Tuesday, February 20, 2007

THE WEAPON OF MASS CHANGE

By William Fisher

One of the uglier paradoxes of our time is that, as the world becomes vastly more complicated, the punditocracy becomes more simplistic.

Today, those who get paid to deliver their opinions and convictions in newspapers, on television, in the White House, and on the floor of Congress, are more undeniably, more absolutely, more positively certain their point of view is not only the right one, but the only one.

What ever happened to respect for the ideas of another? What ever happened to the question that anyone about to put forth some set-in-concrete viewpoint should ask him or herself: What if I’m wrong?

It’s called intellectual humility. It’s the opposite of hubris. It’s the un-arrogance of the thoughtful.

And it’s gone.

It’s gone because it doesn’t sell newspapers, doesn’t raise cable TV ratings, doesn’t score party political points, makes the Commander-in-Chief look weak, doesn’t further the presidential ambitions of wanabee leaders, doesn’t support ideological dogma based on “to hell with inconvenient facts.”

No one forced us to accept this construct as the “new normal.” We capitulated. We gave up. We surrendered to people who think we are stupid and uninformed. And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we indeed became stupid and uninformed. The world is just too nuanced for us to understand, we complain, and throw up our hands. We feel more comfortable with well-modulated voices and well-crafted words, the more vitriolic the better. We’d rather live with the faux certitude of flawed ideas than with ambiguity.

Yet the world is intrinsically ambiguous. And no one-dimensional conviction, however passionately or sonorously expressed, changes that reality.

What stirred up this rant was Howard Kurtz’s Washington Post story about Michelle Malkin. Ms. Malkin writes a column syndicated to 150 newspapers, runs a blog and an Internet talk show, and makes frequent appearances on Fox television. She is a mini-darling of the right, a kind of wanabee Anne Coulter.

And like Coulter, she prospers on outrageous rhetoric, the more outrageous the better. Howard Kurtz published this example about the Democrats:

"The donkey party is led by thumb-sucking demagogues in prominent positions
who equate Bush with Hitler and Jim Crow, call him a liar in front of high
school students and the world, fantasize about impeachment and fetishize the
human rights of terrorists who want to kill me. Put simply: There are no
grown-ups in the Democrat Party."

How’s that for nuance?

Or her book, "In Defense of Internment," in which she endorses the World War Two internment of Japanese Americans, and praises racial profiling as a vital tool against terrorism.

Doesn’t exactly exude respect for those with other perspectives, now does it?

Nor is this daughter of Filipino immigrants shy about responding to her critics—moonbats, she calls them. For example, she told Kurtz, "Particularly when you're a minority conservative, you get a lot of ugly, hysterical, unhinged attacks, because you're challenging so many liberal myths about what people of color should think."

Well, Ms. Malkin’s moonbats have their own views on just who is launching these “ugly, hysterical, unhinged attacks.”

But the far right is not the only party guilty of simplifying the world to its virtual vanishing point. For example, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann – one of my personal favorites – rarely invites guests whose views do not match his own. And the only reason we don’t hear more of this from the left is that the right owns most of the media outlets.

This is not a right-left question. There’s more than enough blame to go around. The question is what all of this intemperate, arrogant rhetoric accomplishes?

It dumbs us all down. The common ground it seeks is a burial ground for all ideas “not invented here.” It blurs the line between informed opinion and entertainment. It adds nothing to our understanding of the world or the nation. It makes us less, not more, informed. It further divides us on a myriad of issues. It moves us not a centimeter closer to being able to suggest practical strategies to attack desperately urgent concerns. It serves only to raise TV ratings and enrich the commentariat. We might as well be watching professional wrestling.

There are zillions of facts about which left and right largely agree. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. Millions of American kids have no health insurance. Et cetera.

Beyond these truths, however, lies the question, “Can we fix it and, if so, how?”

Today’s Firing Line style of “debate” does everything to move us further away from ever finding real answers.

We have a right to expect proponents of ideas to advocate passionately. But that doesn’t mean heaping derision and abuse on everyone whose ideas aren’t our own. No one has a monopoly on wisdom.

The bottom line here is that the choice is ours. Thankfully, we still live in a country where the most lethal weapon in the arsenal of ordinary citizens is the TV remote.