, instead of just screaming. And that goes for most everything in our political process, not just healthcare reform.

Yes, an incitement to violence may be protected by the First Amendment, but that doesn't make it right. Nor does that mean that it is a productive form of discourse and debate.

Finally, I see distinct differences between protest, protest that disrupts others from engaging in core political speech and debate, protest that includes an incitement to violence, protest that includes actual or perceived threats of violence, the staging of violent acts, and the actual commission of violence. I advocate for civility from all sides on all issues. Please tell me where I've ever condoned anything that disrupts civil discourse or the political process.

The point that I thought that I'd made was that disruptive behavior that prevents or hinders civil discussion of important issues harms our democratic process. It just happens that the examples of this behavior that have manifested since I've been writing this blog (or for IN Touch) have involved behavior from those on the right (or those who oppose the healthcare reform proposals). Personally, I don't care who engages in the disruptive behavior or makes the threats of violence. It is wrong. But for anyone to suggest that I'm a hypocrite merely on the grounds that I'm speaking out now is simply ludicrous.

Just for the record, here are a few things that I've said on the subject of political discourse in the year 19 months that I've been writing Me Me Me Me Me:

Unfortunately, two new types of lies seem to have entered the political process. (OK, I'll admit that they've both probably been around as long as elections have, but they seem to be becoming more prominent recently.) The first is the lie of destruction. That lie puts out disinformation about the opponent that has nothing to do with the issues in the election; rather, the lie attacks the opponent's character or fitness to serve. This year, we've seen lies about Sen. Obama's religion and lies about Sen. McCain's involvement in the fire aboard the USS Forrestal. We've seen lies about Sen. Obama's citizenship and lies about Sen. McCain cooperating with the enemy while a POW. These sorts of lies are very damaging to the candidates, and, more importantly, they are very damaging to our very electoral process (would you want to run for office knowing the kinds of things that might be said about you and your family?). Between mass communications and the Internet, these lies can spread faster than they can be rebutted; by the time a rebuttal can be issued, the lie has taken on a life of its own and, to many people, become "true". So, if people are basing their electoral decision on the basis of lies about a candidate's character and background, those electoral decisions will, almost by definition be flawed and the issues on which the election should turn are relegated to a position of lesser importance. This trend has me gravely concerned. If people don't want to vote for Sen. Obama because they don't like his economic policies, fine (although I'd like to talk to them...); but if they don't want to vote for him because "he's a Muslim" then we have a problem. If people don't want to vote for Sen. McCain because he opposes a woman's right to choose, fine; but if they don't want to vote for him because they think he is responsible for the deaths of 134 sailors on the USS Forrestal then we have a problem. And given the prominence of chain emails and websites with just these sorts of allegations, I think that we do have a problem.
(From "When a Lie Becomes an Insult", September 9, 2008.)
When politicians use hate and division as tools, some supporters will take their speech at face value. And when politicians don't listen to what their supporters are saying, they can't help either control those supporters or try to keep a lid on the actions those supporters may take. And should Sen. Obama win the election, then one can only wonder what disaffected McCain supporters will do, especially those supporters who have felt emboldened to shout "kill him" or "Bomb Obama".
One of the constant themes running through many of my posts since I started this blog has been my concern with the use of language in our political discourse that serves no purpose other than to demonize a political opponent (or, all to often the "enemy") without regard for the damage that such actions will have upon the nation as a whole, especially when the use of such language is devoid of constructive thought or ideas. That we're now hearing elected politicians even mentioning notions like secession is yet another aspect to this radicalization of political dialoge. [sic]
(In response to a comment to "A Sampling of Signs from the "Tea Bag" Parties That You Didn't See on the News", April 17, 2009.) And here is what I said in one of my earliest IN Touch posts ("Ties that bind us", January 20, 2009):

[O]ur nation has for too long been torn apart by infighting where our political opponent is our "enemy" and where we allow ourselves to be divided not just by political party, but by race, religion and so many other categories. We have allowed those divisions to be the basis for our national discussions, often forgetting that we are all Americans, united by the Constitution.

So let us hope that we can take this transitional inauguration as an opportunity to try to bridge those divisions. We may continue to disagree; that is what democracy is all about, after all. But let those disagreements remain civil and principled and let the name calling be replaced by honest debate. We must recognize that those on the other side of an issue are still Americans and that there is more that ties us together than tears us apart.

