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A Partisan Dictionary

Editor’s note: We write Friday’s Purple State of Mind column then usually post it here Monday. Today is no exception but we do it with sadness as some of what we describe here has gone to seed this weekend in the tragic shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, her staff and other innocent victims in Arizona. Please forgive the somewhat flip tone. Our self-deceptions in how we talk about things can get very very serious.

We’ve got Oxford Unabridged and French-English, heck we’ve even got Urdu-English. But as far as I know there isn’t such a thing as a partisan dictionary. We think it’s high time to remedy the oversight.

Language has a long history of being twisted and torqued to make feuding points. Take the fact that in certain quarters these many years later you’ll still hear references to the “War of Northern Aggression.” Language choice heavily implies causality, justness of cause, and suggests appropriate action. Language can also be fact-bending in ways that damage civic discourse (and certainly damage problem solving based on “facts” that turn out to not be true).

Word choice can strongly suggest an amazing number things about the speaker. For example, references to the “Democrat” party are usually made by heavy talk radio listeners and Fox News watchers, as they don’t represent the name that the actual Democratic party chooses to be called. I’m not sure I get the point of this particular language battle – except maybe bullying – but this kind of linguistic battle can be damaging to both sender and receiver of such ill-willed verbiage, because there is always a fair amount of coming and going around. Read all »

Empowering Effective Teachers

I just returned from United Way of Florida’s Empowering Effective Teachers Power Lunch. It was a fascinating and constructive discussion (one of seven that will take place across the state, along with a State Summit on February 1).

To learn more about the project (and contribute your thinking, your opinion, your resources) go to EET on We the Wiki.

Jumping the shark, missing the point

As a postscript our Friday Purple State of Mind post, Frank Rich’s piece from yesterday’s New York Times is worth a read. It isn’t that Rich doesn’t have a few valid points. Among them is – ironically something I know many people pushing civil discourse agree with completely – that people who are angry at Washington-as-usual have good cause. But otherwise my overwhelming reaction to Rich’s snarlfest is “huh?” (And I should note I’m usually a Frank Rich fan.)

Somehow Rich feels the need to criticize a six-day-old organization for its apparent many failures (again, huh?) as he deploys the same-old-same-old character assassination that has become the DNA of our civic dialogue… Read all »

Morning Joe commentary: Keep calm and carry on

Village Square thumbs up to Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s Morning Joe for this dead-on commentary on civility. (Thumbs down to Morning Joe for not including it on the video clips, thereby requiring me to create a transcript…)

JOE: [NYC Mayor Michael] Bloomberg is going to be helping candidates who aren’t bound by rigid ideology and that’s the message we’ve been trying to emphasize here… what we try to do is encourage politicians and thought leaders and all Americans to follow the advice of an old British war poster and create a very simple message: Keep calm and carry on. That was the message that FDR delivered to a battered nation in the depths of the great depression when he declared to all Americans “All we have to fear is fear itself.” It was the message that Bobby Kennedy delivered to a shocked and embittered nation on the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated. And I really do believe that’s the message that Americans need to hear again today.

Because today our nation is confronting a new war and it’s a war of words. We’ve forgotten how to talk to each other. We’ve got political extremists who are dominating the airwaves and dominating the nation debate. And you know what the White House calls the professional left along with what we call the far right now profit from political hate speech that makes our political system weaker. And yet, isn’t it strange that our Washington politicians seem to obsess over those angry voices… instead of seeking out voices of people like you, rational Americans who show respect to their neighbors, who raise their families, who go to work and who play by the rules. It’s time for you, you quiet Americans to respond. Not with angry words or hateful commentaries or setting your hair on fire – calling a Republican president a fascist or a Democratic president a fascist but rather to respond with reasonable voices and a rational debate. Now we’re going to continue like we’ve done for 3 years to encourage viewers and guests to resist the pull of those people on the far right and professional left who seek division. Let’s keep focusing on the task at hand, ensuring that America’s best days lie ahead.

MIKA: What we’ll continue to do here is call out those who preach hate and we’ll continue to celebrate civility and promote open debate where all voices, voices on all sides are welcome. And as Joe and I tried to show you everyday, you can disagree without being disagreeable.

Maybe we should require each new class in Congress to watch this?

Thanks to Luke for pointing us to the video. If you want to cut to the singing, it’s at 4:30.

