Sunday, March 18, 2012

Harshness of Political Rhetoric and the Race to the Bottom

The ads have started.  If you've already had a primary in your state, you know the ones I'm talking about. I wouldn't know except for the basketball.  I no longer watch the local news, apart from when school closings are a possibility.  There isn't much else on the local channels to draw me in.  You hear about the ads by watching the NewsHour.  It's different actually witnessing them.

Unlike in the past, I've hardly watched the basketball.  The Illini's performance in the second half of the Big Ten season put me off my game as a fan.  Being a serious fan is an emotional experience.  Beyond loyalty, it requires intensity of commitment.  The pleasure and the commitment are intertwined.  A dislike of rivals emerges naturally from that.  In the first half of the 1980s, when as a young assistant professor I cut my teeth as an Illini Basketball fan, the games between the "I" state teams (going east to west that's Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa) were particularly fierce.  It's important to understand that the dislike was coupled with respect.  The rivals were good.  They played tough defense.  They had talented players.  They were well coached.  As a fan, you wouldn't want it any other way.

Yesterday, when thinking about the post I would write today, I had thought I'd write one entitled, "Why Shaka Smart Doesn't Need Illinois."  We desperately need a new coach, one who can light a candle underneath both the players and the fans.  With VCU going to the Final Four last year, Shaka Smart's name has been bandied about in the local press.  Presumably, the Illinois job is attractive for a young coach on the rise.  (It's how we landed Bill Self a while back when Lon Kruger left for the pros.)  I'm less sure the proposition still holds true.  Bruce Weber's very public comment, about coaching not to lose, seemed a portent of serious issues that have not yet been fully articulated in the press (and perhaps never will be).  Shaka Smart clearly has a very good thing  going where he is.  It would be great to get him as a coach, but wishing doesn't make it so.  I didn't watch the Indiana-VCU game last night, but I did monitor it on the ESPN Web site.  I wasn't sure about which team to root for.  I still don't like Indiana, even though Bobby the B______ is long gone.  But I thought a VCU win would confirm my hypothesis.  On this one, I'd prefer to be wrong.

I tuned into the CBS broadcast in the late afternoon.  It was "At the Half."  I got caught up with the scores but never found out which game was airing then.  At the first commercial, the ad came on.  Rick Santorum voted fur such and such when he was in Congress and then he did so and so.  The tenor of the ad was accusatory, the tone angry.  Various pundits have told us the ads are effective.  I agree.  I turned off the show before the ad was over.  I switched to watching a movie I had previously recorded, Black Sunday, from the novel by Thomas Harris that I had read quite a while ago. 

There is much anger and hostility in the terrorist characters in that movie.  Bruce Dern is particularly effective as the pilot, because in every role I've seen him he seems not very far away from having a personal explosion, and that aura serves him well here. Marthe Keller is a bit less convincing.  She plays the part of a very bright woman, one who treats terrorism as sport.  But that doesn't seem the right emotion to me.  Primary should be to feel aggrieved. As a partial substitute, Keller's German accent does help in conveying a sense of alienation. 

One can watch a movie or read a novel where the characters are extremely angry, evil incarnate, without getting upset at all from the viewing.  The evil characters play a necessary role in the story.   The story itself is engaging for me, in part because I read the book in the 1990s, well before 9/11, a prognostication of sorts for then but now too familiar to be a further threat.  A piece in today's NY Times about the benefits of reading fiction says that fiction is remarkably good at allowing us to simulate social encounters that we otherwise are unlikely to experience.  Indeed!

My reaction to the ad is quite different.  Almost immediately, I start to feel ill.  This is not politics as college sport, trying to beat a respected opponent.  It's incitement for the rabble.   Perhaps there's been so much of this sort of thing that others can mentally tune it out or have the good sense to mute the TV.  With ordinary commercials, that's exactly what I do.  But with political speech, that's not my first inclination.  I've taught myself that even if I strongly disagree, it's good to hear the opinions of the other side, if for no other reason than to test whether you have suitable counterarguments.  Here, however, I have no fondness whatsoever for Rick Santorum.  I simply wish the opposition treat his candidacy with a modicum of decorum.

George Will is the only pundit I know who has openly embraced the ruling in the Citizen's United case.  His argument is that the massive external funding has made the race for the Republican nomination more, not less, competitive. He has a point.  But he does not consider whether the massive external funding inexorably leads us to a scorched earth type of political rhetoric.  It is instructive to observe on this point that the ad I found so nauseating was done on behalf of the only presumably reasonable candidate in the race.

The implicit argument being made by those funding the ad is this.  Let's win first.  We can be reasonable later.  Right now, it's about winning.  It would be a disaster if we don't win.

This, however, sound a lot like the views Tea Party types, who regard politics as holy war and are not apt to compromise.  If there is ever a time to be reasonable, it is now.  We've witnessed a kind of hostage taking of the Republican party by the far right.   There needs to be push back of that, not accommodation.  Well articulated push back would necessarily be reasonable. 

Many who voted for President Obama in 2008 and had high hopes at the time have been disappointed in his performance in office.  He was not able to rise about the partisanship.  Then he appeared to get caught in the gridlock.  I count myself in this group, though I've flip flopped on these views.  When health care was on the table, I really wanted to see a Public option.  And I wanted to see more fiscal stimulus (and remarked on this in the subsequent post).  But the conditions in Congress and with the electorate writ large clearly matter.  So, of late, I've taken a more benevolent view, because the conditions have been hostile to the President accomplishing anything of worth, especially domestically.  (Scroll to the post from February 9.)

Can we agree, regardless of our political persuasion, that the rhetoric of the Presidential campaign has an impact on the governing thereafter?   Can we also agree that we require thoughtfulness to address the pressing issues?  They aren't simple problems.  And the solutions will require many of us to incur additional burdens.  Doesn't it make sense to cool it on the rhetoric?  There's enough anger already to go around.

1 comment:

Lanny Arvan said...

Looks like I was right about one thing. Shaka Smart has turned Illinois down. I don't know who else is a good candidate, but perhaps they should consider Steve Bardo. He was the point guard on the 1989 Final Four team. He wouldn't be the first announcer who went directly to being a head coach. And, of course, he's African American. It seems unlikely to me we'll get an alternative to Shaka Smart who doesn't have Illini roots.