A Call to Reason

Earlier tonight, two “town hall meetings” erupted in violence, with Republicans, naturally, blaming Democratic “censorship.” At this point, 1:02 AM on Thursday night, there’s not a lot of information going around, to support or refute that point. I’ll update when there is.

One account, though, is undisputed: watch the video embedded in this story, from Tampa Bay’s local news network, and tell me which side is being more disruptive, as congresswoman Kathy Castor (D-FL) attempted to explain her position on Obama’s health care plan.

[Video slow to load. Watch instead on the local site, linked above, until I get it working. – Ed.]

What part of respectful debate, exactly, is shouting, booing, and covering windows with signs? Who’s the real “censor,” the man who shouts down a U.S. Representative, or the event screener who gives priority placement to a popular local union, known for frequently attending the sessions before they became controversial?

Like it or not, the conduct on display at the town hall meeting is a mob mentality, originating on the opposition side last year and on the rise throughout 2009, until it’s now bleeding over to hinder reasonable debate on all sides. This breakdown of civil discourse is the natural consequence of demagoguery on the airwaves and the internet, where conservative pundits resort to calling the President a “socialist,” a Nazi, a tyrant, or a foreigner, instead of criticizing his policies, and where political vaudeville performers joke about poisoning politicians.

These commentators have no idea of the horrors of actual tyranny. None of us do. But thanks to the First Amendment, they can say whatever they want. However, it doesn’t mean they should. If people on either side keep calling their opponents “Nazis,” “radicals,” etc., violence is the natural result. Talk is talk, until it’s not.

When we speak in the public forum, we owe it to our fellow-citizens to build a climate where informed individuals can disagree politely, on the merits, without having to resort to the rhetoric of hate, violence, and “othering” (“radical,” “socialist,” etc.).  No law requires this duty of us, for it is something we owe each other, and not the state. But it is more important even than our Constitution, because the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution presume its existence, as a predicate. Civil debate, free of name calling (I can’t believe this is even an issue), is the first and most important American virtue. To anyone, in any party, who thinks that harassing elected representatives is a way to resolve political differences; and to any commentator, of any personasion, who thinks that repeating a few emotionally-charged catchphrases discharges your duty to inform your audience and check disfavored government policies — kindly stop.

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8 comments

  1. Ricky Rondo · ·

    I would agree with you about the need for reason in this debate. But some of the reports from that town hall point out that both sides acted unreasonably.
    Also, I’m not sure I agree that the Constitution presumes all citizens will act reasonably. There are a lot of protections built into it to protect against mob behavior. It’s an interesting question though. Good post.

  2. Let’s reframe this scenario: It’s 2006. Republican Senator Warhawk is holding a townhall meeting to try and drum up more support for the war in Iraq. Democrats infiltrate and act pretty much exactly like the folks did at the meeting last night.

    Liberals would be cheering.

    With the shift of power in Washington it is becoming more and more obvious to me that whoever is in power has far too much belief in their own power and those out of power have far too much trouble acting mature in response.

    This administration is already doing things that should make civil rights groups cringe. Yesterday I heard that the Administration is requesting that people forward any ‘suspicious’ emails they get which frames the healthcare proposal in a negative light to the Whitehouse. WTF? On the flip side, the GOP is behaving like loons with these townhall disruptions and the birther nonsense.

    And now you know why I blog about stopped blogging about national politics. By comparison the debate over urban/rural policies and education seems pretty tame.

    1. “…it is becoming more and more obvious to me that whoever is in power has far too much belief in their own power…”

      Seriously, Mike, what are you talking about? The Democrats control both the legislative and the executive branches with a clear mandate from the population. They have the power, within the legal and constitutional limits. That’s how democracy works. If anything, it’s baffling that they haven’t done more with that power yet than they actually have.

      1. Power is fleeting and those with it ignore the other side at their own peril.

        The Democrats especially, but both sides in general, have the mistaken belief that all opposition should tow the line because of the ‘mandate’ they have. Calling Blue Dogs that don’t support healthcare reform or Republicans that opposed the stimulus bill traitors is not what Democracy is about.

    2. Mike, you’d be surprised. The number of Dems who went in for, say, the Code Pink bullshit, or even Sheehan, was fairly small, but whipped into a bigger deal. All Daily Show Democrats, for example, were NOT on board with that disruptive nonsense, either.

      1. And you might be surprised to know that the number of Republicans engaged in these kind of antics is pretty small as well.

  3. were I a representative, holding a townhall meeting, and it became so disruptive that those who were there couldn’t ask a coherent question without being drowned out, i’d take the microphone and say, “i’m voting my conscience, and if you don’t like it, then vote me out next go around”. then i’d calmly walk out and continue discussion and discourse on a one to one basis. i wouldn’t give the “mob” the platform.

  4. Reason and civility are all well and good when they are placed in the proper relationship to the passions. Only if everyone in a conversation agrees on a common goal can reasoning be persuasive, and then only with regard to the methods needed to reach said goal.

    Reasoning and civility will not persuade Birthers that Obama is a legitimate president. Reasoning and civility will not convince global warming deniers that we’re fucking the planet. Reasoning and civility will not change the mind of anyone who thinks government health care is to be feared.

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