Sunday, September 21, 2008

Of political sniping and palatial stadiums.

Looking over what's transpired on SHAMblog this past week, it's hard not to see it as a sad microcosm of the problem confronting today's America: the utter polarization of viewpoints and the inability (or unwillingness) to talk to one another in productive ways. And let's be fair here: Though we can all point fingers and talk about who started what, in the end, every one of us indulged. We all found the lowest common denominator.

But again, this isn't really about
SHAMblog; I wish it were. You see the same thing on Hannity and Colmes. You see it once or twice a week now on the spirited and famously acerbic political panel discussions hosted by a grinning Larry King as a form of blood-sport. As I write this, you can see it on the Sunday-morning talk showsvenerable, intelligent shows like Face the Nation, Meet the Press and This Week. You see it daily on The View. I like Elizabeth Hasselbeck and I think she serves a vital role as a counterweight to the others; without her, the show would deteriorate into a tiresome ersatz meeting of the People for the American Way. But I swear, if John McCain went out tomorrow and raped three young female campaign workers and set their bodies ablaze, Hasselbeck would defend it as part of McCain's personal crusade to find and test alternative fuels.

Worst of all, you see this in Congress and on the campaign trail. The Republicans act as if any idea that emerges from a Democratic mouth is, by definition, foolhardy and offensive. The reverse is also true, of course. Increasingly, too, politicians attack not only the spoken idea, but the motives, intelligence and even the moral character of the
person who spoke it. The resulting pettiness and negativity, the fanatical drive to make hay out of even the most innocuous statements, can be hard to believe. Let one of the candidates mention in passing that he likes apple pie, and within 24 hours the other candidate will whip up an ad in which he argues that apple pie is sending American jobs to China.

The saddest and scariest part of this is that today's rules of political engagement behoove each side to reserve its ugliest tactics and strongest counterattacks for the programs that stand to do the most good. If the Democrats think the GOP has actually come up with something that might benefit America, they'll work that much harder to undo it or derail it (even if it's a non-partisan issue where both sides more or less agree in principle). They'll bloviate and filibuster and generally be as obstructionist as humanly possible. Both parties do this because they can't let the other guy have a plum achievement to point to in the next election season. And how tragic is that?

And so my question on this glorious first Sunday in fall: How do we rise above
all this? How do we open up a useful and, yes, hopeful dialogue amid today's "gotcha" thinking? And please don't tell me that the answer is for Democrats to wake up and realize that they're being Pollyannaish naifs, or for Republicans to admit that they're venal narcissists. That doesn't help.


As regulars know by now, I'm a sentimentalist. I tear up not only at weddings and funerals, but also at dog shows and motions-to-dismiss. I'm sure that tonight I'll be wiping away tear or two (dozen) during the ceremonies honoring The Last Game at Yankee Stadium.


Is there not something slightly silly about all this, when you consider that they're moving right next door? And that the Steinbrenner family's new showplace is called
drum roll please!Yankee Stadium? And that many of the most revered touches of the old Stadium (like its monuments) will simply be carted over to the new one?

I dunno. I guess I'm just among the many fans who feel that they should've remodeled the Stadium again, as they did in the ea
rly 70s. Yankee Stadium, along with Wrigley Field and Fenway... Those are mythic places to true fanshallowed groundand should be left alone. It's not like the Yanks weren't drawing. And now, of course, seat prices will go up again to help defray the new Stadium's $1.3 billion price tag. And baseballwhich once stood alone as Everyman's sportmoves a little bit farther along on its journey to becoming just another elitist "entertainment experience." Some call it progress.


ellen said...

