September 24, 2010

Too Ignorant To Articulate Their Own Ideas

Although one is not supposed to enjoy watching a train wreck in progress, I must say that the Arizona gubernatorial debate between Gov. Jan Brewer and her Democratic opponent Terry Goddard was a special moment. It made for satisfying entertainment. Brewer's conspicuously long moment of silence -- not in remembrance of someone who died, but because there was nothing in her brain -- seemed to last for an eternity.

And the funny thing is that in that backwards state, it's likely that she'll still win.

Brewer has decided not to do any more debates because she sucks at them, and she only did this one in order to claim "$1.7 million-plus" of "public funds" for her campaign. Besides, as she said, "I don't believe that things come out in proper context in an adversarial atmosphere." And when she was challenged post-debate by reporters about her unsubstantiated -- no, false -- claim that decapitated bodies were being found in Arizona, she couldn't take the heat and walked away.

I blame Janet Napolitano for this mess, partly at least. When she quit as governor of Arizona to head Obama's Homeland Security operations, she created a gaping hole in Arizona politics, allowing the dumbness to fill the void. Brewer, Arizona's not-ready-for-primetime secretary of state, was next in line because, unfortunately, Arizona doesn't have a position of lieutenant governor.

Now, don't get me wrong, everyone has a bad day now and then -- a brain fart, forgotten lines, thoughts cut off in mid stream. Chalk it up to lack of sleep, stress, stage fright, what have you. However, I would argue that in Gov. Brewer's case, her reticence was due to the exceedingly low storage capacity in her mind. Simply put, she has very little to work with. After all, this was the person who could not answer an important question that gets to the heart of S.B. 1070, the anti-immigrant bill that she signed into law. Regarding the law -- which essentially authorizes police to stop and arrest people who are suspected of being "illegal" immigrants -- Brewer was asked what an illegal immigrant looks like. She did not have an answer, but assured that "the law will be enforced civilly, fairly and without discriminatory points to it," whatever in Sam Hill that means. Perhaps she should have consulted the white supremacists, prison profiteers and lobbyists who wrote the bill.

But even more, I blame people such as Sarah Palin, and Bush before her, for making ignorance acceptable, fashionable and even virtuous in politics. On the campaign trail in 2008, Palin refused to speak to reporters, and in that regard became the worst of role models. In this year's midterm elections, we've witnessed the same behavior with Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, and Rand Paul, the GOP Senate candidate from Kentucky. And candidates such as Angle and Senate hopeful Ken Buck of Colorado have given their websites a makeover to remove their troubling tea party positions. For politicians, and specifically for the new breed of rightwing politicians, media attention is a fabulous thing when things are going your way. However, when things don't work out--for example, when a candidate makes a gaffe, receives negative publicity, is judged to be an extremist, or cannot speak in full sentences -- these politicians silence themselves. Or even worse, they feel that they are accountable to no one, including the public. In the end, they are mere front men and women for powerful interests, and the money speaks louder than words if we bother to listen.

By no means would I suggest that this dumbing down of political discourse is a new phenomenon. However, in the present-day context, it is very selective. And I dare say that if Barack Obama had possessed the underwhelming intellectual capabilities of a Sharron Angle, or the deficient oratorical skills of a Jan Brewer, there would be no president today named Barack Obama. In any case, it boggles the mind that this class of conservatives, however bold and self-assured, is unable or unwilling to articulate and defend their atrocious viewpoints--policies which will surely destroy this nation, or at least come closer to it than even George Bush ever could have hoped.

A big part of the problem with today's political discourse is that we do not have honest, thorough debates on the issues that educate and inform the voters. A properly functioning democracy begs for an informed populace, and America enjoys neither. And the tea party movement, the engine of excitement in the GOP, is anti-intellectual, as lynch mobs tend to be.

In order to understand the way things could be in U.S. politics, I urge you to check out the legendary debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley at Cambridge University, a university where a decade ago I had the pleasure of giving a lecture to students on human rights in the U.S. The Baldwin-Buckley debate, titled "The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro," took place on October 26, 1965, 45 years ago. Yet the debate is timeless in its truth telling, particularly as far as Baldwin's contributions are concerned.

To be sure, my political beliefs bear little resemblance to the ideological leanings of the late Buckley. And while I disagree with him on almost everything, he was a conservative public intellectual worthy of respect, and there are few of those these days. Today's conservatives surely would have shunned him, as they would have marginalized their standard bearer and quasi-deity Ronald Reagan. Tea party folks are far too extreme for old-time conservatives who mostly cared about their money. (Come to think of it, for all of their so-called Christianity, the tea party conservatives wouldn't have thought much of Jesus for that matter -- a hippy man of color who spoke out against the rich and powerful, and hung out with the sick and the poor and the prostitutes. But alas, I digress.)

The selectively reticent, ultra-conservative public figure is a danger, a dishonest player in a game where people deserve to know where you stand. A true debate on the issues would keep all of us honest by forcing us to think about our stances and that which undergirds or fails to undergird them. But the self-serving silence of Brewer and those of her ilk does not bode well for this increasingly failed state called America. They do not express or defend their positions, perhaps because they are ignorant, or because they simply refuse to speak, or because they are patsies for oil tycoons who do all of the talking and sign the checks. Maybe it's all of the above. And I don't know which is worse.

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