I haven't taken the time to re-read every post that I've written in nearly two years, but I suspect that I would find numerous examples of statements just like these, hoping for a more civil political discourse. So, I don't believe that any claim that I am a hypocrite on the issue of civil discourse will hold up to careful scrutiny.

But, when there is no defense to the actions of those being criticized, what other response is there to make but to cry hypocrisy and try to deflect attention from the real issue and onto the people calling attention to the issue. At its core, that is the Republican and right-wing mindset. Don't talk about issues, talk about people. Identify people by slogans or race or any other tactic that serves to divide people rather than bring them together ("ooh, socialist"). Take a moment and go back and look at the signs that people were holding up a the tea parties for another fine example of high-minded civil disc... oops, I meant the politics of division and destruction.

And then, when someone does want to talk about real issues, the next response is, of course, to lie.

Or consider another recent Republican talking point: The only reason that people are yelling at their Congressional representatives is because they're not getting answers to their questions. Of course this argument is self-debunking in that people can't get answers to questions if: (a) they don't actually pose questions, choosing instead to yell and scream, and preventing others from asking questions and/or (b) they don't listen to the answers being given. There is also a difference between not getting an answer to a question and not getting the answer that you want. Plus, this explanation doesn't really address the issue of incitements to violence, racist rhetoric, other forms of political demonization (e.g., Rush Limbaugh's comparison of President Obama to Hitler), or the lies being advanced.

I don't know everything that every opponent to every policy of the Bush administration or a Republican elected official did during the past eight years. Nor do I know what every opponent of Bill Clinton did during his term. But I do know that right now our nation is facing important decisions concerning healthcare reform, the state of the economy, and many other serious problems and issues. Yelling, screaming, and threats of political violence will not help us solve those problems or find resolutions for those issues. Disruptive behavior will not help America move forward as a powerful whole, but rather will further tear us apart and erode our sense of national unity. Sometimes you have to wonder whether Americans view the bigger threat to be nations and actors like Iran, North Korea, and al-Qaeda, issues like the economy, global warming, or healthcare, or other Americans (including elected representatives) who hold differing political views.


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Friday, August 14, 2009

An Open Letter to the Pittsburgh Pirates (update 2)

On July 22, 2009, I posted my open letter to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In that letter, I bemoaned the way the Pirates continue to trade (or sell) their only good players and asked what fans have to root for. On July 30, 2009, I posted an update following yet more trades. It is worth noting that, despite having sent my letter to the Pirates, I've not received any response (not that I really expected any; after all, what would they say: "Gee, sorry that the team is terrible and that we're more interested in keeping our salaries low than in putting a winning team on the field"?).

Anyway, I thought that I'd update that open letter one more time with some interesting statistics:
  • Since July 22, the Pirates' record is 4-16 (.200). Before that, the record was 42-52 (.450).
  • Since July 22, the Pirates are averaging 3.4 runs per game. That number is skewed upward somewhat by two games in which the Pirates scored 10 and 11 runs, respectively. If those games are factored out, the Pirates are averaging just 2.6 runs per game. Factor out the two games in which the Pirates scored 6 and 7 runs, and the average drops to a miserable 2.1 runs per game.
  • Since July 22, the Pirates have been shutout 5 times. In other words, the Pirates have been shutout 25% of the time that they've played! To put that in perspective, for the entire season, the Pirates have only shutout their opponent 6 times. San Francisco, leading the league in shutouts, only has 15 for the whole season. But the Pirates, since July 22, get shutout 1 out of every 4 times they take the field.
  • During that same period, the Pirates have given up an average of 6.05 runs per game.
  • On July 22, the Pirates were in last place, but only 2 games behind Cincinnati (in 5th) and only 7.5 games behind St. Louis (in 1st). As of today, the Pirates are still in last place, but now they are 4 games behind Cincinnati (in 5th) and 17 games behind St. Louis (in 1st).
  • On July 22, 7 teams (Baltimore, Kansas City, Clevland, Oakland, Washington, Arizona, and San Diego) had worse records than the Pirates. Today, just 2 teams (Kansas City and Washington have worse records).
  • Thus, since my open letter, Pirates have lost 80% of their games by an average of 2.65 runs per game, fallen 2 more games behind 5th place Cincinnati, and 9.5 games further behind 1st place St. Louis.