I think there is a theme to most of your recent posts, Steve, and that is competition. Competition is the backbone of the free market, the quality that built the USA into an economic powerhouse and the element that is relied on in a two party democratic system to provide the necessary check and balances.
When we are teenagers and young adults competition is all important, grow up a bit, take some knocks in the world and we start looking for a different way to relate to those around us. The competitiveness gets muted in favour of learning a different perspective.
This hasn't happened yet in the western business world, political sphere and a whole lot of cultural and social situations.
Competition makes for a far too entertaining spectacle, the fight to the death is compulsive viewing--dog fights, badger baiting, cock fights, bare knuckle boxing, extreme cage fighting all have huge pull.
The problem with competition is that to win you have to constantly 'up the ante' and I think we are seeing the results of that now.
All civilisations decline, i think the western civilisation is beginning to eat itself.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, as you know, negative comments about a political opponent have bounced back & forth as long as there have been political opponents. The current wave of absurd personal attacks, however, really began during the Clinton administration, with a Republican party which found itself unable to derail the president via the usual political process, and was left to grasp for any weapon available. The phenomenon was elevated to high art with the machinations of Karl Rove in his attempts to salvage the presidency for George W Bush.

In the wake of the Swift Boat approach to character assassination, the Democrats ultimately recognized that in order to survive, they had to play to the lowest common denominator of the voting public, who had swallowed the Swift Boat attacks, while the Democratic candidate chose not to enter such a negative fray.

So how do we emerge from such a downward spiral in civility? I think the only way is for all voters to truly educate themselves as to what candidates actually stand for, as opposed to what they posture about. Unfortunately, it would appear that far too many citizens are too lazy to put forth such effort, and remain satisfied to drink whatever brand of kool-aid their preferred candidate/party serves up.

My own belief is that, depending upon how the November elections play out, the public will either finally see that government can function well in spite of the negative antics and abandon those tactics, or they'll be confronted with the reality of what their lack of effort has delivered to them.

There will always be obnoxious individuals who live for the chance to make themselves feel bigger by attempting to make others feel small, and there will always be people who refuse to tolerate such behavior. Hopefully, the most obnoxious will find their audience dwindling rapidly, and they will be left to "witness" in an ever-diminishing cocoon of their own irrelevance.

Dimension Skipper said...

"And so my question on this glorious first Sunday in fall: How do we rise above all this? How do we open up a useful and, yes, hopeful dialogue amid today's "gotcha" thinking?"

Steve, I've recently come to a personal conclusion on this matter, but before I get to it let me say that I'm not a Democrat or a Republican, but an independent voter so maybe that somehow makes my conclusion a little easier for me to reach. I don't know.

You've pointed out yourself how person A will accuse the person B of some lowdown, sneaky, underhanded, dirty, rotten, tricks and then barely pursuant to the "but" inflicts the opposite in polarity (though equal or even more stridently vehement) counterpart. It's all just high-falutin' "Am not!", "Are too!", "He started it!" thinking.

I try very hard to avoid that (but I guess lots of folks say that, don't they?). Rather than return verbal counterpunches (assuming I disagree on a point) I've tried lately (in another venue) only to point out (with non-confronational neutral wording) when I perceive that that's what's going on in the overall discussion. It's not to say "You're wrong," but simply to try to illustrate how antagonism begets antagonism, arrogance begets arrogance, hate begets hate, etc. You may be right, you may be wrong, but regardless, how can "real change" arise out of such an attitude of verbal preemptive strike? If I want a reasonable response and real consideration, then I feel I have a responsibility to start the ball rolling that way in any discussions and try even harder to keep it on track without using language which, honestly and deep down, I know will only inflame.

Of course, I'm sure much of that inflammation is often somewhat by design, though not necessarily on an entirely conscious level. I believe that many people phrase things a certain way possibly because they really want to elicit a certain kind of response for which they already have a counter argument (and escalation?) at the ready. It's like chess players thinking three moves ahead, but more of a spectacle.

However, as part of my recent conclusion (which is perhaps only right for ME, mind you) I just feel that if anyone is really and truly serious about wanting change and working towards the good of the masses in general, then one has a moral obligation not so much to call on others to change, but to try so very, very hard to make their own actions and word choices reflect the ideals they supposedly espouse.

God knows, our political leaders don't seem to be really capable of this (on either side of the aisle), so maybe a grass roots from the "I" up movement will somehow accomplish something and our "leaders" may eventually become "the led" in coming to such an attitude.

I mean, some clever zingers and sound bites can be momemtarily satifying, even funny, but it's getting to the point where, to quote Merle Haggard: "Things aren't funny anymore."

My conclusion, if you haven't inferred it by now is this:

I can only do what >>I<< can do.

