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Sunday at the Square: We should be pillars of salt right about now.

angel annoyed

Anyone else out there about to have a stroke like I am observing the stunning hypocrisy demonstrated by partisans on both side of the aisle now that control of the government has flip-flopped? A few examples off the cuff:

1. Before they lost the White House, a good number of elected Republicans seemed to think our economic crisis had simply left us no choice but to spend more money than we’d like on bailing out failing financial institutions. Now, notsomuch.

2. Before Democrats took the White House, many seemed to think that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” including if it’s voiced overseas. Now – ask Mike Huckabee – they seem to understand that dissing the boss when you’re in another country isn’t so cool.

3. The crowd over at Fox News was pretty quiet while a Republican administration cast much of their activity under a divine mission but when Obama speaks to ministers by phone and says there’s been a “bearing of false witness” on health care, separation of church and state has a fresh new glow.

4. Before the Democrats controlled Congress, they complained regularly that Republicans forced bills to a floor vote before they could read them. Now they suddenly care so much less.

I could go on, but I’d be risking my health.

Are we really going to keep this up, holding others to a standard we have absolutely zero interest in striving for ourselves? Is it possible that the thing that is most wrong with us right now is we’ve turned the Golden Rule on its head: “Become furious when someone doesn’t do unto you as you have zero intention of ever doing unto them.” And it’s amazing how clear the other guy’s hypocrisy is to us while we’ve got some serious scales on our own eyes.

Are we – the people – really going to go along with these yahoos on this?

(Photo credit.)

Newsweek: “As fanciful beasts go, bipartisanship is more like a T. Rex than a unicorn – it actually roamed the earth once.”

t rex

Andrew Romano argues in this week’s Newsweek that while real bipartisanship used to exist, we won’t be seeing it in Washington anytime soon. He blames it on what he sees as a rightward shift in the Republican party.

Fact is, the sort of Republicans who voted for Medicare in 1965 no longer exist. Since the early 1970s, Democrats have drifted only slightly leftward. But thanks to realignment and redistricting – the practice of slicing the electoral map into ever more politically homogenous districts – a 2003 Republican House member with a voting record at the median of his party was about 73 percent more conservative than his Nixon-era counterpart. Which means he was about 73 percent less likely to reach across the aisle – no matter who was reaching out from the other side. And the odds are only getting longer. In 2006 the GOP lost most of its remaining moderates: Lincoln Chafee, Rob Simmons, Charlie Bass, Jim Leach. Three years later, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter defected to the Dems.

(Photo credit. And, hmmm, I wonder where he got 73%?)

Massachusetts Health Plan: Like Obama’s without the public option

Here are key features of the Massachusetts Heath Plan implemented under Governor Mitt Romney, which is a health exchange as is being considered by the Senate Finance Committee:

Minimum benefits, such as preventive care, mental health care and hospitalization

A ban on gender discrimination

Limits on total out-of-pocket costs

A prohibition on pre-existing conditions as a qualifier for health coverage

No medical underwriting, so insurers can’t ask an individual about his or her health status in order to determine coverage

Limits on age restrictions, which means what is charged for an older individual cannot be more than double what is charged the youngest.

Liz Joyner: Marry Your Enemy

mom & dadApparently there are tribes in Africa on to something that has eluded the people of the greatest nation on planet earth in the 21st century (so far, anyway).

These clans of African tribesmen, managing the sometimes tenuous relationships between clans, solved their civility problem by marrying into the other clan. This sociological pattern stabilized their society so that the normal conflicts involved in life – whether it’s life in Philly or in sub-Saharan Africa – didn’t escalate to unmanageable levels. With these marriages, people were then connected to each other in multiple ways. You might have a bone to pick with “them” because of tribal identity (maybe literally “a bone,” in tribal Africa) but since “they” were also your in-laws, there was only so far you were ever going to push the disagreement.

This edifying story comes to us via Bill Bishop in his book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart” that describes the need for us to have “cross-cutting” relationships with each other. (This book is required reading and John Marks is most notably NOT exempt.) A healthy society has relationships where you change who is your “friend” and who is your “enemy” inside of different contexts. My husband might be my friend in most every way, but he is also my enemy when we root against each other’s alma mater in football or, in my parents’ case, when they reported dutifully every election day to cancel each others vote out.

Back in the day, mom and dad would nearly always joke about it as they both wheeled out of the driveway in the midst of their crazy-busy lives to cast their precious vote that meant exactly ZERO given their difference of opinion. (You’ve got to love this concept of democracy that makes otherwise sane people do such an insane thing in service of high principle when they could have just sat back in marital-collusion and had a glass of wine instead.)

