Let me say it, by the way – who cares, right? I mean who cares about my feelings or Carmen Reinhart’s feelings or Ken Rogoff’s feelings? We’re having a global economic crisis which is not over, which we have handled abysmally. We have massive long-term unemployment in the United States. We have massive youth unemployment in Southern Europe." - Paul Krugman responding to charges that he is a big meanie
My ears perked up immediately, not because I think the topic so very interesting, indeed I don't. But it took me back to a time when "civiility" in the blogosphere seemed to be the major point of discussion about political blogging. Indeed, in 2005, my personal incivility became a talking point at a FEC hearing. I discovered that the conference would be held in Montpelier the next day. I resolved to attend. And I was not disappointed, in good and bad ways.
First, Jim Leach's discussion had almost nothing to do with "civility" and a whole lot to do with Citizens United. Leach said:
Corporate campaign money has harmed civil discourse in Washington and could soon affect Vermont, according to James A. Leach, ninth chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and keynote speaker at the event. “Money is the elephant at the door in Washington,” Leach said. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which defined corporations as individuals with First Amendment rights to free speech, has facilitated negative political campaigning.All good thoughts from Leach. The local participants however, who seemed like very nice and committed persons, were much more interested in the civility argument:
“Rather than conflate a corporation with a person, and money with speech, should not the focus be shifted to the transactional relationship inherent in speaking and listening?” Without limits on independent expenditures made by corporations, more money will be spent on negative attack ads for political campaigns that will further taint the tenor of the debate and erode the focus on real issues, Leach said.
“At one end, uncivil speech must be protected by the courts, but filtered by the public,” Leach said. “At the other, moneyed speech must not be allowed to weaken the voices of the people. The Constitution begins, after all, ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Corporations.’”
[Paul] Gillies, who has moderated town meetings in Berlin, said moderators are to a debate what an orchestrator is to a symphony. “What I see is a process,” he said. “I think what we have developed over the years is the ability of reasoning together. Not the ability to give up our own positions, but to at least listen to what the other is saying.”To complete the journey back in time, there were even complaints about anonymity, a la Garance Franke Ruta circa 2005:
[...] Aside from town meeting moderators and the courts, the press, for better or for worse, also guides public debate. However, [Deborah] Markowitz said the modern media does not have the same level of credibility. Reports, she said, are often laced with opinion, and citizens look to confirm their biases in the media. “We used to have an arbiter of facts, and that was the press,” she said. “Now what we are seeing in Vermont, as well as everywhere else, is that people get their facts from sources that are really editorial sources.” [Emphasis mine.]
Emerson Lynn, editor and publisher at the St. Albans Messenger, said leaders and citizens alike are held accountable to one another in Vermont.This actually was one of the more remarkable portions of the conference for me. The highlighted statements were rather chilling, I thought, and I was stunned by the sanguine reaction to them. A newspaper editor blithely stating that the "governor's office" was afraid to communicate information to the public because they are afraid of it being "torn apart"? Excuse me?
[Deb Markowitz said] that it is important to maintain a decent reputation with neighbors. “Even more so, we know that if we are driving home, and we get stuck on the side of the road, we might need them to pull us out of the ditch,” Markowitz said.
However, accountability also means public discourse is vulnerable to both constructive and baseless criticism. Lynn said that he had spoken with people in the governor’s office about how they can improve their communications with the general public. “Their response to that is that they don’t dare, in many instances, because they are terrified of putting information out that can be torn apart by the public,” he said. “If you do that, then the blogs, the online chatter groups, tear them apart. They said it’s an absolutely vicious environment out there.”
Lynn said that even in the small state of Vermont, citizens hide in anonymity and intimidate others. He said that when small groups dominate a conversation, it paralyzes the larger debate. “This is all about information. It’s all about having the right information,” he said. Lynn said that he doesn’t allow for anonymous comments at the St. Albans Messenger because he does not believe that anonymous comment sections add any useful information to debates on local issues. “If people are going to comment, they have to comment thoughtfully and respectfully,” he said. [Emphasis mine.]