Those numbers are beyond embarrassing; they are painful. So, I need someone to remind me again why I continue to root for the Pirates.


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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Say What?

Over the last few days I've listened to various programs about the ongoing healthcare debate and about the tone and lack of civility associated with that debate. Some of the statements and allegations that I've heard have made me furious (the whole "death panel" suggestion being at the top of that list) while others have left me puzzled. I want to take a moment to highlight two comments that fall into this latter category:
  • "Universal healthcare is universal confiscation of our liberties."

Huh? Can somebody please explain to me how the extension of healthcare to the uninsured could be a "confiscation of liberties"? Can someone please explain to me how a government-sponsored healthcare plan is a "confiscation of liberties"? And before answering, don't forget about Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the Veterans' Administration. The only way that I can put this statement into some kind of context is if we were to adopt a single payor system and eliminate the right to participate in supplemental private insurance programs, but even at that I'm not sure that I see how a particular liberty interest is impacted. We require people to pay into Social Security and Medicare; is that a "confiscation of liberties"? If so, then isn't any tax a confiscation of liberties. Is that what this is really all about?

  • President Obama is "shredding the Constitution".

Say what? Which particular provisions of the Constitution has President Obama "shredded"? I guess we could be talking about the whole "Birther" nonsense, but somehow I doubt that is what was meant by the comment. I'm curious to know what the person making this claim thought about the Bush administration's policies concerning torture, illegal wiretaps, imprisonment without charge or access to counsel, leaking the identity of an undercover intelligence officer and then lying about it, and lying to the country about the justifications for going to war. Let's compare those policies to President Obama's efforts to prevent another great depression, to keep several of America's largest employers from closing their doors, and to reform a healthcare system that leaves more than 40 million Americans uninsured and costs a staggeringly large percentage of our gross domestic product. I can certainly understand the viewpoint of those who disagree with President Obama's policies, but "shredding the Constitution"?

A few nights ago I had dinner with a friend with whom I agree on some things and disagree on other things. On the issue of healthcare, we largely disagree. Yet he and I were able to discuss the various healthcare proposals, talk about the problems with the current system, express concerns about what might or might not result if a particular policy were to be implemented, examine the particular interests of various constituencies in the debate, and discuss what we believed were the basic minimum levels of care and coverage that should be required. While we continued to have much upon which we disagreed, by talking to one another we were able to find common ground and articulate certain broad policy objectives. That is the type of conversation that needs to be going in on living rooms around the country as well as in the halls of Congress and in those town hall meetings. It would be nice if our media (not to mention some political leaders) tried to assist in those types of conversations, but I suppose that thought-provoking, intellectual discussion doesn't generate ratings (or political contributions) the way that name-calling, fear-mongering, and obfuscation do.

If we can't find a way to sit down together and talk in a civil manner without yelling, without lying, and without resorting to unsupportable rhetoric, is it any wonder that we can't find ways to solve problems and bridge the ever-widening divides tearing at the fabric of our society?

One more note: The non-partisan website PolitiFact's Truth-o-Meter has been working overtime to fact check some of the things being said in the ongoing healthcare debate. Do yourself a favor and pay that site a visit. Regularly. (I note that Rep. Michelle Bachmann [R-Minnesota] has had six of her statements analyzed by PolitiFact. Her score: 3 false and 3 pants on fire false. Talk about credibility...)


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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

IN Touch: Uncivil dissent

My ninth post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. As you'll see, it continues the theme of my last few posts for this blog. My absence from IN Touch was due largely to the difficulty that I have with finding topics that I feel that I am capable of competently discussing, in 150 or so words, without losing my "voice".

I'm going to keep re-posting those entries here (at least until someone from the Star asks me to stop). Go ahead and visit the post on the IN Touch site, anyway.

A disturbing trend from the 2008 election is now infecting our political discourse. One of the things that has always distinguished America from much of the rest of the world was the civility of our political discourse. Sure, voices get raised and passions aroused, but we've largely avoided inflammatory speech and incitements to violence.

Until now.

Blame for the current trend in political hate speech with bullying and shouting to drown out debate and discussion can, I believe at least in part be traced back to the Republican campaign rallies where cries of "kill him" and "terrorist" directed at Barack Obama went unchallenged by Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin.

