Header Else

Liz Joyner: “600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs” (and still we’re uninformed)

monkees 3

Fresh from one of my unique moments of agreement with Glenn Beck yesterday as he riffed righteously on the unmitigated hypocrisy of Senate Democrats, I tuned into Rachel Maddow who was riffing righteously on the unmitigated hypocrisy of Senate Republicans.

They were both completely right.

Or completely half-right. Which makes them both completely wrong.

Beck gigged Democrats who are wailing about the Republicans’ use of the filibuster threat to kill health care when just a few short years ago there was talk of the “tyranny” of the Republican majority wanting to stop a Democratic minority’s right to filibuster.

Maddow set her sights on the Republicans who were arguing for the procedural validity of reconciliation during the Bush administration when they were kings of the hill, now squawking like stuck pigs as the Democrats may use it too.

So half the TV watching audience was treated to the half of reality they liked, other half of the story be darned.

Roger Cohen shed light on the dynamic at work in The New York Times as he described a societal rise of narcissism:

Community – a stable job, shared national experience, extended family, labor unions – has vanished or eroded. In its place have come a frenzied individualism, solipsistic screen-gazing, the disembodied pleasures of social networking and the à-la-carte life as defined by 600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy grow in the lonely chamber of self-absorption and projection.

These trends are common to all globalized modern democracies, ranging from those that prize individualism, like the United States, to those, like France, where social solidarity is a paramount value.

Beck and Maddow are simply different choices in our national -la-carte life, and as we pick out what we love to eat, we seem to not recognize we’re eating ourselves to death.

Are we really an America with so little moral compass that we don’t give a flip about staggering acts of hypocrisy unless it’s a staggering act of hypocrisy by someone we dislike?

In their moments of slightly higher statesmanship, Republicans argue that a 51% majority shouldn’t get 100% of what they want and that our system was structured around minority rights. When Democrats are cogent, they argue that a minority shouldn’t essentially have the power to stop all governance by procedural foot-dragging.

Of course, they’re both correct.

The piece they are both missing is where our system demands that they step outside their neat and self-righteous hermetically sealed realities and deal with each other. I mean roll up the ole sleeves and really get in there and work out solutions.

Cohen agrees normal human contact is in short supply, as he recalled a recent stint of jury duty:

Thrown together for two weeks at Brooklyn Supreme Court with 22 other jurors, I was struck by how rare it is now in American life to be gathered, physically, with an array of other folk of different ages, backgrounds, skin colors, beliefs, faiths, tastes, education levels and political convictions and be obliged to work out your differences in order to get the job done.

There’s only one way this is going to turn out well for us as a country and it will be if we willingly walk away from our self congratulatory self-absorption and feel similarly obliged in our political life to work our our differences in order to get the job done. And we’re going to have to expect our elected representatives to do the same, or we should fire them.

The alternative, according to Cohen: “Or we can turn away from each other and, like Narcissus, perish in the contemplation of our own reflections.”

Yesterday Obama and the Republicans met on health care, but I haven’t quite had the courage to turn on the television to see how it turned out.

Should I?
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of The Village Square. You can contact her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

(Photo credit)


Why the Village Square and Glenn Beck have just about everything and absolutely nothing in common

glenn beck

By Liz Joyner

Perhaps you didn’t know that Glenn Beck is a big fat copy cat and he’s copying me.

I wrote the essay The Square to launch The Village Square more than 3 years before Glenn Beck’s 9/12 project. In it, like Beck, we harkened back to the days after 9/11 as something we might want to emulate.

Like Beck, we have built our concept on the guiding wisdom (and sometimes the manners advice) of our founding fathers.

Finally, we’ve both launched (or in my case am trying to launch) populist movements, although I have to admit that our event attendance (and my salary) is just a wee bit lower than Beck’s. But we both seem to believe in the power of the common man, of “We the People.” (We even have a project called We the People that got us a Knight Foundation grant.)

We’re practically twins!

Except I believe Glenn Beck is currently one of the people most responsible for breaking down civil and civic discourse that The Village Square has been working to restore.

Unlike many others who agree with me about the damage that Beck is doing, I watch Beck’s show and listen to him on the radio. It has led me to some stunning head-exploding moments of weirdness where I agree so fully with an isolated statement he makes or even his basic premise, but his conclusion leads me to wail in abject agony on the floor (literally). People regularly ask me why I am torturing myself.

I do it for you.

So, humbly presented for your consideration is everything I’ve learned about Glenn Beck (and The Village Square):

1. Glenn Beck isn’t always wrong. There are parts of his perspective that would make a constructive contribution to our public debate. (The Village Square isn’t always right.)

