Friday, October 29, 2010

Stop Shouting!

The Scene: Tommy and Dickey Smothers - strumming away on guitar and bass violin in the 1960’s, swapping political barbs for our edification and entertainment. Back and forth they would go, tit for tat, see-sawing their way through both sides of a current event, until finally Tommy could no longer hold his own. His arguments inevitably faltered. Backed into a corner, he would swell up, contort his face, and unleash his best game-ending attack, “Oh yeah?!”

From there, knowing he’d won, Dickey would simply pluck his bass, letting his brother’s feeble, emotional display speak for itself, and the music would go on.

A similar scene played out at some sort of political gathering in New Jersey recently, except with a twist, and not nearly so funny: With the Governor at the podium, a heckler from the crowd raised his arm and angled an accusatory finger at the speaker. Veins distended in his neck, arm pulsing to the beat of his words, he shouted until neither the Governor nor the other audience members could ignore him.

This is our unfortunate truth: More and more people, out of arguments and moved by anger, shout out in public settings, hurling unanswerable blurts, derailing the moment. It is the method of the frustrated and powerless. Take a cheap shot and see if anyone else around you will pile on. “I don’t have a well-formed argument. I don’t have a platform, or forum. I’m hurt. I’m afraid. I feel defeated. And you stand for what I’m mad about. Let me attack you in public where I am free to act this way, but you, in your position, must obey the rules of decorum.”

But this time, the speaker didn’t smile and wave his hand, hoping to dissuade the heckler. He didn’t shake his head and wait. He didn’t surrender. Governor Chris Christie turned to his heckler, pointed back at him and in a forceful but calm voice said, “It’s people like you who scream and yell that divide our country. I’m about bringing our country together.”

With the breath knocked out of the red-faced man and order restored, the Governor returned to his business. No one could deny the truth of his response. Folks from that room will not likely break out into unbridled rudeness again anytime soon. If they’re going to flail in helplessness and fury, they will most likely chose their targets more carefully, or retreat to the safety of the internet. There they can join forces with others dug-in and disenfranchised, persuading no one, but righteous in their vehemence.

Now, will I vote for Chris Christie if he runs for president? Don’t know. Don’t know much else about him. I’m just glad he stood up to the crackpot.

I don’t know that any similar event took place in California around Proposition 19, the legalization of marijuana. Yet it seems, incredibly, that we’re going to vote on this extremely controversial issue without opposing forces standing toe-to-toe, wailing, wringing hands, or gnashing teeth. Nobody got all blood-pressure-y! (Of course, it’s not too late --- we have a few days left before the election.) Still, in the mean time, business people, educators, law enforcement, newspaper editors, and ordinary citizens expressed their views in a remarkably civilized manner. The fate of the Proposition remains to be seen. But it appears the outcome will be derived from voters’ consideration of the issue sans drama.

Maybe we could use such a model for a discussion of immigration. Maybe folks could just start talking about it; other folks could listen and respond with alternative viewpoints, and so on and so on and so on.

I’ll bet there are some really good ideas out there that could begin to unravel this knotty issue. Maybe we could take turns, offer suggestions, and ask questions without ridicule. Maybe even immigrants could join in.

Of course, Arizona will be in a time out for the first round. They must sit quietly while the rest of us begin a thoughtful conversation, thinking about laws, and human beings, considering what was, what is, and what should be.

Oh, if I could only play the bass fiddle. I would strum away while we talk, offering a measured rhythm to the tune of the times.