News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, August 11, 2008

The scourge of scurrility: bickering is not debate

The "debate" over Sen. Tim Johnson's decision not to participate in oral debates in itself demonstrates why such confrontations have no substantive purpose. It has to do with the South Dakota audience.

A debate is supposed to be a formal argument or discussion. "Formal" means that the discourse follows certain rules through which facts are established and viewpoints are validated and advanced. A debate is a form of rhetorical engagement. However, oral confrontations are not the only form of debate that serves the purpose of analyzing and clarifying issues. Madville Times has proposed one form of public discussion which could permit candidates to define and defend their stances. In this so-called communication age, there are innumerable arrangements that could be made, which would not make Sen. Johnson's halting speech the issue.

What passes for debate in political campaigns has little to do with a systematic and disciplined examination of issues. The televised confrontations between or among political opponents are really group interviews. In the better ones, the participants indicate their knowledge and define their positions on issues. But most televised confrontations quickly descend into pissing duels.

Real debates make lousy television. Pissing duels raised to the level of a spectacle are what attracts an audience. That's why the media spend vastly more time and energy covering the pissing in our political campaigns than they do the issues. People at their meanest and most degraded are of far more interest to the general public than people at their loftiest. Jerry Springer is "good television." Charlie Rose is not. A good portion of the population enjoys seeing other people degrade themselves. The degradation provides them with what they regard as human life forms lower than themselves, and it gives them a sense of elevated status. It sells.

People of some intelligence and good purpose do not willingly allow themselves to become participants in rituals of degradation. Increasingly, people I know avoid political blogs and personal pages. On occasion, they do visit blogs and web pages that deal with recreational, cultural, and educational interests. Of late, however, I had people express disapproval of political blogging. While they acknowledge that a few political blogs try to present reliable information and informed opinions, many people of some education and discernment regard the blogosphere as the special hangout of those devoted to meanness and scurrility.

The Tim Johnson story has become favored fodder among the Republican-allied bloggers. Just as the schoolyard bullies attack the lame because they can't fight back, some bloggers have taken up the cry that the Senator's cumbersome speech disqualifies him from the Senate. They assume he cannot or will not respond. He has already responded.

Some bloggers have adopted the Orwellian technique of using their medium in an attempt to condition their audience into accepting as fact that Sen. Johnson's speech indicates that he is not competent to do the job of senator. One blog has taken up the blogging cudgel against Sen. Johnson and has not missed a pretext to hammer the message that the Senator is incapable of serving. Another blog which is more strident in its espousal of petit-fascist attacks asserts that the Senator should have withdrawn from the race long ago and to be responsible should do so now. Democrat blogs have joined in the chorus that declining to engage in confrontational oral debates is sort of an admission of not being able to do the job.

They all miss the fact that Sen. Johnson resumed his committee work while in rehabilitation . Committee members do not need to be on the Senate premises to cast their votes. Since his return to the Senate a year ago, Sen. Johnson has sponsored or co-sponsored more than 100 pieces of legislation, has not missed a vote, and has fully participated in the work of his assigned committees:

Senate Committee on Appropriations - 11
Subcommittee on Agriculture Rural Development Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies - 6
Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development - 5
Subcommittee on State Foreign Operations and Related Programs - 6
Subcommittee on Interior Environment and Related Agencies - 7
Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies - Chair
Subcommittee on Transportation Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies - 10
Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs - 2
Subcommittee on Financial Institutions - 2
Subcommittee on Security and International Trade and Finance - 3
Subcommittee on Securities Insurance and Investment - 3
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources - 5
Subcommittee on Energy - 4
Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests - 3
Subcommittee on Water and Power - Chair
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - 5

He chose not to accept his appointment on the Senate Ethics Committee so that his energies could be concentrated on the above committees, which have have special relevance to the needs of South Dakota.

In explaining why he chooses not to engage in direct debates, Sen. Johnson has said that his speech has not recovered to the point he had hoped it would by this time. He sometimes pauses while he searches for precise words and his pronunciation has to be studied because he has not regained full muscular control of his articulation. He has shown no difficulty in answering questions when he meets with groups of constituents. But he realizes that his speech can be a distraction from a real examination of the issues--and lead some people to superficial and false characterizations of his abilities. And, of course, it would give the bottom feeders a chance to create a spectacle.

The South Dakota blogosphere may have had an influence on the decision not to engage in direct debates. As the character assassins hammered away at the speech and debate situation, the drooling goons who like to comment anonymously spewed layers of slime over their keyboards. If the Senator engaged in direct debate and encountered some infelicitous moments, one could expect the blogosphere to go off in orgasms of malignant glee. Of course, that is really good for democracy.

People who deal with aphasia--the effects of brain injuries on speech--have been cautious about Sen. Johnson's plans to engage in direct debates. Recovery of speech requires long and arduous work, and the speed of recovery is not predictable. The more the various media commented on the Senator's slowness of speech, the more it became apparent that the media was fixing on matters of fluency and diction, not on the work being done by the Senator. What would be gained by provoking personal attacks from some media "reporters" and some bloggers and providing occasion for the campaign to descend into the muck of personal attacks and scurrilous accusations and representations? However much some people want such a spectacle of degradation in the name of "democracy," intelligence requires that a political candidate not participate in such occasions.

A major consideration is the growing intolerance of personal attacks in campaigning. Hillary Clinton's undoing in her quest for nomination as a candidate for president was her lapse into Republicam-style campaigning. As the number of political leaders who endorsed Obama mounted, nearly all cited the direction that the Clinton campaign took as the major factor in their decisions. Instead of reporting on this factor, the media looked for stories of betrayal and double dealing. Consequently, people have not been provided with an assessment of how many voters are offended and object strongly to perosnal attack as a campaign strategy. And so, they are not given a clear reason as to the powerful attraction of Barack Obama. Any savvy campaign recognizes that any kind of campaign engagement which incites the malicious will lose the interest of a very significant number of voters and lose votes. The South Dakota blogosphere has sent very clear and strong signals as to what is in store for Sen. Johnson should he choose to debate.

The argument is that the drooling goons comprise a minority of the blogosphere. The malevolence factor has a right to give voice to its malignancy. But other people have an equal right to reject and avoid it. The critical matter in personal attacks, malice, and scurrility is how badly they contaminate the discussion. About four years ago when it was known that a political figure was looking for a place to house his papers and to set up a think tank and public service center focusing on the northern plains, some people in Aberdeen put together a very attractive proposal. However, when consultants reviewed the proposal, they rejected it out-of-hand largely because of the degree of malicious commentary on the discussion board sponsored by the local newspaper. Their explanation was: we put limits on the contaminants allowed in our air and our water because of their damaging effects on humans, and there are parallel damages with how verbal contaminants work in a community.

Sen. Johnson acknowledged that while he has regained his speaking ability to a considerable extent, it will be made a distraction by some members of the press and the blogosphere. There are better and more constructive ways to engage and inform the voters--ways that will avoid exposing voters to the withering malignancies demonstrated by some bloggers and commentators.

Democracy depends on sound information and clearly stated viewpoints. It does not depend on one form debate, a form that lends itself to degraded and degrading spectacles that is the current obsession of cable news and the only mode in which some bloggers operate. There is a huge distinction between an honest examination and criticism of a viewpoint and the spewing out of misrepresentations, slanders, insults, and other expressions of personal malice. The latter have become a tradition among some political operatives and have seriously damaged our democracy.

Perhaps if the trend of rejecting malicious campaigning continues, the blogosphere might even contribute to honest and constructive discussion.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States