Now, we see people threatening their congressional representatives, hanging officials in effigy, using vile and racial epithets to describe politicians, shouting and pushing instead of talking and listening, and preventing those who disagree from being a part of a civil debate. And don't forget people like Glenn Beck who "joke" about killing politicians. (Beck actually staged a faux poisoning of Nancy Pelosi on TV.)

Screaming, yelling, bullying, fighting, death threats and acts of violence may be a fact of life in many political systems, but they are not part of the American tradition. Anyone who truly values our system and sense of democratic ideals must stand up and help put an end to this orchestrated slide into anarchy. If we don't act soon, how long will it be before some crackpot decides that assassination or terrorism is a legitimate tool of political dissent

One other thing about this post is worth noting. Here is how a part of my original post (as submitted to The Indianapolis Star) was written:
I believe, at least in part, be traced back to the Republican campaign rallies where cries of "kill him" and "terrorist" directed at Sen. Obama went unchallenged by Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin.
However, when posted on the IN Touch site, this clause underwent some subtle, but perhaps significant revision:
I believe at least in part be traced back to the Republican campaign rallies where cries of "kill him" and "terrorist" directed at Barack Obama went unchallenged by Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin.

Do you see the difference? It took me a moment to notice it, too. In my original version, each of the three people mentioned was identified by the title he or she held at the time in question and the person's last name. In the version posted by The Indianapolis Star, each of the three gained a first name (no big deal). More importantly, however, then-Sen. Obama lost his title (and didn't gain another one) while both Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin kept their titles. This is particularly odd given that President Obama still has a title and former Governor Sarah Palin does not. There may be some simple journalistic rule of which I'm not aware, but I want to be sure that no slight was intended (either by me or by The Indianapolis Star).

I've asked the editorial staff of The Indianapolis Star for an explanation of this editorial change.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Using Lies to Whip Mobs into Anti-Democratic Frenzies (update 2)

Earlier today, I wrote (twice, actually) about the vile lie being used to scare the elderly so that they will oppose healthcare reform. Well, another Republican "leader" has now picked up that lie and has begun to use it. Here is what Sarah Palin (I like not having to call her Governor anymore) said on her Facebook page today:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Yes, such a system is downright evil. That's why it is not being considered by anyone. It is also downright evil to use a lie like this to try to scare people. But that is where today's Republican party lives. (By the way, in the statement from which I've pulled the above-quote, Palin also commends Rep. Michelle Bachmann for her stance against healthcare reform. Yes, that Rep. Bachmann...)

Oh, did you see the video of Glenn Beck saying that he'd like to poison Nancy Pelosi? And laughing about it? Or did you hear about Rush Limbaugh comparing President Obama to Adolph Hitler and, when called on that by Jewish groups and even some Republicans, he affirmed the comparison? Did you see the video of the Republican Congressman joking about constituents wanting to lynch their Democratic representatives and getting a big laugh from his constituents?

I'm afraid that civil discourse is dead.

The real question has become this: Does the right wing want a new civil war?

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Using Lies to Whip Mobs into Anti-Democratic Frenzies (update)

As a follow-up to today's earlier post, I wanted to offer this terrific expose on the subject by Rachel Maddow.

I also thought this video was illustrative of the point that I made about trying to scare people. Listen to the big guy in the red hat (wait until about :25 before he really gets going):

Does he really say that Sen. Chris Dodd "would not be allowed to have surgery under the new healthcare plan" because he's 65-years old? I'd like to see the part of the bill that says that! (And don't forget that Sen. Dodd is already in a government healthcare plan...)

Videos like this are popping up all over the Internet. Some show people shouting at their representatives and some show pushing and shoving and fistfights. To paraphrase another blogger (I can't find the link right now) who posted a video of an apparent fight outside a town hall meeting: Our political system has crossed the Rubicon.

Since early on in my blogging days, I've been warning about the slippery slope into political violence. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin allowed the unleashing of mob mentality (remember the shouts of "terrorist" and "kill him"). Well, I'm afraid that violent rhetoric and action have now become part of our political process. That slippery slope that I was worried we were approaching? Well, I'm afraid that we're there and we're sliding downhill.

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Using Lies to Whip Mobs into Anti-Democratic Frenzies

A few days ago, I mentioned one of the vile lies that is being used by opponents of healthcare reform:
Add to all of this the degree to which policy debate seems to have become distorted and perverted by out and out lies. My personal "favorite" is the talking point going around that is warning the elderly that President Obama's healthcare plan would require elderly people to decide how and when to die in order to lower the cost of government subsidized healthcare. People who spread this kind of deceitful information, solely to create fear of a policy proposal, pervert the democratic process. Can you imagine the outrage if African-Americans or Latinos were told that a particular Republican-backed bill would require the sterilization of minorities convicted of a crime, even if no such requirement existed? Obviously people can disagree on policy and should voice their ideas and opinions; buy lying to scare people has no place in the political process.
This morning on NPR's Morning Edition, reporter Debbie Elliott had a story about the difficulty that some Democratic members of Congress are having with their constituents in town hall meetings. Two things about this story really caught my attention. First, consider this exchange between a voter and Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Alabama) (note that Rep. Bright is the first Democratic representative of his district in over forty years):

"What I keep hearing is you will be required — required — to meet with a board to discuss your end-of -life options. Now that's my life and my business, and I don't want the government in it," Marsha Trotter said.

Bright explained that that wasn't in the bill and warned voters that special interests have been trying to distort the health care debate. "Who can we trust?" one man asked. It was a hard question to answer.

Note that the requirement that Ms. Trotter expresses concern about has morphed from meeting with a doctor to meeting with some "board" to discuss end-of-life options. But what really frustrated me about this part of the report is that all a listener takes away from it is the fact that the Democratic candidate "explained that wasn't in the bill". That sounds like he was simply expressing his political viewpoint as a politician. NPR did a disservice to its listeners -- especially elderly listeners who are being inundated with this lie -- by not making clear that no such requirement is in the bill or talking about the benefit that the bill is adding to existing Medicare policies. The lies and fear-mongering and distortions are part of the story, but they are being largely ignored.

Thankfully, The Indianapolis Star ran a column by Ellen Goodman on this very issue several days ago. Goodman noted not only the context of the lie, but that it was apparently been repeated by numerous prominent Republicans:

The campaign of the moment is based on a small provision in the health-care bill that would allow Medicare to reimburse doctors for time spent consulting with patients about their end-of-life choices.

This modest idea was willfully distorted by people such as Betsy McCaughey, the former lieutenant governor of New York, who said that the bill would "absolutely require" end-of-life counseling that "will tell them how to end their life sooner." Republican leader John Boehner offered the same flawed product, saying, "This provision may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia."

Their views were also sold by right-wing franchise operators. Laura Ingraham warned that government bureaucrats would "come to an old person'shouse for scary death chats. Fox News analyst Peter Johnson called it a "kind of our 2009 'Brave New World.'" And Randall Terry, the Zelig of the pro-life movement, said this was an attempt to "kill Granny."

Panic is their most important product. The bill doesn't really mandate anything. It simply assures that a talk about advance-care planning will be covered for the patients and families who want it. As Obama told a woman at an AARP forum, "It strikes me that that's a sensible thing to do."

Unfortunately, Goodman's article was printed merely as an opinion column without a corresponding news story debunking the lie.
But that was not the only major problem with the NPR story. Consider this from the NPR story:
Some [Democratic lawmakers] have been heckled and booed by unruly crowds. Some lawmakers are now having their town halls via telephone. And even Blue Dog Democrats who oppose the current legislation haven't escaped the conservative wrath.
That statement is true, but it leaves out critical, important facts. For example, the story never mentions that some Democratic members of Congress have received death threats, been forced to have police protection, had effigies hung outside their offices, and, perhaps most importantly, been prohibited from engaging in dialogue on healthcare or other issues with their constituents by unruly mobs.
Representative democracy requires an opportunity for voters to express their grievances and desires to their elected representatives. It is also essential for the representative to be given the opportunity to listen and explain. But when a frenzied mob yells and screams and prevents reasoned debate and discussion then they are harming the very thing that they most likely profess to care about so much: Democracy.

It addition, NPR also failed its listeners by omitting to note that these mobs that are appearing at Democratic town halls are no more a grassroots movement than the tea parties were. Republican strategists have posted instructions on precisely how to disrupt a town hall meeting and to make it look like there are far more protesters than there may, in fact, be. There is even apparently some evidence that people have been bussed in specifically for the purpose of disrupting town hall meetings. To me, the story is less that some people oppose healthcare reform -- it's a given that someone is going to oppose anything that Congress considers --but rather the organized effort to actually disrupt the democratic process.

