On The State Of Civil Society

Several years ago as an undergraduate, I wrote an essay about the importance of an educated, informed, and engaged civil society to the function of a democratic government. The right to vote, I argued, was worthless to those who failed to take an interest in the issues of the day and actually engage in the process.

I get the impression that my supposition is largely proven by watching what has happened in recent years in several societies, but the United States and to a lesser extent Canada provide ample evidence. The implications of the decay of civil society are somewhat horrifying.

No clearer insight can be provided than last weekend’s events in Tucson, Arizona. Regardless of what actually motivated the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, to commit the terrible act he did, the various responses are what I want to look at. They are what is most important to consider.

I was late to see what happened, as I was out of the country and without access to the internet or TV one becomes understandably disoriented. I didn’t learn of the murders of six people and wounding of several more until a couple of days later and the blogs and media were already afire about the roll of things like rhetoric, talk radio, and whatever else in motivating the incident. Even the local sheriff made some probably hasty pronouncements but I have to think that they were apt.

There are, I submit, two main problems that are happening. The first is that what debate we have has degenerated in quality substantially because despite the availability of information to all, the impact of “spin” is severe. One cannot help but notice that while watching debates all too often the discussion becomes completely divorced from actual reality. You need only look at things like “death panels” to see this. And the only rational explanation I can make is that this is largely a product of the highly effective agitprop machine that serves the right primarily.

Talk radio has long been the domain of the right particularly it seems. It’s never really been a feature of the landscape in Canada, at least not with such polemic personalities so I didn’t really have much exposure to the concept until I started university and getting more interested in politics of our neighbours to the south. The first shining example of what it represented was a troll on a forum site I used, a “dittohead” or “unthinking Rush Limbaugh drone” as you might better describe it. I didn’t totally understand the concept other than by trying to research Rush a bit and realizing that beyond talking points this individual had no actual understanding of the issues about which he was so passionate.

It is in relatively recent times with the emergence of agitprop machines like Fox News that the quality of civil discourse has really degraded, and I would suggest that this is in a large part because Fox created a much larger audience for its message than talk radio knobs could ever dream of. It makes the presentation of opinion and misrepresentation of fact seem like genuine news to the point that the average Fox News viewer truly doesn’t realize that they are being fed highly spun nonsense. Add in the laughable “fair and balanced” tagline and they really are hooked.

We’ve seen this happen again and again, in the debate on climate change, in the debate on healthcare reform, on the economic situation in America. Remember when all of the sudden the term “homicide bombers” appeared? That laughable revision of the more conventional “suicide bombers” term was a product of Fox editorial policy if I remember correctly.

Fox ushered the right wing blowhard set onto TV screens – the Bill O’Reilly types that consider shouting down an opponent to be an acceptable victory condition in a debate. They brought us the incredibly delusional Glenn Beck and have made the confused historical revisionism he spouts a part of national discourse.

I don’t question Beck’s patriotism. I don’t question his desire to be successful, and in fact I must admit a measure of respect for someone being so forthright about his challenges, struggling with alcoholism, drug use, and what must have been a very difficult childhood. The issue is that he has introduced into political dialogue a number of ridiculous and poisonous ideas and historical revisionism that are not in any way improving the quality of discourse within civil society.

What we have come to is a point where an increasingly ignorant populace is debating ideas increasingly distant from reality or any productive purpose. We are seeing corporate interests primarily shaping discourse to suit their interests with a very powerful machine doing so.

The second, perhaps more disturbing problem is related to the first one. It is the disturbing tone that a lot of political rhetoric has taken in recent times – a shift from discussing issues to making wild accusations about one’s ideological opponent. This trend seems to create a vicious circle, a swirling of the drain – and it impedes the ability to discuss any issue in a productive way.

