I am communication professor interested in politics, the arts, food, cars, and cultures. So perhaps it is no real surprise that my first blog is dedicated to ruminating about, if not fully answering the question: When Should We Speak?
Here’s a scenario. Let’s say you and your significant other are out for a pleasant drive and you see a sign advertising a British Classic Car Show. You are on Cape Cod, it is early October, warm enough for the windows to be open and the top down, and the colorful leaves are beginning to change the landscape from summer to fall. You park. You walk admire the vintage MGs, Triumphs, Jags, a superior Corniche, a few minis, and a truly odd all-mahogany boat-tailed low-rider custom built on an MGB frame, complete with full wheel covers. It is a pleasant day and a friendly crowd. Then this guy, who appears to be an otherwise ordinary white male in his mid-fifties, blurts out “Don’t get me started about politics! Don’t talk to me about the past eight years, either. Obama is a socialist. We’ve got to take back our country.” He winks, conspiratorially. “I’m a Tea Partier.” ... more
I was struck this morning by a piece by Johann Hari in The Independent called “How to Spot a Lame, Lame Argument.” He writes persuasively about an argument strategy “spreading like tar over the world-wide web, and is seeping into the pubs, coffee shops and opinion columns everywhere.” It is created, he suggests, by people on the losing end of arguments, who, in a “disingenuous” attempt to save face/not lose the argument/ change the subject, blurt out “but what about ….?” This example of “but what aboutery” will no doubt seem familiar:
“So whenever I report on, say, atrocities committed by Israel, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: ‘But what about the bad things done by Muslims? Why do you never talk about them?’ Whenever I report on the atrocities committed by Islamists, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: ‘But what about Israel? Why do you never write about the terrible things they do?’ And so it goes on, whatever the subject, in an endless international shifting of blame, united in the cry: ‘What about them! Talk about them instead!’"
The newest WikiLeaks release of a quarter of a million diplomatic cables, most from the past three years, has predictably produced a range of politicized responses. What the documents provide is “in the public interest,” according to the NY Times, the newspaper responsible for publishing them. Why? Because they “illuminat[e] the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.” Certainly that claim is true. But that’s not where the worst damage will be done.
I was struck this morning by Thomas Friedman’s op-ed column, “From WikiChina” in the New York Times. Imagining a cable from the Chinese Embassy in Washington about the state of America, the piece begins with the observation:
“America remains a deeply politically polarized country, which is certainly helpful for our goal of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s most powerful economy and nation. But we’re particularly optimistic because the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things. … Americans just had what they call an ‘election.’ Best we could tell it involved one congressman trying to raise more money than the other (all from businesses they are supposed to be regulating) so he could tell bigger lies on TV more often about the other guy before the other guy could do it to him. This leaves us relieved. It means America will do nothing serious to fix its structural problems: a ballooning deficit, declining educational performance, crumbling infrastructure and diminished immigration of new talent.”
When the news broke last week of the request for Professor William Cronon’s email after his NY Times op-ed piece suggested that Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker’s behavior was contrary to the state’s history of “neighborliness, decency and mutual respect,” I was reminded of the old line from WWII survivors that begins with the words “first they came for….” It is a phrase, an analogy, which has been perhaps too often used to decry unjust political conduct by raising the specter of fear of imminent harm, but this time, in Professor Cronon’s case, I think it is appropriate. Here’s why: