Thursday, April 01, 2010

Huffington Post Column 13 – Political Dialogue: Too Important to be Hijacked

Writing about politics from a perspective that is pretty far left of Center, I frequently hear from readers on both sides of the political spectrum that things will not work politically in the US until everyone thinks as they do – they seem to feel that those they disagree with should be done away with in some way – deported, voluntarily leave the country, die, and then all would be right with the world.

There has always been this strain at the fringes of American politics and neither side has a monopoly on it. From time to time there have been movements to send the Irish back to Ireland, the Jews back to Europe, the Blacks back to Africa and the American Indians back to … well, no one's quite sure about that one. Notwithstanding that, these have always been the ideas of ideologues and extremists. The vast majority of Americans have, historically, been proponents of the sentiment attributed (perhaps wrongly) to Voltaire: "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

It seems to me, though, that in recent years American political dialogue has degenerated into a war that has as its object the demolition of the other side. I think it is absolutely crucial that we nip this trend in the bud. So far this war has been mostly rhetorical, but recently the rhetoric has escalated to unwarranted insults ('you lie," "baby killer"), racial slurs, and homophobic slurs directed at members of Congress. And it seems to be heating up to the point of bricks through windows and assassination plots, and lest we forget, people on both sides have been injured or killed, though so far, thankfully, this has been rare. Nonetheless, it seems to be heating up.

Readers, apparently stung by my criticism of hypocrisy on the Right often accuse me of wanting the Right to disappear. On the contrary, I think that would be a very bad thing, just as bad as if the Left disappeared. In my work with corporations one of the key principles I teach, one for which there is clear scientific evidence, is that in order for any group to come up with ideas that are smarter than its smartest members would have come up with on their own, it must have a wide range of diverse viewpoints. I am convinced that one of the reasons that the US has been a consistent world leader in innovation, quality, human rights, standard of living, and on and on is that we have had a lively and vibrant dialogue among wide-ranging points of view.

Another principle of group intelligence is that the extremes cannot be allowed to hijack the debate. During the Vietnam War era, the anti-war left took control of the debate. While the view is not popular on the left, it is my firm belief that, despite the best of intentions, our taking over that debate from Nixon et al. had them resist all the more and thus prolonged the war and cost countless lives. This is not something of which I am proud – it is something I try to make up for in my life and in my writing.

Today the anti-government Right has an influence in current political debates that is, by all indications, all out of proportion to its actual numbers or popular support. Just as the Left in the 70's attracted all kinds of ideas that were irrelevant to being against the war – Leary's "tune in, turn on, drop out" comes to mind as do Kesey's Acid Tests and others – the anti-government Right finds itself in bed with the insanity of the birthers, racists, militia extremists, and a whole clown car of idiots and nutcases.

Just as the Left had to get itself straightened out in the post-Vietnam dialogue, it's time for those on the Right who know the value of the dialogue to retake control of it from the extremists, both those in the Tea Party movement and those in Congress. We need two sides or we will become very dumb indeed at a time when we need every ounce of intelligence and wisdom we can find.

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