And, if it turns out that those engaging in or facilitating that disruption are tied to the healthcare, insurance, or drug industries (or lobbying groups affiliated with them), then I'm afraid that we've really entered a dangerous new reality. If the Republicans were in office and they wanted to pass a law that opened drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we'd be concerned if the Sierra Club was encouraging its members to prevent Republicans from talking to their constituents or making death threats or engaging in other similar behavior. If Congress was considering a bill to abolish unions, we'd certainly be troubled if the unions encouraged their members to engage in violence or violent rhetoric. So shouldn't we be troubled if the healthcare, drug, and/or insurance industries try to disrupt the democratic process as a means of furthering opposition to a bill that will harm their bottom line?

I want to make it absolutely clear that I don't think that people who oppose a bill should be prohibited from voicing their opinion or speaking to their Congressional representative. But they should not use or threaten violence and they should not disrupt that representative's ability to speak with other constituents about that or other issues. Discussion of political issues can become heated and angry, but it should -- it must -- remain reasoned and civil. Mob mentality, especially when instilled by the unseen hand of special interests using lies and distortions as tools, is a threat to our democratic ideals. Anyone who truly supports our system, whether they support or oppose the current healthcare reform proposals, should stand up and say "no more" to the mobs who are preventing our elected representatives from engaging in that reasoned and civil discourse.


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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why the Visceral Hatred?

Why do so many (presumably mostly on the right) have such a visceral hatred for President Obama? It is one thing to disagree with his policies ("I don't like his healthcare proposal because..." or "I don't think that the government should have bailed out the automakers"). I understand those sentiments; they lend themselves to discussion of the issues which is, of course, how the democratic process is supposed to work. But in the case of President Obama, there seems to be something else going on, something dangerous.

During my morning commute, I saw a car with a bumper sticker that read "Is Hussein Obama the Antichrist?" Never mind the use of President Obama's middle name (was President Bush ever referred to as Walker Bush or President Clinton as Jefferson Clinton?); what would possibly make someone wonder whether President Obama was the Antichrist? What has he done or said that could lead someone to ask this question in the first place? Don't forget the "tea parties" and the signs comparing President Obama to Hitler, suggesting that President Obama plans to enslave whites, calling him a terrorist, and other charming slogans. These are not the statements of people who simply have a good faith difference of opinion on policy; these are statements of hate.

Just recently, I was party to a conversation where the speakers were going on and on about how much more they were paying in taxes because of President Obama. I asked them to direct me to a specific tax increase and I was told that "everybody knows he raised our taxes." Everybody knows this? One finally admitted that he wasn't sure that his taxes had gone up yet, but he was sure that they would because he was in the middle class. He also objected to paying taxes to subsidize healthcare for others because those were "socialist" policies; I asked him if he would be willing to sacrifice medicare or social security. He told me that I just didn't understand. Apparently, I didn't and I still don't.

Plus, you have media whackjobs like Glenn Beck claiming that President Obama is a racist who hates white people.

Last, but certainly not least, is the whole "Birther" movement of people who do not think that President Obama is entitled to be President because, they claim, he is not a natural born citizen. They continue to advance these claims to whomever will listen and completely ignore all of the facts that demonstrate that they are wrong (not to mention silly little things like the law; it is amazing how inconventient law and facts can be to a good conpsiracy theory). The Birthers ignore documents that have been produced, analyzed, and authenticated by independent, non-partisan analysts (but they're willing to believe crude forgeries that purport to be from Kenya or elsewhere), ignore official pronouncements from the State of Hawaii (including from Hawaii's Republican governor), and shout down Republican members of Congress who refuse to subscribe to their crazy conspiracy theories. These nutcases cheered when a member of the National Guard refused to report for duty claiming that President Obama was not authorized to issue orders (can you imagine the fire and brimstone had a member of the National Guard refused to follow President Bush's orders to invade Iraq on the grounds that Al Gore was the lawful President?). And the media continues to give these people airtime without really showing just how out of touch with reality they are.

Add to all of this the degree to which policy debate seems to have become distorted and perverted by out and out lies. My personal "favorite" is the talking point going around that is warning the elderly that President Obama's healthcare plan would require elderly people to decide how and when to die in order to lower the cost of government subsidized healthcare. People who spread this kind of deceitful information, solely to create fear of a policy proposal, pervert the democratic process. Can you imagine the outrage if African-Americans or Latinos were told that a particular Republican-backed bill would require the sterilization of minorities convicted of a crime, even if no such requirement existed? Obviously people can disagree on policy and should voice their ideas and opinions; buy lying to scare people has no place in the political process.