Purple trump the “mouthy gatekeepers”? Tuesday’s election results may tell…">Mary Ann Lindley: Will Purple trump the “mouthy gatekeepers”? Tuesday’s election results may tell…

In case you were otherwise engaged Sunday, as I was, today’s a good day to take a look at Mary Ann Lindley’s Sunday column:

The big unknown on Tuesday — and again in November — will be whether wild-animal politics, tooth-and-claw wars of words do work.

Will we be invigorated, gullible or ticked off enough to support the blunt candidates who play politics as a blood sport? Will they win — and then be expected to put aside latent bitterness and rivalries and work for all people, including those who supported their opponents?

My hunch is that the shouters and exaggerators will win in a few cases because it’s appealing to have someone tell us with great clarity what to think in a few choice, simplistic words.

Not simple, nor spare and nuanced explanations, but simplistic ones that feel therapeutic, save us time and are really an extension of the on-line world of fear and loathing.

In today’s culture of over-stimulation and given the infinity of information that bombards us, these mouthy gatekeepers show us an easy path.

They tell us how to neatly frame complex issues. They don’t ask much of me (“No, no.” I promise. “No taxes!”). They tell me who my enemies are. And they let me get back to my life.

It can all be quite seductive. And political experts insist it’s the only way to win.

And then there’s the Purple:

Last week, The Village Square, our local organization devoted to, as our mothers said, “keeping a civil tongue in your mouth,” was visited by author and former U.S. News & World Report journalist John Marks.

Marks wrote “Purple State of Mind: Finding Middle Ground in a Divided Culture,” and his theme is that relentlessly demonizing the opponent doesn’t really enchant most Americans and that, rather than being rigidly red states or blue states, we ought to consider purple.

It’s still a passionate color; loyalty to principles need not be neutralized.

This other John Marks (not our mayor) isn’t calling for a beige state of mind, but a blending the best of both Democratic and Republican thought: compassion and self-sufficiency.

Andrew Wilcox: Enough of the screaming and spinning.

Let me first say that I am Andrew Wilcox and I am a conservative. (Hello, Andrew.)

I read a book a few years ago about how Bill Clinton would go to meetings of people on the polar opposite ideological spectrum from him. These meetings many times lead to what Clinton called the “third-way.”

I took a page from that concept and decided to engage on Alan Colmes blog, to attempt a civil discourse. Within minutes of posting, I was berated while people made wild assumptions about every aspect of my thoughts.

President Obama, when asked if he watches the talk networks said something that I believe. Effectively, he stated that if Ann Coulter, Keith Olbermann, Hannity, etc. talk you know what they are going to say.

This has become an unfortunate part of the fabric of our conversations. News shows interrupt and scream. Guests armed with talking points don’t listen, they just recite. It has truly killed trust in civic dialogue.

People, especially our leaders, have to have the freedom to say what is on their minds, and be able to explain a nuanced perspective, without being called: Hitler, Socialist, racist, bigot, war criminal, homophobe, wacko, boogeyman, etc.

Instead, talk and listening is put through filters. Politicians do mental compromise arithmetic in nanoseconds after a question to determine a position that works. People hear something, and based on the source, go into protect or attack mode.

By starting this article saying that I am a conservative, there were some assumptions you made about me. Be honest. I actually consider myself what I call a Buffett Conservative (Jimmy not Warren). I am fiscally conservative, love free markets, but do believe in some regulation. Love the environment and seeing what is happening to the coast is heartbreaking.

On the Colmes blog, the topic was the oil spill in the Gulf. The conversation turned quickly to how criminal George Bush is. All of his cronies caused this. They expected me to blame President Obama and blasted me for 8 years of Bush, the last two of which were a Democratic Congress. Then came the tirades about squandering surpluses and wars. Again a Democratic president, but people forget a Republican Congress.

You simply can’t associate 100% accomplishments and/or blame to either party, but that is the line in the sand that has been drawn. Scream and spin. That goes for the Gulf spill, Katrina, wars, all the way down the line.

I find myself starting conversations with people ideologically different from me by making a statement and then hoping to facilitate conversation. “I don’t have all of the answers and neither do you, but would really love to learn your perspective. May not agree on everything, but the stuff that we can agree on, let’s solve something.”

Imagine if every big issue that needed to be addressed started like that.

Andrew is married and a father of two daughters. Owner of Wilcox and Hackett, LLC a legal recruiting and client development consulting firm. A conservative that enjoys healthy debate. Enjoys reading, writing, working out, sports, and bbq cooking.

