A Politician, a Journalist, and a Citizen Walk into a Room
My face was hot and red. I began muttering to myself and rolling my eyes. My internal argument grew rancorous: stay or leave, ask a question or angrily scroll notes in my notebook for a pointed email later on. In my efforts to become a better citizen, I attended a political meeting about local issues. I left, bewildered by my sense of rage and ashamed that I could barely contain it. I’m not known for my patience or for suffering fools gladly, but sometimes I can be very foolish of my own accord.
Perhaps it is that for the last two years, we’ve been exposed to the ugly underbelly of American life so relentlessly. The ignorant have bragged about their ignorance. The hateful have openly celebrated their hate. The wealthy have brazenly claimed their gluttony and disregard for the average American. The incompetent have seated themselves at the table of power. A minority of citizens got the spokesperson and president they wished for: crude, insulting, illiterate, impulsive, lacking in any insight that doesn’t benefit him or shine the light on him.
With him, came the corporate looters, the big game hunters, the vacuous, pretty women who have deluded themselves into thinking screen time means power, the braggarts who suggest education and reading are elitist, the conspiracy theorists and other-blamers, the couch potatoes who laze about watching television and Twittering themselves. American life as reality TV. It cannot help but infect even the most reasonable among us.
I used to think of myself as a reasonable person, but I just don’t know anymore. My life experiences have put me in the path of a wide range of people. The people who have made me angriest are those who talk down to me. A person could call me every name in the book, but once they impugn my intelligence, they have an enemy for life. This is not to say that my intelligence is any more significant than that of anyone else. It is that, of all the aspects of self one can choose to value, this is the one I value most – my ability to learn, to think things through, to see a broader perspective.
Back to the meeting. There were two speakers. One was a former journalist who had worked for both the metro area’s major newspapers for decades, served on various citizens’ councils and leagues, and worked as a public affairs writer. The other was a career politician who had been a state senator and was now serving as a county commissioner. They were each allowed presentation time to talk about regional and urban governance, each taking a different tack.
I won’t go into the specifics of the issues, because they’re not interesting and not the point of the post. The journalist spoke evenly, presented the information and sat down. He reminded me of an old school union guy I used to know – just laying it out there and hey, if you were on board, cool. I didn’t sense any partisanship and he later described himself as a centrist.
The politician got up and two minutes into his presentation, I began scrawling angrily in my notebook. There are a lot of phallocentric words. I think I used most of them. It was childish, but this rage came over me. He was talking to a group of mostly older people as if they were on a used car lot, needing to be pushed and prodded towards a sale.
It took a little more time than that to figure out that he was a Republican politician. The phrases started creeping in – all very benign out of context, like democracy, but I kept waiting for him to pull a flag out of his ass and start singing his own version of the national anthem, Fergie-style. I was, in today’s vernacular, triggered. I could feel this explosive rage building up inside me, this fierce anger at the emotional manipulations of politicians and being so very tired of the dumbed-down discourse.
Perhaps it is the nature of the beast when one is a politician. Everything is sound bites and bumper stickers. Like teachers who have to focus on the lowest performers, politicians speak to the least-informed among their voters. The other thing is that they talk constantly and repetitively. If there is one thing I believe about talking, it is that the more of it you do, the less time you have to be introspective and thoughtful or adaptive to the reality at hand.
Even with politicians I respect, I always wonder why they spend so much time talking and so little time listening. It seems like it would impair one’s ability to be a good representative. Part of the problem, of course, is that money puts them in constant campaign mode. They become walking bumper stickers for half of whatever term they serve.
This is all to say, that the person who gets screwed in all this is the well-informed centrist voter. If we’re not being condescended to by politicians, we’re being called elitists by those who seem to find education of any ilk an affront to their personal life choices.
I thought about the two styles of presentation. One was low-key, fact-ridden, and unemotional – leaving us the room to decide. The other was pushy, condescending, and in the end, unconvincing. Mostly because I thought he talked like a complete and utter wanker. And therein lies another issue – how to separate the message from the medium.
There’s a lingual patter that originated at the margins but has now infested everyday dialogue, language that quickly indicates liberal or conservative. Through repetition and a lack of imagination, we often parrot language that we associate with “our side”. In two words, one can tell the team you’re playing for. Snowflake or racist. Should it be that easy? Nobody wants to be reduced down by one word to a political chess piece.
It took me off guard, my reflexive, angry reaction. It wasn’t just one politician. It was the language of all politicians. It was all the impulsive Twittering, the constant outrage, and the addiction to hyperbole. It was the intent to masquerade parochialism as patriotism and discrimination as religion. It was the exploitation of fear and the careless use of damning terminology. It was hearing a country redefined by the language of political expediency – a language that should leave me cold under any other circumstances.
Where was that valued intelligence when I angrily scrawled this guy is an utter dick in my notebook? I’m only grateful that I still have the ability to feel shame at a time when shamelessness seems to be a national pastime.