2. People I really love really like Glenn Beck. (Weird, but true.)

3. Glenn Beck is smack in the middle of The Big Sort – the grouping of like-minded people resulting in group think to the point of denying factual reality. He needs a good friend or two who thinks his philosophy is nutty and will tell him so, forcing him to moderate just a bit. (Half of The Village Square board thinks the other half is nutty and vice versa.)

4. Glenn Beck’s show is a manifestation of many of the things wrong with our society, both sides of the aisle. We’ve gotten lazy physically and mentally and when we turn on the TV we want drama, intrigue, and self righteous fury all inside of a warm bubble bath of agreement. The show gives us what we’re asking for and don’t be all smug if you’re on the other side of the partisan fury cause you’re asking for it too*. (The Village Square seeks out disagreement as being a fundamental building-block of good decision making and democracy as our founders intended. We should note here that far fewer people are asking for this.)

5. Glenn Beck’s thinking is sloppy. Facts presented, when they are actually factual, lead inevitably to the conclusion he intended to draw from the very beginning. Facts that don’t support his view are simply disregarded. (The Village Square sees good facts as fundamental to drawing good conclusions. Sloppy thinking inevitably leads to bad results as the chickens of the factual distortion come home to roost and your action simply misses the mark…or far worse. Squawk. Squawk.)

6. Glenn Beck’s face is next to a definition of cherry-picking in the dictionary. Sometime he has to throw out half of a whole sentence to make his case because the other half a sentence blows it out of the water. (The Village Square so abhors cherry picking we draw dinner door prizes out of a bowl of 200 numbered cherries to make the point.)

7. Glenn Beck’s show is an emotion looking for facts to support it. (Our primary emotion is abject horror and despair at the quality of the civic dialogue.)

8. We need to remember that it’s not Glenn Beck’s job to govern. He’s even performed the public service of repeatedly reminding us of that, but we seem to not be listening. (OK, so it’s not The Village Square’s job to govern either.)

9. Glenn Beck needs to put down his Swami hat because he cannot read minds or infer intentions from the evil “they” he’s always, well, reading the minds and inferring the intentions of. (The Village Square doesn’t have enough money in the budget for a Swami hat.)

10. Glenn Beck plays a major role in the ramping up of the partisan fury in our national dialog. His nearly day long overreaction every day provokes an equal overreaction on the other side of the aisle against him and a spiraling cycle that may lead – and has led – to a lot of things that are very bad for our country. (Alas, The Village Square doesn’t play a major role in anything nationally. Really people, what is wrong with you?)

11. Glenn Beck seems to be serving an audience who doesn’t even want to hear the other side of the argument thank-you-very-much. By comparison, I might add, the Fox News rubric is to find someone who can make the very weakest case liberals have therefore torpedoing the liberal argument altogether. Icing on the cake if they’re ugly. (The Village Square‘s specifically finds the best argument from each side of the aisle because we want to – uh – solve the problem?)

12. Among a certain percentage of the American population, Beck’s antics are absolutely poisoning the cogent conservative argument that needs to be made YESTERDAY in order to competently solve the current mess we’re in. (Uh, has anyone noticed what Democrats do when they’re all on their own?) While conservatives may get a short term bump from the momentum he creates, it’s like using LSD to study for an exam… not a good long term strategy.

13. While we’re on drug analogies, Glenn Beck sells cocaine masquerading as cod liver oil. (The Village Square sells cod liver oil with a bit of a candy coating to help it go down a smidge better.)

14. I believe that the success of shows like Glenn Beck too often plays to the worst in human nature. (We go for the best, although we understand that the worst is there.)

Given the obvious advantages to our approach over Mr. Beck’s to the business of running a country, I’ve been sitting by the phone waiting for a major network to offer The Village Square our own hour and planning what schtick I can use to replace the blackboard and the red phone.

America’s got a choice to make. My hope springs eternal.

Stay tuned next week to our companion blog post: “Why The Village Square and Keith Olbermann have everything and absolutely nothing in common.”

We have met the enemy and guess who he is?

Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s GPS Sunday:(emphasis added)

“In 1979 Paul Volker was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve and he began to raise interest rates to crush inflation. It succeeded. And it had a follow-on affect around the world ushering in an era of low inflation, low interest rates and strong growth. What impresses me most about Volker was his willingness to do something that was deeply unpopular at the time in the short term for the long term good of the country. What he did then is now widely praised, but at the time he was burned in effigy as a job destroyer.

If you think about just about every problem we face in the United States, and in fact in Europe, Japan and every advanced industrial country, the solutions are readily identifiable. But they all involve trimming benefits, restricting credit, raising retirement age, trimming pensions and of course raising taxes. The effect of these reforms would be to place the country on much stronger economic foundation, but that benefit comes slowly over time while the costs are sharply felt now and by powerful special interests.