So what is really going on? Why has the election of President Obama engendered this kind of visceral hate? It seems unlikely that much of it is actually related to his policies. President Clinton tried to get healthcare reform. He failed. Many people didn't like him, but the degree of animosity toward President Clinton pales in comparison to the what we're seeing directed at President Obama. I personally detested President Bush. I thought that he showed little respect for the Constitution (imprisonment without access to counsel, wiretapping without warrant, torture), but I would have never thought to ask if he was the Antichrist or compared him to Hitler (though I might have compared some of his policies to those imposed by fascist regimes). Many previous presidents have raised taxes, supported reproductive rights, changed direction or tactics on foreign policy initiatives, or engaged in other seemingly necessary actions to resolve crisis or perceived crisis (we invaded Grenada?) or failed to do so. Yet none of those actions, so far as I can recall, led to the kind of open seething hatred that we're seeing directed against President Obama and certainly not after barely six months in office. So, as I asked at the beginning of this paragraph, what is really going on?

When giving thought to that question, don't forget that when he took office President Obama was confronted by: a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, a war against terror, an economy on the verge of a great depression, a massive budget defecit, enormous unemployment, bank failures, the potential failure of the nation's auto industry, a nuclear North Korea and a near-nuclear Iran, piracy at sea, "enemy combatants" being held at Guantanamo, Swine Flu, and who knows what else. If he could be blamed for causing all that, the Antichrist query might be worth looking into (the preceding clause was a joke; it was only a joke; in the event I should evere be accused of believing that anybody is the Antichrist ... just shoot me and put me out of everyone's misery), but to heap scorn upon him for trying to solve those problems simply makes no sense. So what is really going on?

I think that the answer really can be found in that little nugget that I decided to ignore when I began this post. Those who hate President Obama never seem to fail to use his middle name. Why is that so important to them? I wonder how many of them can even tell you the middle names of the last handfull of Presidents, including what the "Dubya" stands for (in reverse order going back to the year of my birth: Walker, Jefferson, Herbert Walker, Wilson, Earl, Rudolph, Milhous, Baines, plus Fitzgerald as the bonus name; the only one that I didn't remember was Gerald Rudolph Ford and I didn't know how to spell "Milhous"). I think that the name "Hussein" reminds people that President Obama is "different" and maybe, just maybe, too much a name used by "the enemy" (I doubt that Richard Nixon would have been elected has his middle name been Stalin or Kruschev, but who knows). Add to that the obvious fact that President Obama is different (remember that whole, "first African-American elected to the Presidency" thing?) and I think you've found the real reason that many people hate him. Who he is, what he looks like, and where he comes from is the proverbial elephant in the room.

I think that many people who may claim not be racist are, in fact, racist, and whether they'll admit it to themselves or not, cannot stand the idea of a "black" in the White House (never mind that he's half-white); nor can they stand the idea that a man whose father was not an African-American, but rather an actual African, and who has a "funny" name that includes a common Arabic or Muslim name associated with a principal US adversary of the past 18 years (remember Saddam Hussein...?).

The real problem is that if more of us don't stand up and support the man and the office (separating who the man may be or what is policies may be), then we will be helping to destroy the fabric of our nation. By all means, stand up and disagree with his policies (but put forward your own ideas and be sure that you're basing your opposition on facts not lies), but don't hate the man on the basis of who his father was, the color of his skin, or the fact that his young mother, in 1961, agreed to give her newborn a funny name (come one, we've elected guys named Grover, Ulysses, Rutherford, and Millard; what's wrong with Barack Hussein Obama?).

We should also let the media know that we want to hear discussion about policies and issues and that such discussion should not add to the split that appears to be growing ever wider in our country. While people like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Lou Dobbs (not to mention Rush Limbaugh...) are allowed to pollute the airwaves with their brands of hate speech we are all worse because the unity that has made our country strong is threatened.

So next time you hear someone take aim at President Obama for a reason other than a policy, call them on it. And the next time that you hear someone take aim at any politician on the basis of a policy, ask that person to offer an idea of their own and to offer some basis in fact for their opposition. Let's try to remember that hate doesn't make our nation or our political process work better. Hate won't make our children safer or our planet more livable. Hate won't solve our problems.


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