October 1, 2006

A civil society, our uncivil discourse and the appeal of Deval Patrick: Why Words Matter

Many other things besides our physical environment affect "livable communities." And while I rarely venture into (non-planning-related) politics here, it's time to take a stand on ... rhetoric.

Yup, words.

Sure, they can't break your bones like those childhood sticks 'n stones. But the constant name-calling, mud-slinging partisan politics that have sadly come to define the current era harms our society.

It's hard to come to a workable consensus on an issue when you've got one side pouring through any and all statements by the other to portray them as weak, ineffectual and "flip-flopping." Once such Karl Rovian attacks began working, we no longer had two political parties trying to implement their vision of improving society. Instead, we've got too many politicians competing how to best boil down the most complex issues to six-word sound bites and tear down opponents with invective that would make Mean Girls proud.


And I'm not alone.

For all the "pundits" and "analysts" out there who can't figure out why Deval Patrick is polling so well, despite supposed unpopular stands on "important issues," here's a clue: Voters like what he's saying and how he says it. They like how he carries himself. He comes across as caring and principled -- courageous enough to say what he thinks while flexible enough to believe that it's worth listening to others because he might learn something. He appears to understand the difference between being true to your core values and being so stubborn that you'd never change your mind despite mounting evidence that you were wrong; and between listening to others to try to learn something, and changing your tune whichever way the latest polls blow.

People like that.

Deval Patrick speaks to many when he talks about people wanting to change the cynicism of the era, and yearning to "check back in" and work toward hope - and a better future - for all. Add to that a resume that combines a rags-to-riches personal story with solid experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors, and it's no wonder he appears to be appealing to a majority of voters (at least according to the latest polls) despite endless harping on what opponents hope are "hot-button issues."

You know what? I'm mature enough to understand that I might not agree with my candidate on every issue. I don't agree with ANY candidate on every issue. And Deval Patrick is right when he talks about the importance of the governor's office being more than just arriving with a laundry list of issues, but also the power of the "bully pulpit." A lot of people appear to like the idea of him holding it.

I'm well aware that politics is a contact sport. But there's a wide spectrum of possibilities between everyone holding hands singing "kumbaya" and the kind of non-stop vitriol we hear coming out of Washington, Beacon Hill and even our so-called respectable media these days. It's not just cable TV talking heads, radio shock jocks and tabloid desperate-to-grab-attention-by-saying-the-most-outrageous-things-they-can-dream-up columnists. Even the Boston Globe has succumbed.

The Globe's irony-challenged columnist Brian McGrory Friday called for more substance and less vague rhetoric from Deval Patrick ... and then offered this snide aside: "Now I'm sure that all his sandal-wearing, Volvo-driving acolytes from Newton and Lexington believe that their candidate has no obligation to offer specifics. ... But I'm guessing there are an awful lot of regular people who ...."

Besides stooping to the level of junior high school name-calling, what's he really saying here?

1. Anyone who's passionately in favor of a candidate McGrory doesn't like should be sneered at.

2. Anyone who lives in a community that has a higher than average income and/or a more progressive than average outlook (and by progressive, keep in mind that we're talking about favoring policies aimed at helping others beside oneself) is worth mocking.

3. A certain class of Patrick supporters who McGrory doesn't agree with aren't actually "real people." I'm not sure who are gets to qualify as real people. Only middle-income and low-income conservatives? Is everyone else just a fraud?

Wow, lots of useful specifics here.

In the same edition, the Globe published an op-ed "Insider's Guide to the Campaign" by a Republican strategist who sneeringly referred to left-wing liberals -- again, people who are most likely to support laws and spending designed to help society's most vulnerable -- as the "moonbat vote" ("With Patrick sure to capture 99 percent of the moonbat vote....").

Once again, you've got someone attempting to not only marginalize but delegitimize those who disagree with him by name-calling. Unintentionally, that offered the most revealing look at the GOP "insider's" 2006 election strategy.

This, of course, is simply adopting the same techniques that Republicans are using on the national stage. Anyone who dares question the huge cost and tragic results of the war in Iraq is smeared with phrases like "cut and run," "unpatriotic" and "following enemy propaganda." Those who favor keeping centuries-old Constitutional rights like habeaus corpus and adhering to critically important worldwide treaties like the Geneva Conventions are "coddling terrorists" (when in fact they're fighting for liberties our president swore to protect, and offering security to our own military by making it more likely that enemy combatants would surrender and that information we get from interrogation is actually true instead of wild statements given by someone desperate to make pain go away.)

These attacks are a clear attempt to quash dissent and help a party in power stay in power. However, they're not doing much to help either our democracy or a civil society. If you're sick of negative campaigning as well, keep in mind that the only way such rhetoric will stop is if it no longer works. And the only way that'll happen is if we pay attention to tone as well as substance, and cast our votes accordingly on Nov. 7.

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