Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lester Bangs Caucus

There's a new political group out there now called No Labels. They refer to themselves as putting aside hyper-partisanship in order to move the country forward. Nothing wrong with that. Compromise is a good thing. Take the tax cut package, for example. As much as I don't like the idea of extending the Bush tax cuts on the upper tax bracket, if we have to give that to get a bunch of other stuff Republicans don't want, I'll go along with it. In a country of 300 million people, you'll never get all of what you want. As long as the compromise isn't worse than the opposition's original position (and it isn't, mainly because the deficit problem requires long-term solutions that are unaffected by this short-term deal) and it's fairly even (and it is - unemployment benefit extension and a boost in other low-income tax credits offset the extension of the tax cuts for the rich), take it.

So compromise is how things get done, and a group that supports that is OK with me. Also, blind partisanship is bad news - a lot of bad policy and bad ideas are propagated out of an unwillingness to go against anyone perceived as being on the same "team." So if you want to put aside labels and have a policy discussion, cool.

And yet. Uneasiness remains.

See, the problem with being "non-ideological" is that it's impossible. We all have ideologies. No Labels, for instance, is actually rather ideological. Their statement of purpose describes what they find important:
  • Americans are entitled to a government and a political system that works – driven by shared purpose and common sense.
  • Americans deserve a government that makes the necessary choices to rein in runaway deficits, secure Social Security and Medicare, and put our country on a viable, sound path going forward. Americans support a government that works to spur employment and economic opportunity by encouraging free and open markets, tempered by sensible regulation.
  • Americans want a government that empowers people with the tools for success – from a world-class education to affordable healthcare – provided that it does so in a fiscally prudent way.
  • America should be free from discrimination and should embrace the principle of equal opportunity.
  • America must be strong and safe, ready and able to protect itself in a world of multiple dangers and uncertainties.
  • But what if you believe, like many libertarians, that Social Security and Medicare are bad programs, and that no regulation is "sensible"? What if you believe, like many leftists, that free and open markets are an invitation for corporate exploitation? What if you believe that government has no role in education or health care, or that it's more important to protect civil liberties than it is for America to be "strong and safe"? I guess "No Labels" has no use for such silliness.

    No Labels is short-circuiting our political process by assuming a consensus on our nation's direction that may or may not exist. In the name of civility and compromise, No Labels is actually treating the dissenters to their presumed consensus in the most uncivil way possible - pretending that they don't exist.

    Look, civility is great, and it should be practiced wherever possible. But this belies the fact that political issues deeply affect our lives, and as such they produce an outpouring of emotion that makes civility almost counterproductive. In the name of "civility," we ignore the passionate extremes who might have a good idea every now and then, and we temper our own impulses for fear of being ridiculed as "uncivil." And what purpose does that serve? How can we impress on someone the importance that we affix to, say, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or the use of the criminal justice system to try terror suspects if we're so concerned about being "civil"?

    Put differently, which is more important: being civil? Or being truthful?

    The big problem with our discourse is not that it is "uncivil." American discourse has always been kind of "uncivil," stretching all the way back to the days of Jefferson and Adams. Rather, it is that we allow lies to propagate unchecked. We have a significant portion of the population that thinks that Obama raised taxes on the middle class when, in fact, the opposite is true. And if someone attempts to call the liars on their lies, the center simply sniggers and calls the bullshit-callers "uncivil."

    So is there a better way of promoting policy debate that moves our country forward? Yes, and fellow devotees of the movie Almost Famous already know it. It's from the end of this scene:

    "Honest and unmerciful." Call me a member of the Lester Bangs caucus. Let's be passionate. Let's call the other guys out when we think they're wrong. Let's let people know when we think others want to take America in the wrong direction. Let's pursue justice tenaciously, and speak out against injustice convincingly. But let's make damn sure we're honest - both intellectually and factually - when we do so. Passion and emotion need to be backed up by facts and truth. And let's not address those who manipulate our emotions with lies and half-truths with kid gloves in the name of civility. Open, honest, no-holds-barred debate is what moves this country forward. It weeds out the weak ideas and policies based on false premises. It forms the basis of those compromises that No Labels fetishizes. If we want to be true friends to America, we need to be honest and unmerciful.


    Matthew B. Novak said...

    Bravo. This is why I love Jon Stewart. He does exactly what you propose.

    Miguel said...

    When people talk about "civility" in politics, I am reminded about this quote from Mass Effect:

    Why is it when someone says, "With all due respect" they're really saying "Kiss my ass"

    Really the civility is just a way to sugar-coating the ugly discourse. So they're not really all that much better than us "passionate" folks.