The heat of August has settled in, and the Congress has fled the swamp of Washington, DC. After the townhall forums this month, I suppose a few wished they had never left.
We knew the debate would get ugly and heated, but what I think has truly caught me off guard is the degree at which the discussion is occurring about topics completely disconnected from reality. There are no "death panels" in the legislation (or even effectiveness review boards, which could become "death panels"). There is no plan to socialize the health care system (let's recall the definition of socialize: place it under government control, like GM or banks that are taken over by the FDIC). The public health insurance option, which isn't even expected to be in the Senate Finance legislation, wouldn't have the support of the government and would have to function like a private insurer in the private market (minus the profit-seeking). And even that is about to be abandoned. (Apparently, winning an election and a majority of Congress, while running on the domestic issue of health care reform, isn't enough of a mandate to actually pass the ideas that were talked about during the campaign.)
I understand the political process, and how winning in the public relations battle can be more important than the actual legislation (Harper's has an article about how the PR battle has replaced the actual wording of the Durban Accords on race in many minds). But our public servants (elected officials like Senators, former Alaska governors, etc) are not correcting out and out lies being circulated about the legislation by the conservative commentariat. That is highly disappointing, and I'm having a hard time coming up with similar examples of liberal politicians promoting demonstrably false statements for political gain. Liberals lie about sex scandals, but so do conservatives.
I would actually expect liberals to have multiple "truths" -- they are the ones of "relative truth" after all, where no culture, society or group has a monopoly on the Truth. But I am disappointed in the conservatives: they are the ones of "absolute truth" -- and what is written in legislative language is pretty much absolute, provable and undeniable. Where are their principles? (You know, those things you stand by even when it isn't immediately to your own self interest to do so?)
Despite my personal political leanings, I tend to respect conservatives for the role they play in ensuring that liberals don't go off the deep end with their "brilliant" ideas. You know, a sounding board, a cooling chamber, a parental voice of reason when the kids want to have candy for dinner. I think this was expressed well by a founding father of the modern conservative movement, William F. Buckley, when he founded the National Review: "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." (Full disclosure: I have subscribed to NR for a dozen years - I'm often amazed that it hasn't undergone spontaneous combustion when it has been placed in my mailbox next to Harpers, Atlantic Month, New Republic, the Nation, etc.) Buckley made the Republican party respectable by ousting the influence of the John Birch Society and bringing it back to reality.
But recently, there was an insight into the Buckley family that I did not expect at all. Christopher Buckley, William's son, recently wrote about his life in the Buckley household. Now, it stands to reason that he did not have a wonderful childhood (he did, after all, endorse Barack Obama for President), but his description of his mother stunned me:
"Over the years, I heard Mum utter whoppers that would make Pinocchio look button-nosed .... I remember the time I first caught Mum in some preposterous untruth, as she called it... I looked at Mum and realized — twang! — that she was telling an untruth. A big untruth. And I remember thinking in that instant how thrilling and grown-up it must be to say something so completely untrue — as opposed to the little amateur fibs I was already practiced at, horrid little apprentice sinner that I was, like the ones about how you’d already said your prayers or washed under the fingernails. Yes, I was impressed. This was my introduction to a lifetime of mendacity. I, too, must learn to say these gorgeous untruths. When Mum was in full prevarication, Pup would assume an expression somewhere between a Jack Benny stare and the stoic grimace of a 13th-century saint being burned at the stake. He knew very well that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth did not routinely decamp at Shannon. The funny thing was that he rarely challenged her when she was in the midst of one of her glorious confections. For that matter, no one did. They wouldn’t have dared. Mum had a regal way about her that did not brook contradiction.
So, the founder of modern conservativism, who launched a magazine - and a movement - to stop history from running over the facts, lived with a serial speaker of "untruths" and had given up trying to stop it.
I think I'm beginning to understand conservatives, after all...
But why does it work for conservatives to completely make things up? On one hand, we go back to the fact that their opponents are the believers in multiple truths: there is always some piece of truth in a statement, right? Even if that "truth" is only the fact that the person saying it thinks what they are saying is true, despite all evidence to the contrary. It is important to acknowledge that truth, or else we might hurt someone's feelings and self-esteem.
Secondly, we are witnessing the failings of the profession that sees itself as the seekers of truth in our lives: journalists. As a commentator in the Washington Post wrote today:
Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans and that their duty as tribunes of the people's voices means they should treat Obama's creation of "death panels" as just another justiciable political claim. ...It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to "debunk" claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president's program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn't adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of "conservative claims" to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as "extremist" -- out of bounds.
(Side note: that mental health clinic in Alaska was one of the things that WFB brought up as an issue with the Birch Society ... see, conservatives used to actually care about the truth.)
One of the reasons I pay such close attention to the travails of the profession of journalism is that they are another profession that have their role in society undermined when profits are the sole pursuit (in their case, via the pursuit of sensational stories to drive up viewers rather than a discussion of facts and issues of the day). Actually, the very definition of a "profession" implies that as a class, the group provides a service to society that cannot be fully marketized; same goes for lawyers, clergy, police, etc. Democracy needs a profession to seek the truth of what is happening to real people, not to spout talking points generated by those who are currently in power. You know, the whole "Power to the powerless and afflict the comfortable."
I am worried that journalism as a profession will not survive our adoration of "the marketplace". And I'm worried that my profession will be next.