Monday, December 28, 2009

Watching the storm from the porch of civility

Tiny bubbles…
In the wine…
Make me happy…
Make me feel fine.

I was looking for a quiet place to stand, safe from the storm. I usually find it in a silly song… or sometimes a Christmas carol this time of year.

In my youth I was more… political. About thirty years ago, as a matter of self preservation, I stopped talking, listening, reading or even thinking about anything remotely political—until healthcare reform forced itself into my field of view. So, I plugged back into the political milieu and, predictably, I did not like what I saw.

I am worried about our shining city on a hill—the short experiment in human political organization known as the United States of America. The dialectic continues apace but the debate has definitely dumbed down. We now have Olbermann and Maddow on MSNBC versus O’Reilly and Beck on Fox News where once we had Hamilton and Jefferson. I am not saying that our forefathers’ motives were necessarily more altruistic, but it would be true to say that the Hamilton-Jefferson debate elevates while the Beck-Maddow “debate” depresses. Hamilton and Jefferson had their share of lust for power and money. Beck inspires fear in order to boost ratings and the price of gold. Maddow’s on-air craving for approval and popularity with the liberal intelligentsia is palpable. Does that mean we can stop worrying about the current state of American political discourse because it really is just “same old, same old”? I think not. Can we at least get more articulate noise? I must be listening in all the wrong places. For goodness sake, do not tune in CNN and listen to actual speech-making by our elected politicians. It is more depressing than Beck-Maddow.

I can hear the objection: “They are not politicians; they are not even political media; they are in the entertainment business; no one takes them seriously.” That rationalization is in wide circulation as an effort to marginalize Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, etc. It is a patently foolish thing to say. Millions of people listen and are stirred to passion. No other criteria or credentials matter in the face of that fact.

Beck and Maddow seem on such opposite sides of the political spectrum it is easy to forget that they are really two sides of the same coin. Beck and Maddow were both raised Roman Catholic—both on the west coast: he in Washington; she in California. They both entered the national scene after relocating to New England states: he in Connecticut; she in Massachusetts.

Beck is a high school graduate. He was divorced from his first wife amid struggles with substance abuse. He admits to being a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. He cites the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, attending his first AA meeting in November 1994, the month he states he stopped drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis. In 1995, Beck was co-hosting a local four-hour radio morning show in Hamden, Connecticut, billed as the Glenn and Pat Show. During a broadcast of the show, an Asian-American listener called to complain about a comedy skit speaking fake Chinese. Beck made fun of the caller who subsequently contacted a number of human rights organizations. The station manager read an apology on the air and the station issued a written pledge to refrain from offensive activities and instituted cultural sensitivity training for employees. Soon thereafter, while working for a New Haven, Connecticut radio station, Beck was admitted to Yale University through a special program for non-traditional students. One of his recommendations for admittance came from Senator Joe Lieberman. Beck took one theology class, “Early Christology,” and then dropped out. After he remarried, he became a Mormon.

Maddow earned a degree in public policy from Stanford University in 1994. She is a recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship and completed her PhD in politics from Oxford University. Her doctoral thesis was titled “HIV/AIDS and Health Care Reform in British and American Prisons.” She was the first openly gay American to win a Rhodes scholarship. Her first radio hosting job was in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The station held a contest for a new on-air personality and Maddow won.

As I said: two sides of the same coin. Both parlayed their fifteen minutes of fame on local radio stations into a national television audience. Maddow is certainly better educated, or, more accurately, Maddow is educated and Beck is not. To me, that fact only makes Maddow’s on-air rhetoric all the more frustrating. I can almost forgive Beck for being an ignorant buffoon. He is what he is. Maddow should know better.

Here is a synopsis of the dialectic as expressed by Hamilton and Jefferson:

Hamilton: Can a democratic assembly who annually [through elections] revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy. Their turbulent and changing disposition requires checks.

Jefferson: Men are naturally divided into two parties: those who fear and distrust the people and those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe depository of the public interest.

Hamilton: Take mankind in general, they are vicious—their passions may be operated upon. Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by? There may be in every government a few choice spirits, who may act from more worthy motives. One great error is that we suppose mankind more honest than they are. Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest; and it will be the duty of a wise government to avail itself of those passions, in order to make them subservient to the public good.

Jefferson: I have such reliance on the good sense of the body of the people and the honesty of their leaders that I am not afraid of their letting things go wrong to any length in any cause.

Hamilton: I have an indifferent [low] opinion of the honesty of this country, and ill foreboding as to its future system. I said that I was affectionately attached to the republican theory. I add that I have strong hopes for the success of that theory; but in candor, I ought also to add that I am far from being without doubts. I consider its success as yet a problem.

Jefferson: Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights. I am not among those who fear the people. I have great confidence in the common sense of mankind in general. My most earnest wish is to see the republican element of popular control pushed to the maximum of its practicable exercise. I shall then believe that our government may be pure and perpetual.

Hamilton: Your people, sir, is a great beast.

Jefferson: The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

We have been having this debate for over two hundred years. When Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck rely on politics of fear for ratings, power and money, are they conscious of the Hamilton-Jefferson dialectic? The answer is complicated. They subscribe to the superficial view of Hamilton as a proto-liberal, big government Democrat in contrast to Jefferson as a proto-conservative, small government Republican. Yet, power derived from a politics of fear depends on a Hamiltonian view of human nature. Ironic, isn’t it? But then, effete intellectuals tend to find irony in everything.

Irony is interesting—even pleasurable—but it is not an answer to anything, and I can not go to sleep until I tuck some kind of answer in a drawer somewhere in my mind. So, what is really bothering me? We have had civil war and civil unrest but it is the current lack of civility that concerns me most. If I were a weatherman, I would say there’s a storm blowin’ gonna make Katrina feel like a soft, summer shower.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples.

Lear did not have a quiet place to stand. It’s hard to find the eye in the storm with all the screaming and howling.

I was about to say we all need a calm center to make sense of the chaos—otherwise we risk losing our eyes and becoming as blind as King Lear—but then I remembered the man that corrupted Hadleyburg. Mark Twain was a profound moralist about our “get rich quick” culture, not because he stood apart but because he was so susceptible to it. There is no such thing as “the ethical choice” unless made in opposition to a compelling corrupt choice.

The Becks and Maddows are not going to stop shouting at us. The always-on connection to public media through television, internet and cell is not going to fall silent. Maybe we can learn to turn it into a strength.