Out of the Woods / "Obama on hate: Stop, look and listen
The level of intensity of political hate talk in America today has grown so disturbing that I sometimes wonder if our country is on a course that will eventually lock our political parties and our Washington politicians into a permanent death grip that could seriously endanger our democracy as we know it.
The animosity between various factions of our citizens -- on both sides of the aisle -- has become so personal and vitriolic, that all the name-calling and angry accusations have led more and more groups of people to take to the streets as well as to the ballot boxes to express their displeasure with the way things are going.
There is unbridled fury out there, fueled 24/7 by the self-righteous talk show hosts on both the left and the right, spreading poison among the voters that is palpable. This raises the question: What ever happened to old-fashioned "common sense" dialogue, reaching across the aisles, and just plain talk to try and solve our real differences?
The target of much of the venom these days is Barack Obama himself, ostensibly against his policies, but in reality against him personally with the long-forgotten and put-to-bed campaign issue of his birth certificate -- his legitimacy as president -- and his so-called "Socialist" policies now under fire. An uncommon man among us, Obama does not stoop to the level of his critics.
Instead, he continues to inspire me -- and millions like me -- who admire his steady, cool leadership and his genuine desire grounded in his character to bring people together, just as he did at Harvard, as a community organizer in Chicago and as a presidential candidate who united a badly divided party at the outset of the 2008 campaign.
Obama's solution is the same as it has been since Day 1 of his campaign. Even though his quest for bipartisanship still falls on deaf ears among the vast majority of Republicans. Some people are simply out to "bring him down" -- he, nonetheless, continues on a worthy path that offers something for everyone to embrace. It's quite simple: Just listen to one another instead of shouting past one another without any hope of détente.
Addressing the growing and increasingly bitter political schism between the two major parties in America at the graduation of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor over the weekend, he urged the 8,500 graduates and 80,000 family members to find ways to listen to one another. "Throwing around phrases like `Socialist' and `Soviet-style takeover,' `fascist' and `right-wing nut' may grab headlines," he said. "But it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian regimes." The only sure way to make progress, he pointed out, is for everyone to compromise.
More importantly -- and this is what rang a bell with me -- to listen to people with points of view that differ from our own. "If you're someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while," he suggested. "If you're fan of Glenn Beck of Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website," he added.
According to White House spokesmen, the president has, indeed, follows his own advice and watches and listens to his critics on the cable television channels, especially when he travels on Air Force One.
"It may make our blood boil," the president added. "Your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listen to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship" Obama has tried to portray himself as a president who is intent on unifying our nation -- and, to his credit -- he does not alter this course, no matter how nasty and steadfast his opponents may be. This is an admirable trait.
On this note, I have a very good friend -- a fierce Obama supporter -- who prides himself in not reading columnists of any political stripe. A while ago, I asked him why he refuses to seek the opinions of others who may or may not agree with him. "I know what I think," he said pridefully. "I don't need columnists or pundits telling me what they think." End of discussion.
So what do I do? From time to time, I purposely watching watch Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and many other conservative commentators, in addition to the Republican leaders of Congress on the evening news programs.
Many do, indeed, make my blood boil. I have been known to talk back out loud to talk show hosts in my own home. Nonetheless, I find it fascinating and well worthwhile to listen carefully to how the conservatives are framing the issues -- health care, for example -- so well that they almost succeeded in stopping this historic legislation in its tracks.
As a journalist, I am interested in words and phrases. The conservatives know how to use words well. They know how to take an issue and "frame" it as a "product" in an unfavorable light. There are buzzwords like, "raise your taxes," or "take away your freedom," or even "take back our country," as emotional appeals that work a time and time again.
This is an entertaining pastime from the point of view of studying political propaganda. The conservatives definitely have the edge. But when it comes to reason and rational choice, the Democrats win, hands down. And I say that even after following Obama's advice and listening to and reading some of my favorite conservatives. By far the best, I think, is David Brooks of The New York Times. I used to enjoy Bill Safire's column in the Times enormously. He was a personal friend of longstanding. Yet another conservative whom I truly admired was Bill Buckley, the late founder of The National Review. While I admit that I do not embrace the philosophies of the conservatives I follow, I have learned to better understand why they think the way they do.
Woody Klein's "Out of the Woods" column appears regularly in the Westport News. His forthcoming book, The Inside Stories of Modern Political Scandals--How Investigative Reporters Changed the Course of American History, will be published late this summer by Praeger Publishing.