Friday, August 1, 2008

Democracy and Violent Rhetoric

Yesterday evening Jeffrey Feldman, author of "Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy" gave an excellent talk promoting his views and book.

Early in his talk he brought up a tragic incident in Tennesee where a man killed a few people in a Unitarian-Universalist church. Right wing pundits first characterized the attack as an attack on Christianity. Then the real story came out. He was a violent right winger -- somewhat mentally unbalanced -- who hated U-U because it was too left wing. Hmm. I know at least four U-U members. They are all rather intelligent, and tend to be friendly. Normal people -- even conservatives that I know -- respect and like these people.

Feldman says we need civil arguments -- ones in which all participants try to listen to each other and treat each other with respect. Small groups seem to favor such discussions. I will say it is easier to learn from each other and have civil, even friendly, discussions in small groups. He states, quite correctly, that people who engage in violent rhetoric that demeans others frustrate, even end, the kind of discussion we need for a healthy, free, democratic society.

After the talk I raised a question about reasonable, responsible conservatives. I know more than a few via professional and social connections. The way I raised the question was by citing a forum in the National Review titled The War on Drugs is Lost. I mentioned that I have long opposed the war on drugs and welcomed this forum. The National Review people even included at least one liberal Democrat, Kurt Schmoke, then mayor of Baltimore. Other people represented a variety of viewpoints. To me, this forum seems responsible and free of the violent rhetoric that Feldman condemns. The forum even got me to occasionally glance at NRO for a few years. Some of the pieces made my eyes roll. Some also seemed rather thoughtful and informative. I will admit I don't look at NRO much these days. I do think we need a calmer discussion -- and include people of all persuasions in that discussion.

When I got home, I read the preface to Feldman's book. While I generally agree with what he wrote, one essay he mentioned got my eyes to roll when I first read it. After the Virginia Tech rampage, E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post wrote a column in which he asked why can't we be sensible about guns the way we are about airline security. While Dionne's column was indeed moderate and thoughtful in tone, it also displayed the man's ignorance -- at least to those of us who know too much about the TSA. In fact the TSA is a failure. When they test their own security by trying to smuggle guns through, over 90% of the time the guns get through. Last September at a Women in Aerospace program on the state of aviation security today I also learned that there is a college student who has smuggled high explosives onto airplanes just to show he could. This is the kind of information that gets lost in the highly charged rhetoric we hear today.

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