That’s why no one will propose any serious cuts in spending or any serious increases in taxation. Much easier to give everyone what they want and solve the problem by borrowing, borrowing, and more borrowing. So the core problem facing rich democracies these days is they can’t impose any short-term pain for long-term gain. And if we can’t find the the courage to do it, it is very difficult to be optimistic about the future for these countries, including the United States.

Steven Pearlstein: The myth of Washington bipartisanship and the art of true compromise

From yesterday’s Washington Post:

The only way a democratic system like ours can work is if the majority party acknowledges that winning an election means winning the right to set the agenda and put the first proposal on the table, though not the right to get everything it wants. By the same logic, if members of the minority party want to influence that policy, they have to understand that it will require them to accept some things they don’t like to get some things they do.

All this is rather elementary stuff, but trust me when I say that until recently, you’d have trouble finding anyone who seemed to understand it. For years, the reigning philosophy from both sides has been “It’s our way or the highway.” It has reached the point where people don’t know how to hammer out a compromise even when they might be so inclined, as we saw during the charade put on by the “gang of six” trying to negotiate a health-care compromise in the Senate. That dynamic is unlikely to change until the voters get so disgusted that they are willing to indiscriminately turn out all incumbents, irrespective of party and ideology. Perhaps we have finally reached that tipping point.

National Prayer Breakfast: “A prayerful return to civility”

Suggest you begin watching at 79:00, when his Village Square-ish comments begin in earnest.

Liz Joyner: A Cup of Sugar

Haitian childrenAs I wrestle with the gut-twisting images coming from Haiti, I am struck by the enduring meaning of being a neighbor. When it comes to epic human tragedy, it’s pretty clear America counts Haiti as a neighbor and a helping hand for neighbors is so fundamentally American that – push comes to shove – they even do it on Desperate Housewives.

Our neighbors, after all, are the people we know. They’re the – as thyself - who God or the universe (or just dumb luck depending on your point of view) saw fit to put right across the street, or maybe just across the ocean.

It’s the connection with people we know that compels us to rise to the higher angels of our nature, whether it’s to help someone lift a heavy box, dig through rubble during a breathtaking catastrophe or just bake a cake.

There’s another flavor of gut-twisting I feel when I contrast our neighborly response to Haiti with our lack of charity toward each other at home. I’ve had time to think about both hate and Haiti this week as The Village Square had the pleasure of hosting National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Jim Leach as part of his 50-state civility tour (we were #4).

Chairman Leach spoke of where we now find ourselves with respect to our civility toward one another:

“Everybody is aware of certain recent comments on the house floor, but vastly more rancorous commentary is alive and too well across the country. Public officials have been labeled too frequently in recent times as fascists, they’ve been labeled communists, and they’ve been labeled perhaps both at the same time. And also very surprisingly a new word has come back into the American vocabulary: Public figures have raised the secession word, and that is history-blind radicalism. And one might ask what is wrong with a bit of hyperbole? If 400,000 American soldiers sacrificed their lives to defeat fascism, if tens of thousands lost their lives standing up and holding communism at bay, if we fought a civil war to preserve the union, isn’t it a citizen’s obligation to think through words that have warring implications?

‘There is after all a difference between supporting a particular spending or health care bill and asserting that someone who prefers a different approach is an advocate of an “ism” that includes gulags and concentration camps.

‘Certain frameworks of thought define rival ideas, other frameworks describe enemies. Citizenship is hard. It’s a commitment to listen and watch, read and think in a way that allows the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.”

…Like we do without thinking twice for a neighbor. Are we still neighbors?

Perhaps the most telling moment in the visit we had with Chairman Leach was when he was asked to pass judgment on Joe Wilson’s heckling on the house floor during a presidential address – an event negatively referenced in Leach’s talk not 20 minutes earlier.

Much to the chagrin of many of us (oh curses to my lower angels), Leach declined. You see, it turns out Joe Wilson is someone Jim Leach knows. So he did what neighbors do: He allowed Wilson to make a mistake, gave him credit for an apology, forgave him his transgression and loaned him the dang sugar. For what it’s worth, so did President Obama.

I may not know Joe Wilson, but I do know Jim Leach:

“Words matter. Stirring anger and playing on the irrational fears of citizens inflames hate. When coupled with character assassination, polarizing rhetoric can exacerbate intolerance, perhaps impelling violence.

‘Conversely, just as demagoguery can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing language such as Lincoln’s call for a new direction “with malice toward none” can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together.’

So can a cup of sugar.

–Liz Joyner, The Village Square
(Photo credit: Living Water International.)