There you have it. Essentially it means careful consideration and personal responsibility in how one presents one's viewpoints, in how I present MY viewpoints. Don't call on OTHERS to change, but simply BE the change. (Is that too New Age-y? LOL!)

Yes, I'm naive. Yes, I'm an idealist. But I have the audacity of hope that maybe someday a large majority of people will really be able to truly put country first and recognize petty bickering for what it is. Do we have to wait for the next major physical assult on our country to band together? I hope not, but I don't know. I'm like Mulder... I want to believe. Please, both sides (!), give me a good reason to believe.

Also, I want to say that I try to seriously consider and re-consider my positions on issues when presented with new information, even if antagonistically presented. I don't want to just change my views whenever the political wind shifts, but on the other hand if my views seem to be becoming outdated and new circumstances warrant a shift of thinking, I don't want to be so entrenched, so rooted in ideology that I can't move towards something potentially better. If my views don't stand up to serious consideration of counter arguments, well, then maybe my opinions weren't all that worthy to begin with.

I don't want or need to convince anybody I'm right and you're wrong. I want to continue to trying to figure out if I'm right even in my own mind! If I happen to convince anyone else I'm right about something, well, that's just a side effect, not a goal for me.

P.S. That's about as confrontational as I hope to ever get, if anyone considers expressing my own general opinion "confrontational." You and your commenters can make of all this what you will (or ignore it as you see fit).

P.P.S. I particularly liked what you said in one of your most recent comments on the "inexperience" thread about the general nature of political "debate" these days. So much so that I even quoted you on another board where, in this past week prior to your comment, I'd been putting forth essentially the same argument for trying to convince people that it's worth toning down some of the accusations and language a bit if there's to be any chance of ever accomplishing anything. Plus, arguments made in an overly confrontational and arrogantly worded way probably don't help to win anybody to your professed cause.

You just presented it all much better and more succinctly than I tend to present things (to wit, this comment). So consider this (for what it's worth) a non-denominational generic "Amen, brother."

1minionsopinion said...

I get a laugh over CBC's Canada Votes coverage. The major headline on the site today is, "Tories announced $8.8B in spending before election call" in a large font. In a somewhat smaller font, "But less than the Liberals in previous election"

So, the Conservatives wind up coming across like, "We're not as bad as the other guys, so vote us in again."

Silly business.

Elizabeth said...

if John McCain went out tomorrow and raped three young female campaign workers and set their bodies ablaze, Hasselbeck would defend it as part of McCain's personal crusade to find and test alternative fuels.

Damn right I will! Our energy needs are an important concern for John McCain. That's why he chose for his running mate Gov. Palin who is such an expert in energy matters.

Besides, the campaign workers started it -- nay, they begged for it. And, anyway, they were Democratic operatives and the fuel canisters had donkeys painted all over them. Don't believe it? See for yourself (insert pic here).

As to the rumors about Dick Cheney eating babies, they too are part of a Democratic conspiracy. But even if they weren't, babies are a good source of organic protein and the world is overpopulated anyway.

Sincerely yours,
Elizabeth (Hasselbeck).

RevRon's Rants said...

I used to enjoy going to baseball games, back when the Colt 45's used to play in Colt Stadium, and decent seats cost a couple of bucks. When the Colts became the Astros and moved into the "eighth wonder of the world," the magic just went away and the prices went up. Nowadays, a family outing to a game in Minute Maid Park will set them back well over $100, and the old magic still isn't there.

It's been a long time since I've been to Yankee Stadium... During the summer of '64, while attending the World's Fair, as a matter of fact. I can't help but wonder if the new park will do for New York's sports fans what the Astrodome did for so many of Houston's, myself included.

Steve Salerno said...

DS: I wish that my reply could do justice to your comment, but I'm afraid I can't. Thank you for taking the time. I would only suggest it as "required reading" for anyone who desires to wade into these waters.

1minion: I love the handle. It's wonderful: 1minionsopinion. Brilliant. It evokes Dr. Seuss, Jabberwocky and Oscar Wilde, all at once!

