Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Quiet Majority

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

-- From “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Majority rules. It’s a fundamental precept of democracy. Yet, in real life it doesn’t always play out that way. Sometimes, the majority can be overruled.

For instance, in a spontaneous political discussion around a picnic table in the park, one pushy palooka with a bullhorn voice can shout down any five soft-spoken picnickers, taking turns to speak. Moreover, history tells us that when a savvy and energetic minority wants to run roughshod over the prerogatives of most of the population it can be done. It helps to be organized and ruthless.

We’ve recently seen town hall meetings about health care reform sabotaged in ways kindred in spirit to the picnic table example. Rudeness has seemed to be in the air this month. Most notably, Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” at President Barack Obama, in the midst of a presidential address before a joint session of congress.

Aren’t some of the same folks who stridently objected to President Obama speaking to their children during the school day now calling the obstreperous Rep. Wilson a hero?

Talk about setting a bad example for kids!

Just how many people really see Wilson’s calculated grandstanding as a heroic gesture is guesswork. We’ll probably see a poll on that soon, but polls on such provocative questions are sure to be gamed to the hilt.

However, regardless of their political affiliations, I’m confident that most everyday people disapproved of what the ill-mannered, celebrity wannabe congressman from South Carolina did to interrupt the president’s address.

Wilson has been getting plenty of help in becoming a celebrity from the two relentlessly partisan, finger-pointing basic cable news networks -- MSNBC and Fox News.

With MSNBC on the left and Fox News on the right, a consumer can take in the same story presented from clashing points of view. How close either network gets to telling the plain truth varies from day to day. With their formats, those networks need the Wilsons of the world more than they seem to need to find the truth.

All the political news programs televised in this age routinely use battling spokespersons, people who are paid to attack their opponents. Too many times those presentations degenerate into shouting contests. It’s hard to believe any of the consumers’ minds are being expanded, or changed, by being subjected to mean-voiced bickering disguised as debate.

Meanwhile, with all the shouting, the quiet majority isn’t silent. But it has little effective say-so because normal speaking voices can’t be heard over the din. We are being subjected to all the noise, so that a small percentage of the population, the fringes, can make thoughtful communication among the vast majority of Americans more difficult.

Regardless of what the shouters say, that's hardly in the spirit of freedom of speech.

In the bigger picture, with the shouting increasing and understanding diminishing is our society’s center going to hold?

-- 30 --

Update: "The problem with cable news" by Michael Gerson


Summer said...

I'm also worried that the people who are shouting and slinging mud are overwhelming the voice of reason in our democracy. The ridiculous amounts of money that Wilson was able to raise after his outburst are just more evidence of the trend.

But there are counter-trends. One is Imagine Election, a website I'm working on. Type in your zip code and find out about the people running for office in your district. It's simple and non-partisan, and it helps everyday people drown out the shouting with a flood of real knowledge.

paul_h said...

Is the quiet majority anything like the silent majority?