Monday, October 28, 2013

Giving Good News its Due

News reports tend to emphasize the negative about any change proposed for or imposed on society, deepening the challenge of altering the status quo. Government's failures are put on full display, while its successes are given short shrift. Proactive efforts are seldom given credit when they succeed. Expressions of worst case scenarios, meant to discourage us from attempting change of any sort, go unchallenged. This focus on bad news ingrains in the public a belief that we cannot collectively solve our collectively created problems.

An exception to that can be found in a New York Times report entitled "Few problems with cannabis for California", which appeared on page A1 of Sunday's paper. Though it begins with a paragraph filled with negative aspects of marijuana legalization, it quickly pivots towards the positive in subsequent paragraphs, beginning with a dismissal of common fears associated with legalization:
"Warnings voiced against partial legalization — of civic disorder, increased lawlessness and a drastic rise in other drug use — have proved unfounded."
Reports of communities having trouble with legalized medical marijuana are followed immediately by solutions other communities have found to those problems:
"And though Los Angeles has struggled to regulate marijuana dispensaries, with neighborhoods upset at their sheer number, the threat of unsavory street traffic and the stigma of marijuana shops on the corner, communities that imposed early and strict regulations on their operations have not experienced such disruption."
Though potential downsides to legalizing marijuana are mentioned, so are the various upsides, such as increased tax revenue, reduced crime, and evidence that people use marijuana as a substitute for alcohol. Because marijuana supposedly does not impair drivers as much as alcohol, the reduction in alcohol use could lead to fewer traffic accidents. (Not that anyone would want to drive after using either one.)

What seems unusual here is not only the positive slant, which dismisses fears and then reports on how pro-active efforts by government have paid off, but also the embedding of this positive story in the fabric of the article.

Imagine if reports of floods, rather than devoting themselves to long testimonials of victims, would instead emphasize that towns with stricter regulation of development in flood zones suffered less destruction. Or if reports of wildfires, while documenting the damage and personal trauma, gave equal coverage to those areas where proactive "fuel-reduction" burns performed in previous years had saved forests and communities. Or if reports of weather extremes would integrate into the fabric of the text the link these extremes have with the use of fossil fuels, thereby showing that action now could reduce destructive storms later.

Though readers would lose some of the spectator thrills of bad news, we would gain the empowering sense that there are solutions out there. Government would be portrayed not so much as the entity that comes in and cleans up the mess, but the entity that did what it takes to forestall disaster.

Friday, October 04, 2013

George Will's Marxian Serenity

Convention holds that our political axis extends left and right from the moderate center in opposite directions, with extreme left and right extremely distant from each other. But what if the left and right are not divergent but instead tend to converge at their fringes, exhibiting similar traits in their most extreme forms.

I first encountered evidence of this in a talk in April, 2012 by columnist George Will at Princeton University's Whig Hall. He had recently joined the Board of Trustees for the university.

Will's tone of choice is supercilious, relieved periodically by some wit or even a moment of self-deprecation. The life of the mind, he said, should be fun, and then offered his "beer-centric theory of civilization", beginning with the Egyptians. Beer saved the Middle Ages from water-borne diseases. Benjamin Franklin offered beer as "proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." But he primarily devoted his energies to denigrating government and skewering liberals like Pelosi and Biden as feeble-minded. He ridiculed the New York Times one minute, quoted it as an authoritative source the next. But he also offered students some advice.

Mr. Will ended his talk abruptly, calling for questions. I was becoming impressed by how many questions he was taking when, as he began responding to a questioner's doubts about our nation's future competitiveness with China ("It is a great nation, with problems, but...), he suddenly began coughing. His face turned beet red. His authoritative voice shrank to a near whisper, and he paced back and forth on the stage, telling the audience he would quickly recover. A woman offered him a pill. He looked at the container and said he was already full of the stuff.

He seemed, suddenly and for the first time, vulnerable. He who had bristled with cutting remarks, with nothing but contempt for government and liberals, was suddenly speechless, coughing, voice shrunken. I felt for a moment some sympathy for this man. We waited for him to recover. When his voice had mostly returned, and after having expressed uncertainty about what will remain once the government bashers have fully exercised their passions, he finished by saying he has "almost a Marxist serenity..." And there it was, laid bare, the kinship with Marx, the shared certainty that the great evil, be it capitalism or liberalism, will collapse of its own weight. It was the serenity of a warrior prepared for come-what-may, armed with a nihilist's willingness to risk all, including country, on the certain truth of his ideology.

Where had I heard this before? I was taken back to 1973 and readings of Marx and Engels in a college economics course. Some students in the class, who were ready to turn Yellow Springs, Ohio into a miniature Soviet state where socialism could prosper in all its glory, made the argument for revolution. Capitalism has internal contradictions that will surely bring about its collapse. We must act now to overthrow the system. The insights of Marx and Engels had power and appeal, but my disillusionment came when the fearless student revolutionaries were asked who would assume power after the revolution. "We will," they declared. It sounded all too convenient.

One could speculate on how a rightwing columnist could adopt characteristics of those on the extreme left. There are the distorting requirements of his pundit's calling--the need, under the glare of stage lights to project certainty, the polarizing format of point/counterpoint, the threat to his niche, career and following posed by admitting error, expressing moderation or changing his mind. One could wonder at the privileged position of pundits like Mr. Will, who are given such ample space in multiple media to ascribe political and moral failings to others while their own training and cumulative track record remain unquestioned, their backgrounds and personal failings unexplored.

Now, in October, 2013, with the federal government shut down and an even more debilitating default looming, we see the fruition of a nihilism that George Will, and the pundit culture he inhabits, has done so much to cultivate.

Note: In a recent column, Will tries to pull Republicans back from the brink ("The government should not close."), while at the same time egging them on, encouraging them to complete "the neutering of this presidency."