In a strange confluence of events, this week’s US Federal Government shutdown overlapped a personal event, seemingly insignificant at first, that reveals how strange American public discourse has become. We’ve changed the terms of debate, allowing people with blatant self-interest to somehow arbitrate their own public opinion. And we’ve done so in the name of “fairness” that has actually shifted public burdens onto the most powerless.
Mainstream journalists desperately try to remain even-handed in their shutdown coverage, claiming this represents a bipartisan confluence, two parties refusing to back off their most sacred principles. Various journalists have called the shutdown a “train wreck,” a “game of chicken,” and a “staring contest.” Eager to seem even-handed, these journalists have treated this as equally President Obama’s and House Republicans’ fault, rectifiable if both ease off.
This narrative, which permeates ordinary coffee-shop conversation, is comfortingly egalitarian. It’s also flat damn wrong. Excluding comedians and partisan editorialists, only Bill Moyers on the national stage has called bullshit. Republicans announced their intent to shutter the government days in advance, demanding Democrats illegally dismantle legally passed legislation. With deadlines looming, Republicans halted debate for an entire day to let Ted Cruz perform street theatre from the Senate lectern.
I learned in grade school that treating everybody equally is different than treating everybody fairly. When Brian Morse clotheslined me from behind, unprovoked, for “being a nerd,” we both got three days’ detention for “fighting.” Everyone, from peers to teachers, called this unfair, since I’d been facing the other way and said nothing to Brian. Yet blind rules enforcement required all parties to face equal punishment, regardless of culpability.
This same militant evenhandedness has inflected political discourse, making Democrats equally responsible for the shutdown because they were in the room. Yes, Republicans announced their intent to submarine regular procedure. Yes, Republicans refused eighteen invitations to bipartisan negotiations. Yes, a sliver Republican faction boasted its desire to shutter the federal government as early as 2010. Yet both parties, we hear, must fix the problem one party has created.
Fox News’s Mike Huckabee called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “a squish” on Sunday for suggesting that a government shutdown wouldn’t serve national interest. This represents how low the discourse has sunk. Most senators, who generally face a more diverse electorate, and Republican Representatives from competitive districts, didn’t want this shutdown. Representatives from securely Republican districts, and rightist opinion aggregators like Huckabee, who face little challenge, did want it.
Amid this nakedly partisan shitstorm, an unrelated event penetrated my life. An author I reviewed three years ago surfaced, criticizing my review weirdly late. He calls me “very biased,” suggesting I reviewed his book with some personal agenda; but rather than refute anything I said, he complains that I’ve reviewed other products, including classic literature and non-book products, stating explicitly that this makes me less of a reviewer.
This author repeats the claim that I have “bias” twice, yet never explains what that bias is. I tried to remain fair in my assessment, but I reviewed his book honestly, and his book just wasn’t good. Merriam-Webster defines bias as “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice.” Yet this author essentially redefines bias as “having different interests, opinions, or ideas than me; disagreement.”
It pains me to say, this author may have better grasp of the zeitgeist than me. Current political discourse has changed “fairness” to mean throwing everybody under the bus equally; “compromise” to mean meeting the most politically connected players’ demands, no matter how illegal or extortionate; and “debate” as acquiescence. Partisan players redefine terms with abandon, in self-serving ways that keep citizens profoundly ignorant. And we reward them for it.
Good people internalize such commodified naiveté, spinning it back as their own ideas, often not bothering to rephrase others’ wrongheadedness before putting their names on it. A friend of mine, an educated professional, claimed this week that the Affordable Care Act, for which the Tea Party shuttered the government, is “not a law, technically.” When I challenged him, he said “codes [are] not laws, and acts are not laws, technically.”
Black’s Law Dictionary disagrees. “Law” is an umbrella term encompassing codes, acts, statutes, resolutions, and all other ratified legislation. Yet partisan media has floated this division, unrecognized by any lawyers in the English Common Law tradition until now, as ex post facto justification to keep the ACA debate, which legal and constitutional precedent declares closed, open indefinitely. The debate has become intellectually unmoored from prior tradition, to one side’s profit.
Partisan rabble rousers like the Koch Brothers bankroll candidates and supposed grassroots uprisings for personal gain, then solicit donations to keep fake movements alive. Fox News claims to be “Fair and Balanced,” while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow claims “the facts skew liberal,” when both essentially distribute partisan editorials to keep true believers hooked between commercials. Rampton and Stauber have documented how paid PR flacks keep closed debates open to benefit highly connected employers.
This mass marketing of complete factual ignorance, by self-serving buyers with the connivance of supposedly independent media, leaves America’s electorate unprepared for its most important debates. James Madison, in framing The Federalist Papers, could never have imagined how mass ignorance marketing could subvert America’s founding ideals. And unless Americans stand up to demand something accurate, this ignorance merchantry will continue unabated.