Ad hominem is nothing new to politics – but generally the attacks have historically been relatively benign and easily dismissed. In recent times they have gotten more pronounced, and the more dark attacks have moved from the fringes to the mainstream sources of opinion. The candidacy of Barack Obama – first as a primary candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for President and then as a general election candidate for example dragged out all sorts of racism, and blame can be applied everywhere. It was fellow Democrats who started the meme of using his middle name, without comment of course, to stir up a racist or anti-Islamic sentiment (the latter became laughable when debate moves to the opinions of the guy in charge of Obama’s church). The problem is that when attacks replace discussion of issues – when campaigns “go negative”, we start to lose that necessary precondition of functioning democracy.

In Canada recently, opposition parties came up with an idea to form a coalition which would have allowed them to oust Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper from power and allow the Liberal Party of Canada to resume governing. Rather than offer any justification about why he should remain in office, Harper and his party simply attacked the coalition as some sort of unholy alliance because it included the Québec separatist Bloc Québecois Party and the social democratic New Democratic Party. The rhetoric was made to suggest that what they were doing was somehow “wrong”, notwithstanding the fact that it was completely within the realms of parliamentary tradition and the Constitution to do so. In the end the Conservatives made use of an obscure procedure to stave off the vote that would have toppled them. A move arguably far less democratic.

This sort of thing has been amplified though to the south of my home in Canada, particularly in the run up to and aftermath of the midterm elections in the United States. The emergence of the populist “Tea Party” movement has seemed to be a catalyst for a lot of disturbing rhetoric in the USA. As much as they have denied it there is an apparent fantasy with disposing of a legitimate, democratically elected government. We saw this emerge with the birthed movement, with the guns at town halls, and with the emergence of disturbing allusions to violence in campaign rhetoric.

Despite the vociferous claims from those talking heads on the right, they are a part of the problem. Already one attempted murder case is turning on slanderous claims about the Tides Foundation made by Glenn Beck. We had nutty candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada talking about “Second Amendment remedies” and “taking out” her opponent. There has been a suggestion that such rhetoric might have inspired the vile act in Tucson last weekend. I don’t know that that is the actual case, but nevertheless it is worth talking about the potential impact.

Words matter. They have consequences. And there is to me no clearer evidence that the right knows this too than their efforts to claim that isn’t the case. Sarah Palin’s desperate and pathetic video plea, idiotic terminology aside, illustrates to me an effort to claim what everyone knows is nonsense. I don’t think that anyone is going to claim that Jared Lee Loughner was doing Palin’s bidding, but it is not a stretch to suggest the possibility that particularly in the minds of someone unhinged words can fan flames.

Does this mean that all speech must be ridiculously politically correct? No. The use of metaphor as rhetorical device is nothing new in political discourse. “Setting sights” on opponents, coming into a campaign “loaded for bear”, things like that are clearly figures of speech and are not the problem. What is a problem is when the discourse is first charged with lies that turn an ideological opponent into some sort of existential threat to civilization, and then figures in that discourse need only imply that drastic measures might be necessary. Beck didn’t need to tell Bryon Williams that he should go murder people at the Tides Foundation, nor suggest to the morons who comment on his website The Blaze that shooting Frances Fox Piven would somehow save the republic. He merely needs to imply it. Letting the punters do as they will, he must figure, absolves him of responsibility.

What then is the solution? I submit that there is enough to debate in the realm of ideas on how to run a country or any other political entity that we need not deal with misrepresentations, distortions, or outright lies. I think media has grievously failed us in this respect, and a clear solution isn’t simple other than to make efforts to engage as many people as possible with reality, truth, and facts.

Further though, the call to action is simple. Speak the truth. Treat even those whose ideas you might despise with a modicum of respect, and discuss ideas not people. Recognize that the system we use to decide the course of our politics is the ballot, and fantasies about armed revolt are not part of that process. Ever. Lastly, accept that words matter ad own what you say.

Perhaps these ideas seem pedantic or simple but I think they are lacking and somewhere to start.


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