Ron: "Casual fan-ery" has been gone for a long time, except for those rare parks that set aside a thousand or so (awful) seats for just a few bucks (thereby showing their "civic spirit"). The privilege of watching a game from a part of the park where you'd be proud to take, say, a date, or your son for his first ball game, is becoming just that: a privilege. Sure, you can obsessively patrol eBay or StubHub and maybe catch a break now and then, but in the overall, the pricing on seats at these new-generation parks has in effect become a bidding war where the little guy is priced out of the equation; he can't make the ante. Not only that, but the huge sums that some major teams have been able to wrest from outlets who wish to broadcast their games has severely taxed the firms who win those rights, thus helping put "enhanced cable serivces" out of reach of many consumers as well. My local cable outlet, e.g., just made the Phillies hi-def broadcast part of its "premium package"--this, in late-season, as the Phillies make their playoff run--hoping to squeeze even a few more dollars out of me when I already pay $160 a month. That includes the cable-modem and such, but still. To watch TV. To watch TV. It's insane.

ellen said...

I find myself in agreement with Dimension Skipper. At a certain level of disillusion you start to look beyond the labels and see that all these people defending their positions are acting from a similar impulse: 'How do I get what want?'
I decided a long while back to be non-aligned, an independent, to take personal responsibility for myself and my actions.
I too had the idealistic hope that it would somehow influence others to do the same, that a grass-roots change was possible but in practice it doesn't translate.
In fact it became clear to me that this was an aloof and arrogant stance, a stance that presupposed in myself an ability to be above the common herd, to transcend my human nature. Supreme arrogance, was my conclusion.
So I looked at my human nature, it's still there in all it's raw ugliness, wild-eyed and red-fanged, with only one driving thought 'How do I get what I want?'
No amount of education or right thinking can touch that and when I look around at others I see the same, a thin veneer of civilisation coating an animal nature, human animal nature.
So I have no great hopes for change in the next millenium or so.
I've decided, in fact, that given that me and my animal human nature are in it together for the long haul, we should start getting along a bit better--maybe it knows better than me sometimes. I've already found that logic has a natural end point, maybe the influence of the intellect has too.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I appreciate what you're saying about threats, though I think they are often if not typically empty, especially when made online. Still, I think you were wrong to end commenting on that controversial post. A blog shouldn't just be a sterile list of ideas devoid of personality. It is a forum for interaction between real people. New understandings often come out of conflict, and besides one of the reasons many of us visit blogs is to experience people and ideas in a more unfiltered form than we get in the workplace or even families, where we all have appearances to keep and stereotypical roles to fill. Anyway that's how I see it.

Anonymous said...

Rumor has it Hasselbeck is leaving the View, because she is tired of being up against Bayer (sp) and Goldberg. I don't think Hasselbeck knows enough about politics to really discuss them. I think this infeority makes her so defensive and cling to her position about McCain. To be frank, I seriously doubt Hasselbeck knows too much and what she does know she is not too sure of. She was right about black men having the right to vote (15th amendment)before women (19th Amendment)and Goldberg slapped her down with a belittling comment. Black men had the right to vote before women in the United States. Whoopi should read up on her American history. Love to see Condi Rice against Goldberg.

I miss Viera and even Debbie Mateopolis (sp) who were the original View crew. Debbie was a vacant twit and Viera was objective. After O'Donnell the producers wanted the spice to be kept and Goldberg was in. Polarlization is spicy for ratings. Keep them at each other's throats. Civility is boring on television.

I read another blog and Condi Rice was mentioned as a better choice than Pahlin. Rice would have been able to handle Charles Gibson and no one could question her intelligence or international experience. She would have known what the Bush doctrine was/is too. Unfortunately, she has been tainted by Bush II.

Well, I agree with dimension skipper about why we cannot really listen to each other to a degree. I am an Independent too. I can never make a decision without really listening to everything. I work very hard on being open to another viewpoint. I think people have a hard time with that. Pride goeth before the fall. Heaven help us if anyone should be wrong.

It goes back to the the whole "be yourself" argument that comes up so much on this blog. If you do know yourself, listening to another point of view may upset you, but you can still listen. Actually, when something I hear upsets me, I listen even more closely. I ask myself "why does this upset me?" Why did this strike a cord within me?

