Saturday, October 10, 2009

America’s “Question Period” is in session

The notion of political correctness declares certain topics, certain expressions, even certain gestures, off-limits. What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.” –George Herbert Bush

LAKE WORTH – When I first moved to Buffalo to start law school in 1979, I discovered Canadian television.

What was so different about Canadian television back then? They did not censor their programs or movies, so George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine would have been a little less funny across the border. I was also able to watch Canadian football (I love the fact that there are no fair catches in their game) and a continuous regimen of NHL hockey.

But what was most interesting (and addicting) to me during my three years in Buffalo was to come home, turn on the set and watch first Prime Minister Joe Clark and then P.M. Pierre Trudeau defend themselves, their parties, and their policies in the “Question Period” of the Canadian Parliament.

The Question Period involves the Prime Minister of Canada getting questioned by leaders and members of the opposition parties and debating them every day that Parliament is in session.

Question Period can be a brutal, verbal food fight. The Prime Minister is asked hard, intense, and sometimes nasty questions. He, in turn, answers the questions in equally ruthless words and tones. All participants in the Question Period easily throw accusations of impropriety and corruption at each other-sometimes, it gets very ugly (today, you can watch it on the Internet-click the above link to watch recent sessions).

I continue to be fascinated by what recent American pundits would term the “incivility” of the dialogue of the Question Period. Every morning that Parliament meets, the head of the Canadian government has to get up out of bed and defend his policies and actions in Parliament-and personally endure considerable abuse from political opponents. It is citizen democracy at its best

Recently, President Obama and many pundits in the mainstream press have been critical of the rise of incivility in our political dialogue, particularly in the health care reform debate.

The unexpected verbal abuse thrown at incumbent congressmen and senators at recent town halls, the tough language used and callous attire worn by some protestors at Tea Party rallies throughout the nation, South Carolina Congressmen Joe Wilson’s shouting “you lie” during Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress, the insane reference by Congressman Alan Grayson’s comparing the nation’s health care system to the Holocaust, and the elevated banter on talk radio and cable programming, have all caused Obama apologists to argue that these exhibits of words and emotions are over the line in terms of decency and even a threat to our democracy..

In an op-ed recently written by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman entitled “Where did ‘we’ go?” , he made an analogy of our present state of political dialogue to the heated political climate in Israel that he alleged lead to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.

Friedman contended that the name calling and sometimes racist depictions of President Obama, the questioning of his birth in the United States, and harsh arguments against his policies are dangerous (like it supposedly was to Rabin) not only for Obama himself, but the institution of the Presidency. He pleads that in these troubled times, Americans must come together as one instead of ratcheting up the ideological rhetoric:

“…politics is a tough business. But if we destroy the legitimacy of another president to lead or to pull the country together for what most Americans want most right now — nation-building at home — we are in serious trouble”

I disagree. While the mainstream press likes to magnify the extremes of some who protest, like a few racist pictures of Obama at tea party rallies and gun toting members of the town hall meetings, most of the dialogue, while elevated, is no less “violent” than those in the past serving in Washington have ever endured- and certainly nothing different that was thrown (including shoes) by those now whining about incivility at President Bush in the not so distant past.

As the thick skinned Canadians politicians show day after day in the Question Period, ugly words and behavior promote, rather than ruin, their democratic form of government.

Americans are now scared about losing their standard of living and their lifestyle. Out in the heartland, what were once an apolitical and/or apathetic middle class of Americans are now waking up from their Prozac induced stupor. For the first time in two or three generations, the common American is seriously challenging political leadership at all governmental levels-and incumbent politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, are running scared.

The nasty and loud tone of those on both the left and right and the ugly rhetorical clash of such cultures taking place in Congress is, in fact, a reflection of this political awakening, not an effort to destroy the legitimacy of our messianic President. This angry dialogue is the byproduct of the end to a political ennui, a sign that Americans are becoming much more politically engaged. It is certainly not a threat to the well being of President Obama or our democracy.

More and more, Obama needs to be protected from criticism, because he promised a lot and is really getting nothing done (as was humorously portrayed in the Obama Address skit on NBC’s Saturday Night Live).

The lamenting about the breakdown of civility in political dialogue itself is really nothing more than a cynical strategy formulated by Obama supporters and the mainstream press to deflect such disparagement. It is a tactic that exploits our obsession with political correctness and an American preoccupation with civility in our everyday speech (which is exemplified by the fact that Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words are still prohibited from American airwaves).

What is in fact really dangerous is the call for “nation building” (where the power of the state is used to construct and structure a national identity) because it attempts to deter the important clash of political ideologies and debate of the issues. It sets a diminished standard for what acceptable political speech really is and establishes a prohibited class of “political pornography.” With the mainstream press and influential Hollywood and television personalities as forceful accomplices, the plea for “civil dialogue” is a serious threat to free speech because it dissuades the dissemination of news, information and philosophies, all in the name of national unity and political correctness. It is true statist censorship.

Obama is not the type of leader that could ever tolerate a daily Question Period. Rather, he defends his message by sound bite. Unlike many members of Congress who got in front of hostile town meeting crowds and endured withering face to face criticism (with many then rethinking their positions on healthcare more in line to their constituents), our President favors giving weekly monumental speeches from Teleprompters and speaking at staged forums with hand selected audiences to join the debate. It is easier for our Nobel Prize winning President and his supporters to frame their raucous opponents as “dangerous” and, like George Carlin would put it, “fucked up,” tolerate the voices, images, and philosophies of true and important dissent. As time goes on, we will learn, the hard way, that the real danger to the Presidency and our country is not questioning our leaders, but the man occupying the Oval Office being larger than the institution itself.