Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Reject presidential stereotyping
Vail, CO, Colorado
Presidents attract political enemies who contrive stereotypes of them. A stereotype is an oversimplified opinion masquerading as fact. Here are some popular stereotypes: The Dutch are solemn; Italians love pizza; Scots are tightwads.
In 2010 political races, stereotyping is prominent. Tea partiers, incited by talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, describe Obama’s economic stimulus (which they dub “porkulus”) and regulatory legislation as robbing them of their freedoms. They liken it to an evil Soviet-style takeover of the United States.
In February 2009, early in Obama’s presidency, Limbaugh used stereotypical language, sounding as if President Obama’s main goal was to replace capitalism with socialism.
“That’s his objective,” Limbaugh declared to a caller, using stock lingo laced with bias. “He wants to establish a very powerful socialist government, authoritarian. He wants control of the economy.” Limbaugh lied when he predicted that President Obama would nationalize banks and auto companies.
Such critics of Obama are unlike an ancient Hebrew poet. He asked God, “What is man (humankind) that You are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8: 4) He imagined humankind is “made a little less than God” (Psalm 8: 5). Using sarcasm fed by stereotypes, Limbaugh takes Obama down several ranks, lumping him with ungodly Soviets who lowered the Iron Curtain on freedom-loving folk.
President Obama counters, using thoughtful, skilled speech.
Aristotle taught that political power sits on the foundation of clear words, cogent arguments and concise conclusions.
Loutish bombast aimed at Obama turns out to be an odd compliment to his persuasive rhetorical power. His eloquence attracts listeners. Even opponents who lob verbal grenades at him concede President Obama eloquently defends his convictions. They admit his “socialism” whips up crowds.
Obama reminds our nation that health care desperately needed reform or its skyrocketing expenses would bankrupt the U.S. “ObamaCare” costs nearly $100 billion a year, a huge sum, but in fairness the president proposed ways to pay for it. His $787 billion stimulus package didn’t produce as many jobs as forecasted. Still, it’s helped stabilize the economy. We are climbing out of a Great Recession.
Do such fiscal policies make President Obama into a big spender, a big borrower and a big supporter of Soviet-style big government? That’s stretching language towards absurdity. Such rabble-rousing exhibits the classic trait of stereotypical diatribes: What sounds convincing is phony.
Like Obama, Jefferson’s critics accused him of speaking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. Lacking President Obama’s speaking skills, Jefferson worked a crowd by listening, posing questions, and soaking up responses.
Think of him, writes historian Joseph J. Ellis in his book “The American Sphinx,” as “a kind of free-floating icon who hovered over the American political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams.”
Jefferson’s enemies misconstrued his reticence. They judged him devious, a master of weasel words, a politician who wasn’t approachable.
Jefferson exuded a quiet charm in face-to-face conversations with friends and foes alike. But at a distance, he insulted opponents with cutting words. He couldn’t quite shake the stereotype of a duplicitous, calculating politician.
Using stereotypes works when people fear, can’t cope with financial insecurity and demand pat answers to knotty fiscal problems. Angry people who demand an immediate rescue from their plight get hooked on stereotypes.
Throughout history, stereotypical bluster has initially sounded convincing. It attracts listeners who fear ambiguity. Such razor words slice the body politic down-to-size rather than build it up.
When civility’s missing in public discourse, our republic doesn’t acquire either wisdom or strength needed to negotiate a better way on freedom’s path.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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