The other noteworthy theme was the wistfulness for the good old days when folks were only exposed to the "good information," as newspaper editor Emerson Lang put it. Lang and Markowitz were quite dismayed that the traditional media just didn't command the respect necessary to serve the gatekeeper function they see as necessary. The notion that the traditional media's inept and corrupt performance of the past 40 years might have had something to do with it, particularly regarding the Iraq War, seemed not to cross their mind or trouble them.
Lang reiterated his belief in having the right people speaking and, somewhat contradictorily insisting that you listen to "both sides" (because every issue has only 2 sides apparently). He then told an anecdote of his moderating a debate between Bill McKibben and a climate change denier. Lang expressed shock that McKibben apparently said the debate should not be taking place, based on McKibben's belief that the existence of climate change is now beyond reasonable disagreement. Lang expressed dismay that "no longer in dispute" might be an option.
To his credit, Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group,* responded to Lang's story by pointing out that the "fair and balanced" approach Lang was lauding was, in fact, shirking a journalistic duty to say when something is true and something is false. It brought to mind for me Paul Krugman's line about the 'evenhandedness' of the media:
[R]ather than really try to report things objectively, [the Media] settle for being even-handed, which is not the same thing. One of my lines in a column—in which a number of people thought I was insulting them personally—was that if Bush said the Earth was flat, the mainstream media would have stories with the headline: 'Shape of Earth—Views Differ.' Then they'd quote some Democrats saying that it was round.”It was the failure to grapple with this phenomenon that was the biggest weakness of the Vermont conference. Back in 2005, when the original debate about those unruly bloggers was first litigated, I wrote a response to one of them, On Persuasion:
Matt Miller, who is subbing for Maureen Dowd, writes an interesting column on political discourse and the ability to persuade with an argument. Unfortunately, Matt fails to address the central reason why political discourse has floundered, the complete lack of respect for the truth exhibited by the referees - the Media. Matt writes:I trot that one out again in response to the Vermont conference.
Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling "talking points." Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let's face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win, be it power, ratings, celebrity or even cash.With due respect to Miller, a smart guy, politicians and partisans have never respected facts UNLESS they are required to do so. That is what a free press is supposed to do and simply does not anymore. Miller considers it a problem of a media focused more on heat than light. I believe the problem goes much deeper than that. The utter disrespect for the truth exhibited by all media is the heart of the problem. Liars are not called liars. Falsehoods are not called falsehoods. What passes for reporting these days is "Republicans say . Democrats say __." When someone spews falsehoods, there is not a media outlet in the country that will say 'that is false.' Not the New York Times, not the Washington Post, not any of them.
By contrast, marshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art. Honoring what's right in the other side's argument seems a superfluous thing that can only cause trouble, like an appendix. Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts.
For crissakes, the former hack who had the title of Ombudsman for the Times [Daniel Okrent] claimed to stand up for truth by issuing slanderous falsehoods. Who is outraged? The Lefty blogs. Anybody else? Jay Rosen? Anyone?
I got bad news for Miller. The "beardstrokers," with few exceptions (Herbert, Krugman) have not demanded the truth. Miller has written on social security and instead of demanding truth from the Bush Administration he chose to chastise Democrats for not being open to discussion. And you believe you can be persuasive with such an attitude? Not a mention of the pack of lies that Bush has peddled?
It is pretty simple, there will be no meaningful political discourse as long as lies are tolerated and ignored. To lament the loss of political persuasion while ignoring the elephant (pun intended) in the room is to insult the intelligence of your audience. And that is never persuasive.
*I have a bone to pick with the Vermont Public Interest Research Project, which uses a fundraising technique that, contrary to the assertion made by Paul Burns, is not character building, it is disillusioning. Employing the, sadly, common technique of nonprofits of 3 day quotas for young people to raise certain levels of donations upon pain of termination, is a pretty low practice, particularly when not disclosed. Burns' group appears to try and do good work, I can not say if they do, but I do know I can not respect their fundraising tactics.