Also, people care how they look to others. How many mirrors can one have? Do I look stupid? Do I look educated? Do I know what I am talking about? The list goes on. People spend a lot of time on their images. Too bad they do not spend as much time on what is going on under the surface.

RevRon's Rants said...

A threat is, in its essence, a form of surrender. It is a statement that one has nothing left with which to engage, and hopes to intimidate the opponent into capitulating. In the dojo (as well as a few street situations), when an opponent threatened me, I knew that I had beaten them. They knew it, as well. The danger arises from their desperation, because that is the point at which a person begins to grasp for a weapon they believe will give them the advantage they no longer possess. The only difference between debate and actual physical conflict is the type of "weapon" used, and the potential physical ramifications.

While I completely agree with dimension skipper in theory, I must also agree with ellen. We aspire to maintain a sense of equilibrium in our exchanges, but as human beings, there are going to be times where another's words or actions are so repulsive to us that we find ourselves responding aggressively. Each of us has a different flash point, but once that point is reached, we respond. Not according to our highest aspirations, perhaps, but we do respond. *How* we respond is a reflection upon our level of intelligence, degree of impulse control, and our social skills. Calling someone a name is the lazy person's approach; detailing the ways that person is deserving of the pejorative without actually calling them the derogatory name is a more subtle dance. And yes, it is frequently done to inflame, rather than to convince. We each "fight" in our own ways. Perhaps someday, we won't be susceptible to the taunts that and offensive behavior, but we obviously aren't there yet.

Chad Hogg said...

How do we get beyond this? The two-party system is what encourages it. If we had a multiplicity of viable parties that actually represented a variety of meaningful viewpoints, candidates would actually need to focus on the issues. Moreover, personal attacks would be much less useful if candidates were running against half a dozen serious challengers instead of 1.

The major parties ruin people. I really liked John McCain the senator from Arizona. I can't stand John McCain the Republican presidential candidate. I still like Barack Obama, but not nearly as much as I did before the DNC corrupted him. Since winning the primaries his ads have become less and less about the issues, he has renounced his promise to use public financing, etc.

The Republicrats and Demopublicans may be at each other's throats constantly, but they know they have a pretty sweet system. If you don't rock the boat too much you can count on the presidency and control of congress roughly half of the time, continue raking in donations from big business, unions, etc, and keep the populace caring more about your petty squabbles than the things that matter. If they tried to debate the issues, people might actually realize that their platforms are built primarily on demagoguery.

I had great hopes for Unity 08, but am not terribly surprised that it failed. There are very powerful political forces working as hard as they can to prevent that sort of thing from succeeding.

Regarding the rising cost of being a sports fan, I am just glad that my sport of choice (football) is popular enough that local-market games are always on network television. I doubt I'll ever consider attending a game to be financially worthwhile, but at least I and the rest of the common folk can watch from our homes.

Elizabeth said...

All good points (on American politics), Chadd. The party polarization and the lack of a real debate on issues which results from it (and from the competition Ellen describes, heightened by the polarization) does not serve Americans well. But it does serve powers-that-be in some very excellent ways -- such as making it possible to strip, practically unopposed, the country's budget, already deep in the red, of a trillion dollars to rescue a bunch of greedy bankers and their failed enterprises. This is no socialism. The "f" word more closely describes the usurpation of power in all branches of the government and other developments that we are witnessing during this administration. (F as in fascism. If you think it's far-fetched, see what defines fascism (from Wiki): "the following elements are usually seen as its integral parts: nationalism, militarism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, class collaboration, populism, collectivism, statism, social interventionism, and economic planning."

Dimension Skipper said...

I found this article by Amy Sullivan for TIME to be of some interest...

Truth in Advertising? Not for Political Ads

Yeah, I know it doesn't say anything that most people (I hope) don't already know to be true about such ads. Still, I can't help ruing it all as just a sad state of affairs. I think it's reasonable to assume that the points made can be extrapolated and applied to campaign claims and rhetoric in general.

I was very glad, however, to see an actual quantification of the true/false ratio of claims made by both sides in their ads. Again I suspect that the ratio probably holds true for general spoken claims on the campaign trail as well, but I have no proof of that. Here's the relevant quote:

" is the fact-checking enterprise of the St. Petersburg Times, and it tracks the veracity of presidential campaign statements and advertisements. As of late September, with the two candidates virtually tied, Obama's mostly true to mostly false tally was 65 to 33, while McCain's was 47 to 51."

