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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

If you want to discuss politics intelligently, try using more than four letters

Graffiti and riots in Berkeley this week made it clear some people there aren't interested in rational political debate, either. (AP photo)
Graffiti and riots in Berkeley this week made it clear some people there aren't interested in rational political debate, either. (AP photo)
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Friday, February 03, 2017 09:01 pm
A few days after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Jeffrey Smith turned the American flag flying in front of his Fort Wayne home upside down and lowered it to half-staff — officially turning Old Glory into a symbol of distress and mourning. When I knocked on the door to ask why, the self-proclaimed conservative financial planner and former Eagle Scout politely explained his "patriotic" electoral response was intended to express concern over the new president's commitment to the Second Amendment and his stated desire to "spread the wealth around." I intended to take the same approach several days ago when the police scanner reported how President Donald Trump was hanging in effigy in front of a house on Oakdale Drive. When I arrived I saw not only the Trump doll with an old Soviet flag attached to it and a huge upside-down American flag but something in the windows that quickly changed my mind.

"F—- Trump," the signs screamed in letters big enough to be seen by passersby — including children and others still innocent enough to be offended and those who haven't yet been persuaded that politics justifies anti-social behavior.

Those proudly vulgar signs have been all but overlooked in local media's coverage of the Trump doll, but they in fact represent a larger and far more important story. When people who supposedly want to shape public opinion openly behave in ways that would have invited widespread condemnation and rejection not so long ago, the nature of our political discourse has fundamentally changed, and not for the better.

Just this week on the campus of the University of California in Berkeley — supposedly a bastion of free speech — violent protests shut down a planned speech by the gay right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopolous. Opponents apparently consider Yiannopolis something of a would-be fascist and proved their superiority by acting like Hitler's Brown Shirts. Why should anybody be able to listen to someone with whom you disagree?

On the other hand, why would anybody want to listen to people whose arguments are limited to rage, violence and various epithets? When the media obscure such behavior, as they did during the recent "Women's March" in Washington and now in the Oakdale story, the omission skews the motives and complexities of the people and issues involved.

Are there reasons to dislike our new president? Plenty. Despite some very good appointments, there is  room for improvement: He should release his tax returns. Limitations on travel from some Muslim-majority countries should have been implemented more professionally and humanely.  He should treat allies with respect. He should stop acting petty by arguing over such things as attendance at his inauguration. He should stop gratuitously picking fights over perceived slights by the media and others.

But how do you discuss any of that, and more, with people whose arguments begin with "F" and end with "you"? Why should you engage people who smash things and beat up those with whom they disagree? And those aren't just questions for the left: Seniors at a Texas high school recently were filmed giving the Nazi salute as they allegedly shouted "Heil Hitler" and "Heil Trump." If it was supposed to be a joke, nobody was laughing.

  I've been in the opinion business for a long time, and the opportunity to engage in vigorous but cordial debate has been a source of stimulation and joy. Minds are seldom changed, but the exchange forces both sides to explore their positions, possibly altering them when appropriate. But when people begin to believe opponents are not only misguided but evil, cordial debate becomes impossible. And when wee refuse to talk to each other in anything less than a shout or scream, the inevitable temptation is to talk only to those with whom we agree. Everyone else is the "enemy."

But Americans aren't each others' enemies, and should be able to disagree in a way that produces understanding if not consensus. We've been through this before, of course, and the late1960s saw more than its share of tragedies as a result of conflicts created by the civil rights movement, Vietnam War and other cataclysmic events.

Compared to those, what have we got to fight about? Let's all calm down before history repeats itself.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

 

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