Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In defense of dissent

OK. I touched some nerves yesterday (well, one anyway). And if you're going to do something like this, you have to expect to generate anger. Or, at least, generate some strong reaction.

That's why you do something like this. You want to get people talking, and -- hopefully -- learn a little bit more about people, what they think, feel, and consider important.

So now, the question is this: What do you do, on the morning after you've elicited a strong reaction out of someone? Do you keep it up? Do you do a followup and lambaste the person who lambasted you?

Sadly, the person who responded to me did it in a private email (I'm not sure the response would have fit within the parameters of whatever response mechanism this board offers), so responding to it here would be pointless. So, absent any context, I'll refrain.

But I do want to say this: Anyone who writes an opinion piece and expects nothing but kudos and eclats ought to stop right now and find some kind of mutual admiration society to belong to. And that goes with anything else too. The louder, and more strident, your opinions, the more likely it is that someone's going to be equally as loud, and strident, right back ... especially if their view of things is diametrically opposed to yours.

As they say, it makes the world go 'round. This world would be awfully boring, indeed, if we all sat around agreeing with each other ... you know, like some kind of a police English tea room where people spend all day nodding at each other, and saying things like, "yes, yes ... quite, quite."

This dovetails nicely with a letter I read in today's Boston Globe (yes, that Communist paper that a friend of mine used to refer to as "Pravda") that responded to a column a week or so ago about the Tea Partiers.

The column likened the Tea Partiers to terrorists. I remember reading it and disagreeing with the author. They may be a nuisance, but they're only doing what a lot of us did -- both in the 60s and a few years ago -- to protest wars. They're gathering -- usually peacefully -- to protest something they think is wrong.

It doesn't matter whether you agree with them (and I don't), and it doesn't matter whether their interpretation of the issue differs radically from yours (as it does with me). What matters is that they have the opportunity -- or, more to the point, the forum -- to do it.

People near to hear dissent. I generally like Barack Obama, but he's not above hearing from people who think he's going the wrong way ... and neither were his predecessors.

Presidents tend to be insulated, of course. And in some ways, and especially in this environment, that's a good thing. As much as I didn't like George Bush's agenda (though I never actually thought he was a bad guy ... just ill-advised), I didn't wish him harm. And I certainly understood, again, given the direction he chose to go, that he required maximum insulation and protection.

But while that protection and insulation is necessary to protect the president from the wackos who'd shoot him down in a second (and believe me, no matter who the president is, there are wackos from every stripe who'd do this), such cocooning can be detrimental too. If you surround yourself with nothing but people you pay to do your bidding, you can develop an awfully warped sense of your administration's impact on people.

I wonder, sometimes, if George W. had let a few anti-war people into the inner sanctum (other than Colin Powell, I mean) whether we'd have gone ahead and invaded Iraq. And I wonder, sometimes, whether Obama would have tread a little more lightly with regards to health care had he gone to a couple of Tea Party rallies and listened to the objections people had about it.

Now, right here let's get one thing straight. I, personally, thought a lot of those objections were off the mark -- especially all this stuff about death panels. But it doesn't matter whether they're off the mark.

It's like the old expression about being "dead right." One of the very favorite things I said to my son, all while he was growing up, was that being right wasn't enough. Situations that result in disputes don't end because someone's "right." Most of the time, the person who's "right" ends up doing a piss-poor job communicating his "rightness," and ends up making the situation worse, not better.

So, I'd say to him, "so you're right. Big deal."

I kind of feel the same way about the health care debate. I'm pretty sure that there was a lot of misinformation spread around both ways ... pro and con. It got so bad that you really didn't know who was telling you the straight story, who was embellishing aspects of it -- taken totally out of context -- to push his own agenda, and who was leaving vital information out of the debate for the purposes of painting a distorted picture.

As a result, those who thought they were "right," regardless of what they thought they were "right" about, really didn't go far enough. If you're right, and half the country thinks you're wrong, what good does it do? You can't simply fold your arms, say, "I'm right," and walk away.

Even if the Democrats -- and Obama -- were right to do this, they were wrong not to measure the anger and apprehension of the American people and deal with that as its own issue. Because it was its own issue.

And the trick was to work toward diffusing that anger, even if it took a little longer to accomplish than they'd have liked. Obama has said, many times, that he considered this health care plan vital because of the amount of time Ted Kennedy put into it. And considering how important Teddy was to Obama getting elected -- especially early on when he stuck his neck out to endorse him (risking a political schism from his friends, the Clintons), perhaps the president felt he owed it to his first credible sponsor to see this through.

That, of course, is a noble endeavor. But (and I hate to sound irreverent), Ted Kennedy's going to be in that ground for an awfully long time. And as much as I agree with the whole idea of health care reform, I'd have liked it a hell of a lot better had this happened without all the rancor -- even if it meant waiting a little longer.

Of course, with dissent comes responsibility. I've always thought that if you're going to protest, you'd better have cogent arguments for your positions. I think, for example, those who felt leery about health care based on the cost, or based on any worries that their individual situations were going to change, probably had a legitimate reason to be out there. Yes, it is going to be costly. And even though there's nothing in the bill that claims the government is going to be directly in the business of dispensing medicine, every action has its own unintended consequences.

But those who were out there because they were worried about "death panels," well, I'm sorry. I part company with you. There needs to be a distinction, when it comes to dissent, between arguing over something that would appear to be a legitimate concern, and throwing shit up against the wall and hoping it sticks. And while it may not be illegal to do that, and while we all have our right to do it, it's certainly irresponsible.

Still, with all that said, dissent is a very necessary component of what makes this country special. And as unpleasant as it may seem at times (and inconvenient, and downright nasty as well), it has value. I have always, for example, been of the belief that if you hold an opinion, and you're trying to force that opinion through the legislative process, then you should be able to defend it and show people why your way should prevail. If you can't do that, then you deserve to lose.

(As an aside, I also think that Catholics who consistently whine about how mean people are when it comes to reporting about the church should man up too. Catholicism is no different than any other doctrine. If you believe that strongly in it, then you should be strong enough to withstand the criticism of those who oppose it.)

And that includes diffusing misinformation, because there hasn't ever been an issue in this country's history that wasn't muddled by some kind of misinformation, or misinterpretation. People are people. Often, they're not going to get the whole story, whether it's because they don't want to, or because they'd prefer to ignore the parts of the story that don't jibe with what they think, or because the whole story just isn't available.

If issues come up, and people express concerns, then those concerns need to be addressed.

Finally, dissent is patriotic -- provided those dissenting are honest about it. Otherwise, it is a huge impediment to the process.

It is patriotic, for example, to take the view that a health care bill, or a corporate bailout, could be a costly endeavor, and that there isn't enough oversight in Washington to ensure that things don't spiral out of control. It is not patriotic to simply make stuff up for the sole purposes of muddying the waters.

And all I hope is that people who speak up in protest of what our government does remember that.

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