I honestly don't see why political ads can't or shouldn't be subject to some sort of indpendent scrutiny before making it to air. Some ads would never see the light of day, others would change drastically.

I think it would be a substantial coup if one candidate someday would voluntarily submit all commercials (or even just scripts) to and BEFORE airing to assure factual accuracy, changing or rewording any claims deemed to be misleading. My bet is that such claims would likely not even be made if such a pre-air vetting procedure were in place.

The article also points out:

"As candidates know, a far greater percentage of voters hear the original lie in a campaign ad than ever read about the fact-checked version in a local paper or website like or And even if voters do hear the refutation of an ad's claims, studies show that may not alter their perceptions created by the original ad."


Steve Salerno said...

DS, you've got my vote (for the independent panel that approves campaign ads). Can't imagine it would ever happen, on a governmental basis. (The Campaign Ad Authority?) And I don't think any civilian-led initiatives would fly; they'd be subject to constant accusations of partisanship (and possibly guilty of them, too, with the constant sub rosa influence-peddling that goes on in D.C.), which would only open up a new can of gigantic worms. Still, it's been an idle fantasy of mine for some time now.

Dimension Skipper said...

I'm sure you're right, Steve, and I had many of the same thoughts with re to unavoidable accusations of partisanship.

Still, the way things are now just falls under that age-old general heading of "There's got to be a better way!" Candidates/campaigns are allowed to say whatever they want without regard to any sort of objective truth and broadcasters are legally bound to air it all?! And it's up to the media, independent fact checkers, and general citizens to sort it all out only after the presentation, a presentation that's knowingly designed and pre-packaged to begin with?! That's just messed up, there's no other (more polite) way to phrase it.

Maybe if one candidate would, as I say, voluntarily pledge to pre-submit his ads to such organizations (note the plural to help allay partisanship fears) and accept their recommendations for changes (if any) that would go a long way toward legitimizing it. A candidate who did that might even win my vote right then and there (assuming he followed through on the pledge). It might even shame other candidates into doing the same and before you know it you got an actual procedural campaign tradition on your hands.

Then instead of just "I'm Jorack McBama and I approve this message" they could also tag it as "Informational content independently fact-checked and verified by and" It'd be like getting a stamp of approval from the American Heart Association.

It's often repeated how it's unlawful for someone to falsely shout "FIRE!" in a crowded venue, thereby inciting a potentially harmful panic. I don't see how making known false claims in political ads is all that different in principle. Even Obama's true/false ratio of 65/33 for his ad claims is extremely sad imo. It just seems like there ought to be something that could be done, but what?

Alas, though, like you I very seriously doubt any such oversight procedure will ever come close to being implemented. Idle fantasy indeed.

Dimension Skipper said...

An afterthought...

Wouldn't it be substantially better or at least somewhat acceptable to put up with claims of partisanship toward such independent oversight of ads? As opposed to the reality of what we have to put up with now which is so many false or dubious claims being made as to just muddy the waters completely, leaving many folks simply not knowing what to believe, if anything?

Let's try a baseball analogy... The home plate umpire is often accused of favoring one team or another by the way he's calling balls and strikes. Fans of both teams accuse him of favoring the other. Is the answer to simply not have a home plate umpire and let the two teams figure out how to call balls and strikes? No, the umpire is there for a reason. He may not be perfect and he may be accused by fans and even the managers of favoritism, but it's still better than having a bench clearing brawl and chaos with every pitch.

So isn't it better to try to fix something that is obviously broken rather than simply shrug and accept that that's just the way it is?

Unfortunately, though, I don't see how any such campaign ad reform procedures could ever make it beyond the most preliminary proposal stage.

Elizabeth said...

Somewhat on the topic:

McCain's Economic Plan: Blurt Out Random Crap

...and do lots of blatant political posturing, let's add. (Skip the debate -- to save the economy?? Just when you thought Palin-Whatshisname cannot be any more insulting to your intelligence, they still manage to surprise. Astonishing, truly, madly so.)