Jim Leach: Civility & Bridging Cultures

Better start some forward thinking because there just won’t be enough bullets

grass globe

“[Population] growth has come on so big, so fast that Michael V. Hayden, the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency, stated that his analysts now believe the most worrying trend in the world is not terrorism but demographics… most of the growth is almost certain to occur in countries least able to sustain it, and that will create a situation that will likely fuel instability and extremism…” — Thomas Friedman in Hot, Flat and Crowded

Cherry pickers galore.

cherry picking numbers

At this week’s Dinner at the Square we gave away door prizes by picking cherries with numbers on them out of a bowl. It was our little way of coming down firmly against cherry-picking facts.

Cherry-picking is epidemic these days. People use it as a launching pad for their fury. You see, if you can ignore the context of the many facts surrounding a problem, a situation, a person, an organization – then you can continue in your self-righteous fury unabated. And self-righteous fury is sooo the new lazy.

Gone are the old-fashioned days when more of us sought to understand each other, tried to grasp the facts, and might have even given putting them in context a go. Anger is sometimes the appropriate response after all that, but these days it’s out-of-the-starting-gate-de-rigueur.

Our institutions are beginning to reflect our hair-trigger fury and bent towards preferring only the facts that support how we want to feel. The market-tested-out-the-wazoo-uber-individualized culture we live in knows exactly what we want and we want fury. And they’re all about giving us what we want. Fury is good for ratings. We have whole evenings of programming devoted to cherry-picking in service of fury. It sells newspapers too. (Or maybe it doesn’t because really furious people aren’t usually mollified by being thrown bones. They’re like fury crack addicts who will just want more.) Maybe we’re getting the television, the newspapers, and the Congress we deserve.

Picked cherries lately?

Take 2 Aspirin guiding wisdom: The market is broken in health care

Take 2 Aspirin web

In our preparation for “Take 2 Aspirin, Fix Health Care & Call me in the Morning” we have spoken with experts, read many opinions and kept an open mind.

Here’s the first take-home lesson and this one practically screamed out at us… the free market is broken when it comes to health care. A left vs. right argument about free markets vs. government intervention misses the mark, since even if we all agree that we want a prototypical American market-driven solution, we’re left with the overwhelming evidence that the market has failed; the “patient” is positively hemorrhaging hundred dollar bills. So the question then becomes which idea can make the market work to drive down costs?

While there is some level of agreement on diagnosis, the agreement ends on prescription. Liberals tend to think we increase competition by having a public plan to keep the private insurance companies in line. Conservatives think government would have an unfair advantage and drive the private insurers out of business; some conservatives think this is the left’s ulterior motive. (It seems that to the extent that the goal is increased competition, it seems clear that the government should compete on a level playing field with private insurers.)

Another question we might ask is whether health care can ever be a commodity in a functional free market system. There isn’t a natural supply and demand curve, since health care is often not optional or something you shop around for. Additionally, there is always a person – the doctor – between the customer and the insurer, muddying any self-regulating forces we might hope to see at work.

Conservatives think we can increase competition by allowing companies to compete nationally instead of state by state (which usually includes only a handful of competitors). Conservative David Frum recommends regulating insurance federally, saving the bureaucratic complications of having 50 different insurance markets (exponentially more when you look at variations that currently exist between cities in the same state).

Might this been a problem screaming for The Village Square “power of AND?” What if we allowed insurers to compete nationally, streamlined insurance regulation by federalizing it AND added a public option than had no advantage over private insurers? Just wondering…

We have met the enemy, and it is us.

“If you look at what’s happened to great Republics in the past, they generally have not fallen because of external threats. They’ve fallen because of internal threats. Let’s look at Rome as an example, which is the longest standing Republic in the history of mankind. The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three seem to resonate today. Declining moral values and political civility at home, overconfident and overextended militarily around the world and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. We need to wake up, recognize reality and that we have to start making tough choices sooner rather than later, so we can be the first Republic to stand the test of time.”

— Dave Walker, President and CEO, Peter G. Peterson Foundation

Sunday at the Square: Civility on the Christian Right

The New York Times’ Peter Steinfels writes about a book by Jon A. Shields:

If you wanted a book title to speed the pulse of liberal academics, journalists and politicians, you couldn’t do much better than “The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right.” For many people that’s a title akin to “The Winning Ways of Serial Killers…”

“The vast majority of Christian-right leaders,” he writes, “have long labored to inculcate deliberative norms in their rank-and-file activists – especially the practice of civility and respect; the cultivation of dialogue by listening and asking questions; the rejection of appeals to theology; and the practice of careful moral reasoning.”

Mr. Shields, a 34-year-old assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, reached this conclusion after interviewing leaders of 30 Christian-right organizations, attending training seminars and surveying the materials used to instruct the rank and file.

Again and again he encountered the same injunctions: Remain civil. Engage others in conversation by inquiring into their viewpoints. Eschew arguments based on religion or the Bible in favor of facts and reasoning that might persuade people regardless of their religious convictions.

Read Steinfels’ piece in its entirety here.