Mary Ann Lindley: Moderating “the instant gratification of spouting off”

Just in case you missed it, in yesterday’s Tallahassee Democrat, Mary Ann Lindley wrote that ten Gannett papers will begin screening article comments on July 1. Dear God, thank you.

On the quality of the posted comments, Lindley says: “Today anger is ubiquitous. Like potatoes, angry talk is plentiful and cheap.”

I’ll say.

At the speed of light, the shock troops proved Mary Ann’s point not only directly underneath her editorial in their copious screeds about how this is censorship of political thought and Mary Ann is a commie, but in another article in the very same edition of the Democrat as they commented on a Father’s Day story about a dad who changed his life after his wife’s death to spend time with his twin boys.

I have long since learned to not read posts after articles that involve The Village Square (although it is sort of rich to see the rank incivility after an article on civil discourse). But this article is about a family possibly uninitiated to the comment pollution, who probably felt a bit of a wind in their sails from the wonderful Father’s Day piece only to then read tripe like this (screen names VERY intentionally left in, I only wish I could give you their real names):

tallyisracist: “This man did EXACTLY what he was suppose to do as a father, he brought them into the world and it is HIS responsibility to take care of them. He shouldn’t get any special thanks for doing the job of a parent. This is a NO BIG DEAL story. He had wealth that afforded him the ability to quit his job…YEAH GREAT SACRIFICE. He didn’t do anything GRAND, he did his job and people are praising him for it…PATHETIC.”

tallyisracist: “At least he doesn’t have five kids with five different mothers all on welfare and living in section 8 housing, and yet can still drive an Escalade with 22″ rims that cost a fortune. Now that’s pathetic.”

Stupido: “Another example of the sissyfication and feminization of the male gender in America. Men should go to work not stay at home and play house wife!”

Kabubba: “What is PATHETIC is praising a rich WHITE man for taking care of HIS children.”

THE_SPIDER: “I fell asleep reading this story, which is the typical ‘kitten up a tree’ news so often found in the Tallahassee Democrat. You should have stuck it in lifestyle on page three. YAWN!”

In addition to the family, I feel for the poor editors who are now signing on to deal with this crew 24/7 (think about if your job were actually reading this hoo-hah, you couldn’t pay me enough and they should feature you on “America’s Dirtiest Jobs”). And earth to foul posters: Do you think you’ve actually ever convinced anyone of the merits of your thinking? This is the best thing that could possibly happen to the political argument you think you’re making… now you either have to make it like a grown-up your shush up.

I believe your mothers would approve.

(Please meet our Priest and Nun duo in the photo above who administer our We the Wiki – which is coming soon – Rap on the Knuckles for similar bad behavior among blog posters and public officials alike.)

We don’t even want to share a green room.

Bob Schieffer’s commentary on yesterday’s Face the Nation:

(CBS) The smart, powerful, sometimes cranky Democratic Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee David Obey has announced he is quitting Congress after four decades because he is “bone tired.”

We came to Washington the same year, 1969, and his announcement reminded me what a different world it was back then when Members didn’t go home every weekend to raise money and actually stayed in Washington and got to know one another.

I can remember social occasions back then when Democrats and Republicans who fought by day, actually enjoyed each other’s company after hours.

No more. They say such awful things about each other today, they’re uneasy socializing and generally don’t.

Not long ago, for example, a staffer for a Congressional leader actually asked if we could provide a private waiting room for his boss who was appearing on “Face the Nation” because the boss didn’t want to share a room with someone from the other party.

In the old days when an old warhorse like Obey retired, members of the other party frequently said something nice (if innocuous). But in Obey’s case, the Republican National Committee spokesman took a final shot, saying it was “understandable that the architect of the President’s failed stimulus package has decided to call it quits.”

And Obey managed a parting shot as well & not at Republicans but at his own party, at the Senate his own party controls.

He said one reason he was leaving was he decided there was more to life “than explaining the ridiculous rules of the Senate to angry, frustrated constituents.”

In 1969, a House Member wouldn’t have said that, either – but he might have thought it!

Donald Miller: Five Principles of Civil Dialogue

This is just so good, I can’t think of a single thing to edit out of it. Donald Miller writes on faith issues and he could possibly be a one-person Village Square all by himself: Donald Miller “has appeared at such diverse events as The Democratic National Convention and the Veritas Forum at Harvard.” (For those of you keeping track, this must be credited to (who else but) Internet Surf Queen Lea.)

