Sunday, December 5, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Are We Sitting on a Political Tinderbox?

Here's something from March 26 posted under the title: "What's Eating At Peggy Noonan?":

Peggy Noonan tries harder than most pundits to step back from the partisan fray far enough to assess the state of the union with dispassionate common sense. So it’s a little disturbing that she’s so freaked-out by what she sees:
“Responsible leaders on all levels of American life ought to stop, breathe in, and see the level of anger and agitation that’s rippling through the country. Both sides should try to cool it, or something bad is going to happen. In fact I am struck now by how, when I worry aloud about this and say to a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, that I fear something bad is going to happen, no one disagrees. No one says, ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing.’ They say—again, left right and center: ‘I’m afraid of that too.’

“What I keep thinking of is a beehive. A modern, high tech, highly politicized democracy is a busy beehive, and sometimes the bees are angry, and sometimes someone comes by and sticks a big sharp stick in the hive. The biggest thing Washington should do right now is stop it, stop poking the stick.”
Who could resist the suggestion that politician should “stop poking the stick” in the “beehive”? Let’s stipulate that it’s a bad idea for democratic politicians to incite violence under any circumstances so that we can turn our attention to a different question: what makes Noonan, and the people she talks to, so certain that circumstances are now so extraordinary that we’re suddenly sitting on a political tinderbox? To me that sounds more than a little over the top.

After a year of hand-to-hand ideological combat over ObamaCare, there were bound to be a lot of angry people however things turned out. But when you take a closer look at the purported incidents or threats of violence that seem to be exciting Noonan’s anxiety, they usually turn out to be an artifact of partisan spin: a video tape reveals that the congressman who complained of being spat on by a Tea Partier was really the recipient of a little inadvertent spray from a demonstrator participating a little too enthusiastically in an unobjectionable chant; the window in the congressional office allegedly shattered by brownshirt-propelled rock turns out to be on the 30th floor of a Cincinnati office building; when the camera finally panned back from the face of a cowering congressman during one of those town hall meetings last summer you could usually see that the thug getting in his face was a senior citizen clutching onto his walker with both hands. It would be easier to worry about threatening political conduct if the people complaining about it weren't so busy scoring cheap political points.

Trading anecdotes back and forth won’t tell us much about the state of our political culture. I haven't the foggiest idea how to determine whether more people are angry, and angrier on average, about ObamaCare than people were about the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the conduct that moved House Republicans to impeach him, and so on. Taken together, those examples should remind us that passionate disagreement and inflammatory rhetoric are ordinary features of our political life. What does Noonan think has changed?

My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the real cause of Noonan’s anxiety isn’t that people are getting any more violent, but that they’re exerting ever-less control over the meaning of the political things they say. The best way for me to explain what I have in mind is to reminisce a little about what commercial litigation was like in the in the mid- to late-1990s.

That was when people working in business enterprises had just started communicating in-house via email. They were still used to conveying information to their colleagues either by picking up the phone or by drafting a formal memorandum. All of a sudden they were presented with a hybrid medium; now they could send a message as directly and informally through email as on the phone, but its content would be memorialized as if it were a carefully drafted memorandum to the file, unmodified by the inflections of voice and the unstated common understandings that would have shaded the meaning of a telephonic conversation. Before the practice of emailing generated its own distinctive conventions, most people tended to write down in an email roughly the things that they’d formerly said over the phone in the expectation that the people they were emailing knew them well enough to “hear” the inflections in their virtual voice.

The result was that people left behind email scripts that, because they lacked anything like stage directions, invited wildly different interpretations. Lawyers litigating an antitrust case would find an email from one middle-level manager to another about how, by doing one thing or another, they could crush competing firms as if they were ants. If recited in just the right tone of voice, an email could be made to sound either like something you’d say idly over a beer after work or a diabolical plan illegally to restrain trade. A verdict worth hundreds of millions of dollars would often turn on whether contending lawyers could make a jury believe that it was one or the other. When the emailer took the stand to explain himself, a skilled cross-examiner could usually make his testimony that he was just talking through his hat in the email seem like a ham-handed evasion. When people speak in a context that isn’t yet governed by authoritative conventions and norms, it’s easy for people with an axe to grind to manipulate their meaning.

Owing to the proliferation of new media for sending political messages, and the relaxation of conventions that used to govern what is now said through older media, our political discourse is getting to be like those early emails. There used to be a conventional way of conveying a political message, depending on whether it was conveyed by a pundit writing a newspaper column, an anchor on the evening news, a candidate on the campaign trail, or by a participant in a political demonstration. That meant that the person conveying the message could speak his mind with some confidence that most of his listeners would receive the message in roughly the way he intended it.

Now that’s no longer the case, or at least not the case to the same degree. Were I to say to a liberal friend at cocktail party that Dick Cheney should be strung up by this thumbs, I wouldn’t be expecting him to head off looking for some rope, and he wouldn’t expect me to expect him to. He’d know, and I’d know that he’d know, that I was speaking figuratively. I’d also know enough about newspapers not to resort to that figure of speech were I writing a column or even addressing a letter to the editor.

But what if I said the same thing on this blog? I’d like to think that most of my readers would know implicitly that it was just a little poetic license, but I couldn’t complain if others came away with the idea that I was inciting violence. The conventions and commonly recognized norms of blogging aren’t elaborate enough to enable a stranger to tell the difference, or to inhibit someone who was prepared to twist my words for partisan effect.

We live in a world where words increasingly change their meaning when they travel across partisan barricades. That’s a sad, but not a particularly violent, state of affairs; there are a lot more people bracing for attacks than there are attackers.

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