Things we used to say: “If you can’t stand the heat…”
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”
- Harry S. Truman
The original context related to candidates for public office, but there’s a lesson in it for the rest of us too.
I remember being shocked that Spiro Agnew was blaming the media. He called them “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Even after resigning from the Vice Presidency as a condition of his plea-bargain for taking bribes, he never took personal responsibility. It was always someone else’s fault; he really was sorry, but only for getting caught.
Fast-forward to Sarah Palin. She was giving her first unrehearsed media interview to Katie Couric. On the basis of her complaints about “activist judges” Couric asked her if there were any Supreme Court cases in particular that bothered her. The only one she could name was Rove v. Wade. Somehow even Alaska v. Exxon Corp escaped her, as did “Bush v. Gore”. It seemed absurd for a candidate for national office, who had just talked about Supreme Court decisions, to be able to name so few of them. Her 15 minutes of fame began to drag from that moment and we’re still waiting for it to end.
Setting the pattern for the rest of her public life, she blamed Couric for “gotcha questions”. Which would be “Any question that reveals the candidate as a big fat phony.” To be honest, it’s exactly the kind of questions I like to see candidates answer; they’re the media equivalent of Lisa Simpson stealing all the teacher’s edition textbooks. In that story none of the teachers were able to function without them; we would be impressed by those who do.
George W. Bush didn’t exactly revel in the marketplace of ideas either, famously surrounding himself with people who avoided questioning him. Even during his campaigns, people wearing questionable T-shirts were ejected from speeches. Contrast that style to Obama, who pressed the flesh so consistently we wound up afflicted with “Joe The Plumber”.
(Hmm… maybe avoiding criticism has some merits. No, damn it, on balance, even with JTP, I want to see candidates face opposing ideas.)
Rick Santorum blames Google for the social opposition to his homophobia. Really! He wants the algorithmic search engine to be artificially tweaked so his name won’t be associated with anything frothy. Donald Trump thinks Obama should put a stop to Occupy Wall Street protesters. “You shouldn’t let that kind of thing go on too long,” he says.
Remember Ron Rand Paul’s endless exchange with Rachel Maddow in which he tried every rhetorical evasion in the book to avoid admitting he simply wasn’t in favor of the Civil Rights Act? When she had him on video saying just that? If candidates can’t even face questions, will they end hiding under the bed for three days when the nation is attacked? And then go invade the wrong country?
I’ve noticed a certain pattern to the distribution of whining about “Gotcha” questions, or opposition in general. Questions about their personal life, their religion, or what they said in a book published last year (lookin’ at you, Rick Perry) , are out-of-bounds. How dare you question their faith-based flag-waving?
It’s odd that they would expose themselves to the dangers of full agreement. If you silence opposing voices, and surround yourself with sycophants, you just get dumber. Perhaps Conservatives view that as a feature, rather than a bug.
What I want to know is: Can we just stop taking candidates seriously the moment they start complaining about having to answer questions? When they have people with opposing views systematically ejected from rallies, or arrange “Free Speech Zones” blocks away from their motorcade routes? When they only appear on FOX news? As voters can’t we just write them off when they start doing stuff like that? Shouldn’t someone who wants to lead in a free society be able to at least deal with questions of fact? Shouldn’t they be able to demonstrate some working knowledge, or is leadership all about ideology?
The rest of us
It’s not really fair to lay all of the blame on politicians for their cowardice though, because we carefully train our children to avoid demonstrating knowledge outside of school, or ever to grapple with ideas. My own children were the subject of phone calls from school administrators for no other reason than that they chose to address controversial ideas. Satire, in particular, seemed to throw the little dictators off-balance. I don’t know if our district schools are representative but they seemed more interested in district test results than in the fire of democracy.
The result is that many children grow up without knowing how to handle ideas and facts. It means that society incorporates some really awful features – homophobia, regressive economic structures, racism, to name three – and we can’t even talk about them because it isn’t “polite”. Pressure builds until there’s a protest movement and then we dismiss the protesters as “radical”. Perhaps if we were in the habit of grappling with opposing ideas, it wouldn’t be so hard to correct injustices or adapt to new discoveries.
Online discussions are a weird hybrid of private persona in public space, and the social rules are still being worked out. But it really bugs me when someone responds to criticism by saying “I didn’t mean to offend anyone, I was just giving my opinion!” Or when they make a bizarre complaint about “censorship” as if they couldn’t go start their own blog.
It’s been said patriotism is the first refuge of a scoundrel but politeness isn’t far behind it. When you give somebody a substantive counter-argument, you ARE respecting them; it’s when you tiptoe around being “polite” that you’re being condescending. I have the most respect for people who can say “OK, I hadn’t thought of that” or who can give me their reasons why my reasons aren’t compelling to them.
Everyone’s limit is different, of course, and I don’t expect anyone to bloody their rhetorical knuckles over issues they don’t feel very strongly about. Nor do I expect anyone to let arguments go on endlessly – I’ve been in a few of those and they aren’t productive. But for gossakes at least if someone asks you, say what you really think. In doing so, you make space for others to do the same. Coming out of whatever closet you’re in helps open all kinds of closet doors for everyone.
- If you want to be offended by something, be offended by the commonplace that it’s more important to be polite than to correct injustice.
- Earlier entries in the “Things we used to say” series about cliches that made America strong: ”Don’t be a litterbug“, ”Stitch in time saves nine“, and “You get what you pay for“