Crosscutting connection is the same wisdom practiced by feuding European nations looking to make peace by offering up a son or daughter to an arranged marriage. Of course we know in hindsight it didn’t always work, but that’s a story for another day (and The Village Square gives them an “A” for effort).

Problem is, crosscutting relationships are so – well – yesterday. As we discussed last week, everything is trending in the direction that we find ourselves in groups of increasingly like-minded people. When the same “enemy” is always on the “other side,” the relationship is no longer crosscutting and doesn’t stabilize anything. Fact is, when relationships don’t cross- cut, given the distinctly imperfect nature of human beings, relationships can be pretty much incendiary. You get consistently and increasingly angry with the same people (ergo, fistfights and swastikas at town halls).

We live in a time when we look at Mary Matalin and James Carville and think that there is simply no explanation but that it is a loveless business-relationship-slash-publicity-stunt to get them booked on Meet the Press. (While I’m using them as a rhetorical tool here, you still can’t convince me they like each other in the slightest and the stunt has certainly worked on the MTP front.)

Bishop writes: “One of the tenets of democratic faith has been that direct, face-to-face contact between groups on different sides of an issue defines a self-governing people.” Perhaps if we agree on nothing else, we agree that we’re not doing so well on self-governing by this measure – unless “face-to-face” includes flinging Hitler posters to and fro.

So what can we make of this entrenched overwhelming division currently on America’s plate? Despite the complexity of the problem, the solution – potentially – is as simple as a few dinners out (at the “potato salad school of diplomacy”).


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. Reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org

Atlanta Journal Constitution: Southern Baptist spearheads civility project


Jim Galloway writes in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on a new civility project out of Atlanta:

At least one Republican thinks the harsh language and disruptions we’ve seen at town hall meetings across the country constitute a blunder — both moral and strategic — that could hurt the conservative cause in the long run.

Mark DeMoss is a conservative Southern Baptist whose Buckhead-based public relations firm serves evangelical organizations. He supported Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primary.

Earlier this year, he joined with Lanny Davis, a prominent Washington Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter, to form something called the Civility Project.

The rules, which can be found at civilityproject.org, are simple: “(1) I will be civil in public discourse and behavior; (2) I will be respectful of others, whether or not I agree with them; and (3) I will stand up and call out incivility whenever I see it.”

Three events pushed DeMoss toward a demand for better manners in politics. “I saw an awful lot of pretty ugly rhetoric directed at Mormons in general or Mitt Romney in particular, and then eventually at me — because I was helping a Mormon,” DeMoss said. “And a lot of it came from my own camp, from evangelicals.”

Then there was the November vote in California to ban gay marriage. “Because Mormons gave so much money in support of Proposition 8, you had these cases of gay activists vandalizing Mormon churches,” he said.

At the same time, DeMoss was put off by certain comments from conservatives following Barack Obama’s victory. “I didn’t vote for him, I don’t agree with him on much of anything, but I didn’t think it was right,” he said.

DeMoss knows that some conservatives will think him wimpish for urging politeness. But he assures those who disagree that civility and surrender are not the same.

As a rule, civility keeps you humble and clears your head. Incivility amounts to a display of contempt. And a lack of respect for one’s adversary is often the first step toward disaster. See “Custer, George Armstrong.”

DeMoss would add that rudeness in the health care debate, aside from making poor video, has struck many as weakness. “Is my case against it not strong enough on its merits, so that I’d have to stop it by disrupting meetings and causing chaos?” he posed. “That’s a sad admission.”

Have you taken the civility pledge yet?

Our friends over at Civil Politics .org have put together a smart pledge to help us move past the current partisan rancor. Got about 30 seconds? Jump on over and sign it! If you’ve got even more time (18 minutes) watch Professor Jonathan Haidt from University of Virginia in the above video on fascinating differences in moral reasoning between liberals and conservatives (watch the whole thing and be slow to take offense… he’s making a point).

Here’s their pledge:

I hereby pledge:

1) To take into account a candidate’s civility when voting. I understand that electoral politics requires offense, defense, and sharp elbows, but I will consider personal attacks made by candidates and their surrogates to be marks of dishonor and warning signs of a divisive leader to come.

