A few weeks ago, a politically conservative friend and colleague sent out an email to me and a number of other people in which he shared a narrative that he was sure would offer irrefutable evidence that President Barack Obama is lying about his commitment to the security of the State of Israel.
The narrative was from a women who indicated that her 91-year-old mother had attended the American Israel Affairs Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. Thee 91-year-old mother claimed to have had an opportunity to overhear a private conversation President Obama had in which he indicated that: “No people on Earth have suffered more than the Palestinian people.”
My friend obviously believed that the older woman’s story was accurate and served as confirmation of the political right’s chronic skepticism of President Obama’s relationship with Israel. Knowing that some people receiving the email are Democrats and supporters of President Obama, my friend indicated that if recipients wished to comment, they should not make any “ad hominem” remarks. Having been down this road with this political conservative before, I knew all too well that his definition of ad-homineum really meant: If you disagree and challenge my point of view, you are being personal and mean-spirited.
Being the passionate progressive that I am, I could not let this ridiculous effort to prove President Obama a duplicitous and disingenuous person go without a response of some kind. But rather than offer a direct rebuttal or challenge the credibility of the 91-year-old story-teller, I hit the “respond to all” button and politely proposed 2 questions for the email recipients to consider:
1. Was the daughter of the story-teller who had written up her 91-year-old mother’s account now sure that her mother’s story proved beyond a doubt that the President of the United States is lying to the world when he states that he will stand by Israel and not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons?
2. Was the 91-year-old woman in question a supporter or critic of the President prior to overhearing the President’s “private conversation?”
I thought my response was polite and respectful of all parties concerned. I didn’t call the old lady a liar; I gently made the point that if the President did make the statement attributed to him, it might not be definitive evidence that the President is lying about his commitment to Israel. Is it possible that the President is committed to Israel’s security but is also sensitive to the plight of the Palestinian people? Then again, such nuanced reasoning is unfortunately inconceivable in the simple world of black and white conservative thinking where you are either good or evil, right or wrong. Grey areas just don’t exist.
The friend who sent out the email in the first place, quickly responded that I had in fact breached his no ad-hominem response warning and I would no longer be receiving any emails from him. More disturbing than his response was the email that came moments later from his wife who obviously was a recipient of the previous exchanges: “You really need to get some help with Obama obsession of yours! You’re a nasty mean person I don’t want you to ever send me any emails again.” Nothing ad-homineum about that response, eh?
I shared all these emails with my personal consiliari. While my sister’s response alleviated any sense of guilt I might have had, it also left me figuratively scratching my head and wondering about the state of dialogue in this country: “These people are obviously not very bright. Why are you trying to engage with them? It’s pointless.”
Two weeks ago, Bill Maher presented a video produced by Alexandra Pelosi (yes, daughter of that Pelosi,) on his weekly HBO show, Real Time. In the video, Pelosi interviews a number of people she met in Mississippi. Both Maher and Pelosi swear that the video was not a cut’n paste job intended to only present uneducated, uncouth people who hate President Obama. But to say that the video offers a very seedy, unpleasant perspective on common folks in the poorest, most conservative state in the USA would be an understatement. But without further commentary, here’s the video, you make up your own mind:
Reaction to this video was not at all consistent with political perspectives. Conservative Republicans and the pundits at Fox Noise derided the video as mean-spirited effort to paint all southerners and conservatives as toothless, ill-informed imbeciles. Many progressives, including Bill Maher, saw the video as just that, evidence of how simple many right-wing voters are. Still others on both the right and political spectrum complained that there are less educated, less sophisticated people on both sides and that calling attention to them serves no other purpose other than public humiliation.
In an effort to confirm that very point, Pelosi, with Maher’s blessings and encouragement, took her camera to the welfare office across the street from her Manhattan residence. This second video not only affirms the fact that there are simple people on the political left, it also provides rich fodder for political conservative claims that people receiving public assistance are lazy abusers of the social safety net. Here is the second video:
I’ve now heard the statement, “Democracy is a terrible system of government, but its the best we’ve come up with,” attributed to a number of renown people in history including Winston Churchill. These two videos remind us that among those people helping to choose which men and women will govern are a helluva a lot of stupid people. That’s one of the flaws of democracy; but that’s also its inherent strength. We may not always be happy with the people elected, but so long as the democratic process remains inclusive and transparent, it’s the best system we have.
I had a professor in graduate school who had the chutzpah to repeatedly tell us that there was a definitive correlation between intelligence and a person’s politics. According to her, the further to the left your politics were, the better educated and more sophisticated you obviously are. One obvious inference from that notion that I certainly reject is that radicals and anarchists must be very intelligent people. Sorry, this left of center liberal is quite sure that not wanting to be a part of a community or civilization that has no rules or laws to protect individual liberties is a sign of profound emotional dysfunction, not brilliance. That said, I think most well-read, enlightened people would concur with postulate that: while not all conservatives are stupid, most stupid people are conservative. And for the record, this left of center liberal knows that intellectually he can’t hold a candle to the likes of conservative thinkers like David Brooks and George Will.
It’s easy to write off simple people as not worthy of our time and engagement. More times than not, it is probably pointless to engage angry, common people in discussions that are limited to facts and not rhetoric. But while we may not be able to enlighten reactionary conservatives to the politics of tolerance, inclusiveness, economic justice and equality, we must always be vigilant of efforts by the political right to accomplish by law what they can’t accomplish in the market place of human ideas, e.g. limiting a woman’s reproductive rights, demanding voters present ID cards, denying LGBT people equality, etc. And most importantly we must be wary of conservative efforts to hinder their biggest nemesis on the political stage, accurate information.
Efforts to limit access to accurate news and information take place in this country everyday:
- Rick Santorum sneers at the idea of everyone having a college education. Why? Because in college people get indoctrinated to liberal ideas. And as we all know, “truth” is synonymous with “liberalism.” So down with higher education.
- Public education, teachers and universities are not considered priorities by many if not most Republicans legislators who control state budgets. Why? Because smart people want the truth, not a populist sound bite.
- The study of science is discounted in many communities where ideas that challenge religious dogma are considered heresy. Many states require that evolution be taught as an unproven theory and that “intelligent design” (AKA, the Bible) be included in the curriculum.
- The political right considers reputable news outlets that report facts that challenge the way they want to see the world as having a “liberal bias.” As such, Fox Noise and other conservative media outlets have been created with the conscious intention OF NOT telling the whole story. Propaganda presented as “news” has and will continue undermine democracies the world over.
- Friends who want to disagree with your position, but innocently ask that you avoid responding with irrational, emotional, personalized rhetoric are guilty of nothing less than intellectual censorship. Don’t deny my right to respond if you know in advance that you cannot not effectively counter my arguments. Can’t stand the heat? don’t throw bombs at others and run like a coward out of the kitchen.
I will never challenge the rights of stupid people in a democracy; I will never suggest that intelligent conservatives with whom I disagree don’t have opinions worth hearing and exploring. That said, education, the civil liberties of all people and the free-press will and must safely guarded by all those on the political right who find them to be terribly inconvenient.