Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Take That, Liberals!


This showed up on my Facebook feed this morning, liked by a friend who has a decidedly conservative bent. It's a Youtube of a teenager delivering testimony to a state legislative committee as they consider a gun control bill. Here's the headline attached to it by conservativepost.com: "It only took this 15-year-old 3 minutes to silence all liberals in the room." Apart from what I'm about to say concerning this clip, there's no way to verify whether anyone was silenced, as there's no video of their reaction, if any, by the committee. I encourage you to take a look at it yourself. Here's the link:

Listening to the clip, I had just one reaction, over and over again: really? This is supposed to blow me away? This is supposed to silence me with its stunning logic, brilliant rhetoric, moving delivery? What I heard was boilerplate: a list of talking points, every one of them easily refutable. The one thing she has going for her is just the sheer quantity of arguments. Addressing them would take far more than three minutes--which explains why (if it's even true--as I said, we don't get to hear what came next) there was silence in the room after she finished. If I was chairing the hearing, I'd probably tell her, "Thank you for your testimony. Next?"

I'm writing about this today not to make a point-by-point response, but to highlight a common tactic I see being employed by the right wing: the cluster bomb. I first became aware of the tactic in 1993, when I attended a "town meeting" hosted by the Oregon Citizens Alliance just outside Estacada, a small town in Clackamas County where I was a United Methodist minister. (For those of you who weren't keyed into Oregon politics in the 1990s, the OCA was an anti-gay-rights lobby that prefigured the Tea Party, but was far less successful.) The meeting was supposed to be a forum on an initiative that would prevent the city from including homosexuality as a protected status in its charter. The Estacada Citizens for Fairness, a human dignity group my church belonged to, came out in force, outnumbering OCA attendees at the meeting by about two to one. That didn't keep OCA head Lon Mabon from brilliantly manipulating the agenda. His strategy: everyone will get to speak, but I get to go first, and you have to wait until I'm done.

He want on for quite awhile, reeling off a long list of insinuations and meaningless statistics before pulling out his secret weapon: a copy of Daddy's Roommate, a children's book about a family headed by a gay couple that, Mabon alleged, would find its way into Estacada school libraries unless this charter amendment were passed. Of course, the amendment had nothing to do with public school policies, but that was utterly irrelevant to his real goal: to reduce the opposition to sputtering. He largely succeeded, too: most of the Citizens for Fairness in attendance were far too upset by what they'd heard, too overwhelmed by offensive nonsense, to mount any kind of response.

That's what I see in this young woman's three minute address: a blast of illogical bomblets meant to evoke visceral reactions. Each is deserving of a measured response, but the time and energy required to make that response could be far better employed in other ways.

This may seem heartless to you. She's so young, so serious, so earnest. I have to admit to smiling as I heard her deliver her speech because I remember being that young, being so convinced that simply reeling off all my excellent points would be all it took to convince my opponent of the rightness of my argument, and result in a Damascene conversion. I remember writing editorials along these lines for my high school newspaper, and delivering speeches like this in Youth Legislature and Model UN. I also remember teachers smiling, shaking their heads, and pointing out that I really needed to pick just one argument, research it thoroughly, and then, if it still held up, I might have something convincing. Hopefully that's what happened when (if?) she submitted her speech to her speech teacher or debate team adviser. Considering the plaudits she's getting from the conservative press, though, such critiques are likely to fall on deaf ears.

And that's the frustrating thing for me. The headline on this clip summarizes all that is wrong with debate in our country, and the reason we can't get any kind of workable legislation passed: we never reason with each other. My personal inclination is to blame it on the right--and certainly my OCA illustration bears that out--but I'm well aware of voices on the left that engage in the same cluster bomb strategy (Real Time with Bill Maher, my favorite political program, is a case in point). The passion of the argumentative drowns out the logic of the reasonable. The air is filled with angry voices shouting past each other who care nothing for what is being said, just that it is a disagreement, and best be countered with noise.

If you've read any of my posts, you know that I'm a long form writer. I write until I have nothing more to say about an issue, and even then, after I've hit the "publish" button, I worry that I'm leaving something out. I know that this puts me in TLDR (Too Long, Didn't Read) territory, but I can't help myself, because (and this is one of my core beliefs) everything is more complicated than it first seems. There are no simple solutions. Firearm policy in the United States is a hydra with so many heads it will take far more than three minutes of talking points to resolve it, however earnestly delivered.

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