2) To model civil politics in my own life. I will argue for what I believe in and against those with whom I disagree, but I will show respect for my opponents by assuming that they are as sincere in their beliefs as I am in mine. Knowing how moralistic and self-righteous we all are, I will refrain from assuming the worst about the motives and character of those I disagree with. I will criticize their ideas instead.

Bipartisan Policy Center: Working Together to Reform the U.S. Health System

The Bipartisan Policy Center, founded by former Senators Bob Dole, George Mitchell, Howard Baker and Tom Daschle has produced a report called Crossing Our Lines: Working Together to Reform the U.S. Health System. The short version of the report offers very specific bulleted recommendations toward the end of the download. It’s worth a read (although – warning – it’s a bit wonky).

(Watch their video above for very Village Square-ish viewing.)

Take 2 Aspirin guiding wisdom: The market is broken in health care

Take 2 Aspirin web

In our preparation for “Take 2 Aspirin, Fix Health Care & Call me in the Morning” we have spoken with experts, read many opinions and kept an open mind.

Here’s the first take-home lesson and this one practically screamed out at us… the free market is broken when it comes to health care. A left vs. right argument about free markets vs. government intervention misses the mark, since even if we all agree that we want a prototypical American market-driven solution, we’re left with the overwhelming evidence that the market has failed; the “patient” is positively hemorrhaging hundred dollar bills. So the question then becomes which idea can make the market work to drive down costs?

While there is some level of agreement on diagnosis, the agreement ends on prescription. Liberals tend to think we increase competition by having a public plan to keep the private insurance companies in line. Conservatives think government would have an unfair advantage and drive the private insurers out of business; some conservatives think this is the left’s ulterior motive. (It seems that to the extent that the goal is increased competition, it seems clear that the government should compete on a level playing field with private insurers.)

Another question we might ask is whether health care can ever be a commodity in a functional free market system. There isn’t a natural supply and demand curve, since health care is often not optional or something you shop around for. Additionally, there is always a person – the doctor – between the customer and the insurer, muddying any self-regulating forces we might hope to see at work.

Conservatives think we can increase competition by allowing companies to compete nationally instead of state by state (which usually includes only a handful of competitors). Conservative David Frum recommends regulating insurance federally, saving the bureaucratic complications of having 50 different insurance markets (exponentially more when you look at variations that currently exist between cities in the same state).

Might this been a problem screaming for The Village Square “power of AND?” What if we allowed insurers to compete nationally, streamlined insurance regulation by federalizing it AND added a public option than had no advantage over private insurers? Just wondering…

Fire, meet gasoline.

gasoline can and pork rinds

Apparently some liberals don’t think some conservatives have already made town halls quite shrill enough. Apparently they like a little combustion with their decision-making:

The right-wing nuts who cry that ObamaCare is introducing euthanasia for the elderly and infirm, or that it is socialism, are ignorant wackos, to be sure, but they are right about one thing: Americans are about to be royally screwed on health care reform by the president and the Democratic Congress, just as they’ve been screwed by them on financial system “reform.”

The appropriate response to this screw-job is the one the right has adopted: shut these sham “town meetings” down, and run the sell-out politicians out of town on a rail, preferably coated in tar and feathers they way the snake-oil salesmen of old used to be handled!

This is not about civil discourse. This is about propaganda… The only proper response at this point is obstruction, and the more militant and boisterous that obstruction, the better.

(Photo credit. Got to like the pork rinds and beer bottle with the gasoline for a little color.)

President Obama pens health care op-ed, channels Village Square

The long and vigorous debate about health care that’s been taking place over the past few months is a good thing. It’s what America’s all about.

But let’s make sure that we talk with one another, and not over one another. We are bound to disagree, but let’s disagree over issues that are real, and not wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that anyone has actually proposed. This is a complicated and critical issue, and it deserves a serious debate.

Read the whole op-ed HERE.

(Please forward us good CIVIL articles, both sides of the debate… thecrier@tothevillagesquare.org.)

Chris Timmons: Discourse or just noise?


The project The Village Square is working on, referred to in the article below, is finding more voices from both sides of the aisle for our blog, to engage in a real conversation (unlike the ranting on talk radio or TV opinion “news” shows). We’re particularly interested in auditioning blogging teams of friends from different political camps. If you’re interested, give us a yell at thecrier@tothevillagesquare.org. We tried this first offline in the “real world” in our invitation to have a lunch across the aisle. It’s our way, as historian Patricia Nelson Limerick writes, to “let friendship redeem the republic.”

Chris Timmons: Discourse or just noise?
From today’s Tallahassee Democrat.