Back when I was hanging out at Reed College, I was pleased to be in an environment where truth mattered more than ego, or rather where people didn’t associate their identity with their ideas. What I mean is, finding truth was more important than being right. And because finding truth was more important than being right, students were able to learn.

At Reed, discussing a philosophical or even scientific idea around a conference table did not look like a debate. Rather, it looked like a group of students attempting to put together a jig-saw puzzle. If a piece didn’t happen to fit, that was par for the course. You simply set it aside and worked together to make progress.

When we begin to associate our ideas with our identities (I am good because I am right) we lose the ability to be objective. And rather than learning to learn, we simply learn to defend.

To be certain, there are basic truths we must defend, but we don’t defend these ideas from our egos. Dr. Henry Cloud says that truth must go hand in hand with grace in order to be effective. There must be truth, but there must also be acceptance, regardless of whether somebody disagrees. This methodology frees the person to make an objective decision. When we become angry or condescending we take the truth and wrap it in a toxic-candy shell and get frustrated when people don’t like it. Truth wrapped in grace is more easily digested.

So my question is, do you take it personally when somebody disagrees with you? Here are some things I try to remember when engaging in a conversation in which there are differing opinions:

1. Truth is not My Truth, it’s Just Truth: My ideas were not really my invention. Even if I was the first person to consider an idea, it’s still something I stumbled upon. I shouldn’t take it personally when somebody doesn’t agree. They aren’t rejecting me, they are rejecting an idea.

2. Methodology is Part of the Message: When I get defensive and then condescending, what I associate my ideas with an offensive subtext, and that association is very strong to the hearer. Imagine having a conversation with somebody who has terrible breath, standing there and smelling their putrid hot air as they talk. It’s the same with your attitude toward somebody when you’re discussing an idea.

3. Without a Loving Heart, I am Like a Clanging Cymbal: If I don’t genuinely care about the people I’m talking to, I’ll be received like a guy standing there clanging cymbals together. The Bible makes a strong connection between a persons heart and their tongue. We tend to think we talk with our tongues alone, but the Bible says we talk with our tongues and our hearts. Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

4. The Other Person has Sovereignty: Even if I think the other person is completely wrong, they have a right to their beliefs. I can simply state what I believe and do so in kindness and that’s really it. If I’m trying to bully somebody into my way of seeing things, I’m not respecting the sovereignty of the person I am talking with.

5. I Could be Wrong: What we most want from the person we are talking to is for them to see things from our perspective and agree. That being said, though, are you willing to see things from their perspective? If not, try listening to their perspective then repeating it back to them. Ask them if you got it right, and if you did, say you will think about it. Then present your idea, too, and ask them if they understand your position. To be honest, they may not be as open as you, but once the conversation is over, I assure you they will have a new respect for you, and believe me, they will consider your ideas more respectfully. And besides, the truth is they could be right.

Obama does Village Square

President Obama’s commencement speech at the University of Michigan:

… the second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes – these are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires.

But we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. (Applause.) You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. (Applause.) Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” – that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.

Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth. But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse. And the problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized. Remember, they signed up for it. Michelle always reminds me of that. (Laughter.) The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning – since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a “left-wing nut”?

It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what do we do? As I found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of politics is not easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect. (Applause.) But civility in this age also requires something more than just asking if we can’t just all get along.

Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. And it’s also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner, or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows. And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.

But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.

Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, ‘Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.

And so, too, is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people. I look out at this class and I realize for four years at Michigan you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars, professors and students. Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with somebody who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and in the process, you will help to make this democracy work.

Katie Couric: “Anonymous atom bombs of animosity”

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Extracting poison from the body politic

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On the lack of civil discourse from Morning Joe:

Joe Scarborough: “I wonder, Mark Halperin, whether Americans are starting to tire of this. If they’re not starting to understand that a lot of time it’s carnival barkers trying to get big ratings. I sense a bit of a fatigue out there.”

Mark Halperin: “The problem is we can only think about this except through pubic opinion polls, through the media. There’s no other forum for us to think about it than this. And we few exceptions – this program being one of them – all the media you can consume that has velocity is on the left and on the right. Media like the NY Times, The Washington Post, even the the New Republic or National Review is increasingly caught in the crosswinds of what I call the “freak show” of all of it.

“Let’s say this was at the top of Barack Obama’s agenda and that he thought the only thing he could do to succeed was to remove this poison from the body politic. It’s very hard to know what he can do.”

Duh, Mark Halperin. The Village Square.