Monday, June 12, 2017

Republicans Aren't Necessarily Bad. They're Just Drawn That Way.

A common picture of the Republican Party is that of a cabal of big-money plutocrats, rubbing their hands gleefully as they kick starving children into the cold and knock retirees over for the Social Security benefits while lighting cigars with $100 bills. And while this is useful as agitprop, it creates a divide in the discussion of serious issues. Granted, there are some on both sides of the aisle who are craven and corrupt, and unfortunately they also make the most noise.

It also doesn't help that the top figures in the party -- trump and his staff (Spicer, Conway, et al), Ryan, and McConnell -- further this perception with their words and actions, but such is a topic for another day ...

The thing is, though, almost all Republicans are working with the best of intentions. They honestly believe that their proposals and actions are in the best interest of the American people. So why is there such a gulf between Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, trump and normal people?
My opinion? It comes down to a fundamental difference in how progress is measured. The Republican Party measures everything in terms of dollars and cents. This is fine as far as it goes -- it is a completely objective measure, with no wiggle room for interpretation. Something costs what it costs, and revenue is revenue, and the numbers are going to be the numbers whether you like them or not. As a result, for many things this is fine ... but there are aspects of the things the government does that do not translate well into currency. Things like quality of life for a family that can no longer afford health coverage. Or environmental quality. Or lives lost fighting bullshit wars on false pretenses.

The modern Republican Party is, on paper, dedicated to the idea of fiscal responsibility. They believe that deficit spending is fundamentally bad, that social welfare programs impede individual initiative, and (at least, on the far right) that many of the problems faced by marginalized populations -- the poor, people of color, and so on -- are the result of moral failings at the individual level. Proposals presented by the Republicans are centered around the idea of "if ya ain't got the dough, don't spend it." Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in the following statement made by Rep. Mo Brooks on May 1:
“My understanding is that it will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher health care costs to contribute more to the insurance pool. That helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy. And right now those are the people—who’ve done things the right way—that are seeing their costs skyrocketing.”
On the surface, this seems like a pretty cruel, heartless stance. After all, what Rep. Brooks appears to be saying here is that if someone gets breast cancer, say, then it's their own damned fault for not living a clean life and they deserve to pay more for insurance as a result.

Now, everybody knows this is bullshit, and it's a pretty safe bet that's not what Rep. Brooks meant. My guess is that he was speaking more to the apparent fairness of premium amounts, taking a position that people who need more health care should be paying higher premiums. And while this does seem like a reasonable proposition, it misses the point entirely on how insurance is supposed to work (the people who need less subsidize the people who need more, thus spreading the cost more or less evenly ... but diving into the intricacies of health insurance actuary is way beyond the scope of this article).

This illustrates a higher point, though. Whether it stems from ideology, or the need to maintain viewership across the basic cable spectrum, or just pure salaciousness, we have been trapped in a cycle of "gotchas" for the past several decades. Barack Obama says "So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion ..." as a statement on small-town America's reaction to steady job losses over the prior twenty years, which is clearly evident when the entire quote is used:
"Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
However, the right-wing shriek factory chose to highlight a specific phrase in a manner designed to generate the most outrage, furthering the narrative of Obama as a Kenyan Muslim terrorist atheist communist dictator, hellbent on taking away everyone's guns and forcing them to adhere to Sharia law (which, let's be fair, almost none of the target audience knew anything about except what they had heard from the right-wing shriek factory in the first place ... and not for nothing, but it is impossible to be a Muslim and an atheist. Just sayin'.).

To be fair, this sort of nonsense happens on the left as well, but again ... a topic for another article ...

The thing is, there are actually very few Republicans who hew strictly to this line. The vast majority of them do not agree with ideological purity at all costs; instead they adopt a stance of "Okay, I have my ideology, you have yours, and there has to be some agreeable middle ground."

For example, as you may have guessed, I am a liberal. Very liberal. Not quite to the anarchist extreme of some, but definitely more than most. One of my best friends is a hard-core conservative Republican. We argue about politics all the time, and rare is the occasion when one of us makes a solid enough argument to change the other's position. Despite this obvious mental deficiency on his part (kidding, and he knows it), he is a wonderful stepfather, a good and decent person, and regularly kicks my ass at pool.

And this is the fundamental point. Republicans are not, by nature, evil. They are not the sort of cartoonish, sinister villains portrayed in the media, any more than liberals are all a bunch of skinny, stoned, granola-munching whiners with acoustic guitars militantly guarding against trigger words. Republicans just have a different viewpoint from Democrats. That's all. They are both still Americans, they both still love this country, they both still respect the Constitution.

Go to any firehouse, police station, military barracks, elementary school, restaurant, grocery store, auto shop. Unless there is only one person there, chances are pretty good that there will be a roughly even split between conservatives and liberals. And I guarantee that the EMT who is driving the ambulance taking you to the hospital doesn't give a hairy rodent's posterior about your political affiliation, the only concern is getting you to the goddam hospital.

This is what we, as a society, are losing sight of lately. It is incumbent upon all of us -- right or left, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal -- to always remember this, and to accept the fundamental humanity of those with differing views, and to allow the respect that is born from this acceptance to be shown. And it has to start with a decision on which media outlet to frequent.

Yes, there are no purely objective sources. Every media outlet has some sort of political leaning. It's only natural, considering they are all people. Where the differences lie is in how this slant is addressed.

Some, like Breitbart and the Daily Wire on the right or Occupy Democrats and the Palmer Report on the left, make no bones about their political leanings. Which is fine, as long as people understand that their content is all opinion, not fact.

Others, like the New York Times and the Washington Post on the left and the Wall Street Journal and Forbes on the right, acknowledge their political stance but strive to keep it from coloring their reporting. Yes, sometimes they are better at it than others, but they all have one common characteristic: when a mistake is made, they cop to it. Publicly. They issue retractions and correct the erroneous information. If there are enough retractions credited to a specific reporter ... well, that reporter is then out of a job.

So I urge everyone reading this -- both of you -- to ask the following questions when considering a news source (not including articles clearly labeled as opinion pieces):
  1. Does this news source use objective language, or are there subjective terms (excluding quotes) used to attempt to sway the reader to a particular way of thinking about an issue? For example, the Daily Wire recently published a story about funding being pulled from a Shakespeare in the Park production of "Julius Caesar" because it depicts the assassination of donald trump. While the story may be true, and it is not at all uncommon for theater companies to adapt Shakespeare to modern settings, the Daily Wire uses language like "objectively despicable contents of this production" to describe the play. Rather than just reporting on the "who, what, where, when" of the issue, the Daily Wire attempts to apply a value judgement to the play, thus robbing the reader of that opportunity.
  2. Can the story be verified by multiple reliable sources? For example, if you see a story in the New York Times, or Forbes, or the BBC, or even the Daily Caller, can you also find reporting on that same topic from another source? This excludes the latest practice in which someone creates content that may or may not be factual and distributes it to like-thinking outlets, who then publish it blindly (basically, what happens here is that the article appears in multiple outlets, with identical or near-identical language).
  3. In the case of erroneous reporting, does the source acknowledge it and issue a retraction? This only applies to factual errors. For example, an article about Ivanka Trump's clothing line that reports on a pair of shoes costing $2,500 when they are actually $250 deserves a correction. An opinion piece stating that they are the butt-ugliest things to come down the pike since the Pontiac Aztek does not.
It is vitally important that we all -- Republican and Democrat alike -- do our due diligence when consuming media. It is only once we emerge from the shriek factories on both the left and right and into the light of day that we can start to find common ground on the issues facing this nation today.

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