Two weeks ago, I had coffee with Liz Joyner, executive director of the Village Square, about a project she’s working on, and I enjoyed her passion for politics and ideas.

Yet there was this tincture in the discussion. I noticed a small distress, a weariness about the close-mindedness, extremity and partisanship of politics these days.

She pinned it on Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Not in that liberal, nose-upheld NPR kind of way, but more earnestly and with profound regret. I felt her pain.

I’ve listened to Limbaugh only once or twice myself, much the same for Sean Hannity.

They have some function in this world, and for many people, I’d bet they have sparked an interest and, let’s hope, a passion enough to search out all views. Something in me is hoping but doubts it.

There’s demagoguery, obtuseness and silliness in some of their views. I chuckled at Limbaugh’s bizarre plan to sabotage Obama’s primary campaign in Pennsylvania, dubbed with the military craft cliche: Operation Hillary. Yet Limbaugh and Hannity, in a circumscribed sense most certainly, are great entertainers working in a crowded field of political entertainment.

Anyone who listens to them with the intention of getting something intelligent out of it is simply lost. But they have little to do with what’s wrong in politics.

It’s those in the higher journalism attached to small magazines such as the New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, Nation, American Conservative, Weekly Standard, Reason, Commentary and the National Review that offer not a principled defense of ideas but the false exploitation of ideas and a misuse of language that have a stultifying effect on political discourse and disarm thoughtful people like Joyner and threaten to disengage them from the process.

At least, after reading some of Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism,” I have come to feel this way.

Its title is cheeky, a reverse insult to those liberals forever calling conservatives fascists, which historically we have not been.

I felt redeemed once I read the title, and because Goldberg writes crisply and with humor, I was looking for a quirky intellectual history. I didn’t get that, because Goldberg decided to go for something much smaller.

He wanted to rebut every New York Times columnist, New Yorker staff writer or Ivy League academic who ever uttered the words “fascism” and “conservatives” together. Really, he wanted to sock Gore Vidal in the mouth, in a literary sense.

So, we get liberalism is fascism. No, it’s a cousin of fascism. No, really, it has a resemblance to fascism. Hey, look at Hillary’s devious phrase “It takes a village to raise a child,” or Barack Obama’s equally menacing “We are the change we’ve been waiting for.”

It’s obvious: Fascism is back!

As Richard Posner wrote about a popularizer of academic ideas: No serious reader could be persuaded by his books.

When words have no meaning, ideas lose their substance, since both require honesty and mutual agreement about their definitions. In Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” the know-it-all Henry Tilney lectures the heroine on her careless use of words and the word, in particular, “nice.” “Every time (you say), this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh it’s a very nice word, indeed — it does for everything.”

It may seem a conservative cliche, a backward way of arguing for small government, but part of this distortion of ideas and words, the meanness and small-mindedness of our political arguments, comes from our having too many ideas on the table. Create a concept, somebody once said, and reality exits pretty fast.

The pundits and politicians have forgotten the serious stakes that all of the ideas on the table carry. We’ve seen cap-and-trade rushed through the U.S. House, the call for a new stimulus bill (somehow the other didn’t do the job), and now a renewed call by the president for an expedited health care bill by October.

A Republican senator says this is the president’s Waterloo. The president cynically says Republicans are playing politics. Speaker Nancy Pelosi causally dismisses citizen’s concerns about a real and unprecedented power grab by the federal government.

It should surprise no one that, once ideas and words are scrambled only for effect and no one thinks thoroughly and thoughtfully about them, it’s easy to have four different health care bills, major miscommunication or noncommunication, spin and political calculation, inflamed citizens — and all the rest.

At the president’s news conference, for example, his bill was defined as an extension of the free-market concept. It is anything but, yet the president indulges in this because he knows that explaining ideas honestly doesn’t work in this political season.

In a letter, Mrs. Humphrey Ward chastises Henry James about his boredom and cynicism about politics. For her, politics and ideas are the “salt and sauce” of life. I’m starting to reject her views and embrace James’s.

To me, this unreasoning, vulgar, groundless, deafening and sapping partisanship is the “very measure of insipidity” for those who love ideas, politics and the village square.

Allan Katz resigns City Commission seat. He will be missed.

allan katz

Today Village Square founder and board of directors co-chair Allan Katz has announced he is resigning his City Commission seat.

To watch Allan during his many years of service to Tallahassee was to have the pleasure of seeing the consummate citizen in action. Despite the dizzying speed that he moved from one commitment to the next, he was always up on the latest news and working to fully grasp the complexities required to make a good decision for the City of Tallahassee.

