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Safety valve for democracy

Alan Braunholtz

I’m heartened whenever I hear reports of dissent or protesters making their voices heard at political conventions. It shows that at least a limited amount of exposure to opposing views is happening. Sociologist Jon Agnew says sit-ins, rallies and boycotts are more effective (at least for environmental issues) than schmoozing politicians or talking with executives. Talk is easy to ignore, but threats to market share and public pressure are harder to sweep away.There’s been a recent trend to squash or push one of the principals of our democracy – the peaceful public protest – away. Never a great idea to shut off a safety valve because you don’t like the noise it makes. Yes it’d be better if somewhere some debates and listening actually occurred. But in our present polarized climate, not much chance of that.It seems as if our political parties have lost their middle ground – though for PR reasons the dominant hard-liners will take a back seat during conventions as they masquerade a moderate facade – and any chance for compromise and civilized discussion is gone. Now we just get two separate perceived “realities” yelling at the other’s obviously bizarre and false world.It’s a shame, as anyone who’s ever mumbled a crossword clue knows that help can come from anywhere. Perhaps if we’d mumbled and listened about the war in Iraq a bit longer, we might have planned the aftermath better and avoided the current pig’s ear.A recent radio program illustrated the frustration of a voter who wanted to attend a Bush speech-rally so he could see the man for himself and make a choice. No dice! These are tightly controlled ticket only affairs for the true believers, basically obsequious love-ins of adoration. I guess John Kerry’s are similar, though occasionally protesters get to make a noise at his. How can anyone lead and unite a nation if their party doesn’t acknowledge those outside of it? At the moment we’re following the immature approach of “we can all get along, if you just do what I say.” It didn’t work in the school playground and it doesn’t work now.While the presidential election towers above others on the national stage, I feel the primary elections are more important for the long-term political health of the country. Hard-core party faithful won’t allow a moderate candidate onto the general ballot, and we end up in this polarized position with few leaders in the middle, where most of us live.Without the surprise emergence of a candidate who can transcend the system, this isn’t going to change and we’re all to blame. For starters, too few of us vote. Elections are decided more and more by who can get the highest percentage of their supporters to the polls – hence all these “preaching to the choir” and “motivate the base” rallies. If the 50 percent who feel no interest in voting started to bother, then they’d start paying you some attention.We believe only what we want to. Fox viewers regard Fox as the only reliable source, and Michael Moore fans see him as the oracle of truth. The media play to this, telling their market share only what they want to hear. Anything from other media sources is dismissed as lies and distortion.One only has to look at the surveys of attitudes to Bush and Kerry during the Vietnam War. It splits down party lines. There is virtually no crossover, intimating that no one is really looking. Democrats all believe that Kerry served bravely under fire and dismiss the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (from other distant boats) as having politically motivated and dubiously selective memories. Republicans believe the opposite, and that Bush served properly in the National Guard during the war.War and religion have historically been hindrances to open-minded consideration of different viewpoints. War and its fear of death bring out a xenophobic reaction. We are less tolerant of those outside our belief systems and close ranks. We rally to our flag. If you drape yourself in it enough, then any criticism of you is portrayed as a criticism of the flag.Faith involves divine revelation, which isn’t really open to compromise. The continuous wars between the Catholics and the upstart Protestants over their interpretations on how best to serve the same God illustrates this. The confidence of a religion to tolerate dissenting views and challenging ideas has been essential to civilization’s development.Islam set the seeds for our renaissance in the 15th century as early as the 8th century by embracing the learning of the Greeks and continuing their academic questions unhindered. Western renaissance progressed when the Catholic Church allowed science and art the freedom to explore.While the stunning civilizations of Islam have stagnated due to the constraints of wars, autocratic rulers, colonialization and some religious interpretations, our current political polarization shows worrying tendencies of making open and honest debate impossible. The ideological chasm is too wide to allow people to follow the arguments from one side to the other.Global warming is an example. I know I’m predisposed to believing that it’s happening, so I’ve critically studied data and studies from many sources and come to the realization (along with almost all the world’s climate experts) that it’s happening and we’re probably contributing significantly to it. For me the debate should be about “how much, how fast, what can or should we do about it?” This can’t even get started, as it seems that powerful parts of the right will reject any arguments as a propaganda construct of the left for social change regardless of how many studies support it – with the possible exception of after-the-fact reality. Likewise it’s impossible to convince left-wing pacifists that the world isn’t always a friendly place and it can’t be made safe by holding hands and singing kum ba ya. Certain issues (often those based on faith) will never release their emotional grip, but in the present climate of acrimony many other issues that rational compromise could solve are becoming insoluble.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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