For those of us who know Allan best, we know he is brave. And we’re not talking vanilla brave… he is a nerves of steel, emperor has no clothes unflinching kind of brave that is sadly rare among the too many finger-in-the-wind elected officials of our day. Agree with him or not, he has never taken the easy way if it sacrifices what he thinks is the right way. He steadfastly put the best interest of Tallahassee well ahead of how he’d be perceived or whether he’d be re-elected.

When Allan launched an initially one-man effort to oppose buying into the Taylor coal plant, his re-election campaign was right around the corner. While he knew it would be a harder slog because of the coal fight, it wasn’t even a consideration. In the no-nonsense common sense signature characteristic of Allan, he called the coal plant “like buying into the last buggy whip factory.” When he later supported biomass, he set himself against many of his no-coal allies. Didn’t matter, Allan thought it was the right thing for Tallahassee, so he took the steeper climb.

The Village Square was inspired by the way that Allan has done his public service. Despite his devotion to the Democratic party, Allan has never been limited by the ideology or party membership that most of us find ourselves boxed into. He is committed to the world of great ideas, wherever they come from. Allan has deep and meaningful friendships across the aisle which we built on to start our tilting-at-windmills-pie-in-the-sky-civility-in-politics effort.

If The Village Square is even half as successful as Allan was, we’re good.

(Link to Tallahassee Democrat article.)

Liz Joyner: Unhinged partisanship gets schooled

school roomWhile your favorite explanation for the partisan divide might be that the folks who disagree with you are dumb-as-dirt, turns out our current political environment may be a nearly inevitable result of certain sociological and economic trends – stir in a helping of behavioral psychology and, tada, we’re attending town halls with fistfights and swastikas.

Rewind to the middle of last century (screen gets wavy, cue up appropriate piano riff and fade to black and white)… Generation Happy Days was pleasantly ensconced in the suburbs, becoming members of the PTA, joining bridge clubs and bowling leagues. We flipped on the evening news at night and turned the dial to a choice of three stations. (Yes, for the kiddos among us there was an actual dial and it was hard enough to turn that you needed a running start.) We grabbed our local paper off the door stoop every morning and on Sundays many of us trotted off to our neighborhood church, one of a handful of denominations that were close enough to be kissing cousins. (Forgive the absence of synagogues in my story; I’m painting with broad strokes.) While we were growing economically comfortable as a society, reverberations of the depression kept our basic gene pool constructively austere. In the lives we led, we spent plenty of time with people who didn’t see it our way politically – they were our friends, our neighbors, even our spouses. We were busy having a national conversation; very much in keeping with the founders’ vision of America – we had turned diversity into strength, a balance for excess and a creative force.

But soon enough, American prosperity brought into existence a highly mobile populace that had forgotten about the depression, was no longer primarily concerned with mere surviving and naturally turned their attention to the “pursuit of happiness” portion of the American dream. (Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with basic needs mostly met.) So naturally, we moved to cities with a center of gravity we liked and joined groups plum filled with people like – well – us. Old-fashioned neighborhood, and the diversity it brought, wasn’t quite as fun as the newfound made-to-fit.

While we were busy custom ordering our lives, there was an information explosion befitting our increased desire to “Have It Your Way.” Now we had choose-your-news sources that we could tune into to bathe in the warm waters of agreement and oh did we ever love the warm waters of agreement (and we told them we liked it in the ratings so they gave us more and more). Our mainline churches began breaking clean in half as people left to worship with the people they most agreed with. New churches representing every stripe of individualism sprung up all over the map.

Unbeknownst to us, we were busy sorting ourselves into tribes. Think Shia and Sunni. 100 years of social psychology experiments are amazingly consistent about what happens next, and it is not pretty: Likeminded groups consistently grow more extreme in the direction of the majority view. In them, the fascinating phenomenon of the “risky shift” plays out: A group of homogeneous people will make riskier choices as a group than any one individual makes inside that very same group. Likeminded groups are veritable breeding grounds for extremism.

Now here we sit in the United States of “Those People.“ We watch TV opinion news to experience what Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort” (required reading), calls the “righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.” We serve it up with a beer and munchies and the smug knowledge that everyone who isn’t on “our side” isn’t just wrong, they’re stupid and evil (and ugly to boot). It’s the mental equivalent of being a couch potato and leads directly to town halls run amuck.

(Photo credit.)


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.