Thursday, August 30, 2012

There's Got to be a Morning After -- my response to Paul Ryan

I know, it happened again, despite my promises and my best efforts... I slacked off... But the Holy Days are coming, time to gear up again... and after last night, I just needed to work some things through, and get clear on what was really concerning me. On the off chance you just might actually read this AND agree, I share with you now... The “Truthiness” Problem A Moderate Rabbi’s Response to Paul Ryan Those of you who know me, (I hope) know that, while I can (over)react when provoked, as a rule, I try really hard to be measured and careful in my responses and in my use of language. We live in a time in which too many are too careless with their words, and in the process, remove meaning, or cause harm, and make it harder for us to effectively communicate with each other. I also try to be sensitive to the use of hyperbole, to make sure that my choices -- of words and examples -- are not only accurate in content, but do not inadvertently raise the argument to a level that it could not attain on its own, and does not deserve. Such careless rhetoric not only fails to effectively make the case the (mis)user is attempting to make, it weakens the status of the example for future usage. Babe Ruth was a unique phenomenon of a physical specimen and athlete; every misguided attempt to call the new phenom “the next Babe Ruth” weakened his historical standing. But what I try to be most careful about is telling the truth. Call me old-fashioned. Call me a fuddy-duddy. I don’t care. As a Rabbi, a Jew, and a human being, I see what the Nazis were able to do in their propaganda war, with what they themselves referred to as “The Big Lie,” and I am not allowed to forget. The sacredness of the memory and lesson of the Holocaust is profound. It is not something to be taken lightly, or for granted. So when political campaigns become so separated from the truth as to take one’s thoughts in the direction of comparison to the Nazi propaganda machine, by even the smallest baby-step, it is clear that we have an issue. One which can no longer be allowed to continue to slide by, unacknowledged. And it is nothing new. In the very first episode of his “news show,” Stephen Colbert felt the need to coin a new word to describe the phenomenon. But don’t take my word for it… here is the beginning of the entry on that word from Wikipedia (I know, I know, but note the refreshingly less-than-positive self-reference in the piece!): “Truthiness is a quality characterizing a "truth" that a person claims to know intuitively "from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.[1] “American television comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word in this meaning[2] as the subject of a segment called "The Wørd" during the pilot episode of his political satire program The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005. By using this as part of his routine, Colbert satirized the misuse of appeal to emotion and "gut feeling" as a rhetorical device in contemporaneous socio-political discourse.[3] He particularly applied it to U.S. President George W. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.[4] Colbert later ascribed truthiness to other institutions and organizations, including Wikipedia.[5] Colbert has sometimes used a Dog Latin version of the term, "Veritasiness".[6] For example, in Colbert's "Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando" the word "Veritasiness" can be seen on the banner above the eagle on the operation's seal. “Truthiness, although a "stunt word", was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster.[7][8] Linguist and OED consultant Benjamin Zimmer[2][9] pointed out that the word truthiness[10] already had a history in literature and appears in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), as a derivation of truthy, and The Century Dictionary, both of which indicate it as rare or dialectal, and to be defined more straightforwardly as "truthfulness, faithfulness".[2] Responding to claims, Colbert explained the origin of his word as, "Truthiness is a word I pulled right out of my keister …." The fact that both the American Dialect Society AND Merriam Webster BOTH recognized it as “Word of the Year” speaks volumes to me. What it says is that, no matter how much the coinage may have been meant to be satirical, it struck a chord of truth and accuracy in the ears of the listening public in a way that no other effort had previously succeeded in doing. Fast forward to Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech last night. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a registered Democrat. I registered, so that I could vote in primary elections. A more honest evaluation of my political philosophy is that I am, and strive to be, a true moderate. I have voted for candidates of both parties, because I believed in them. I have no problem calling either side out when I believe they have crossed the line. I voted for Obama in 2012, and proudly announced that it was the first time I was voting FOR a presidential candidate in my life, and not against his opponent. Although I have not been impressed by what he has been able to achieve in his first term of office, I am not blind to the fact that he has done far more than he is generally given credit for, nor to the truth that a deliberate effort by a totally ineffectual Congress bears the bulk of the blame for the failures. As a moderate, I honestly believe he has been neither as good or successful as his campaign is claiming, nor as bad as his opponents would have us believe him to be. He will most likely receive my vote again in this election (although I do not make public endorsements as a rule, and reserve my right up until the moment I pull the computer card out of the machine to change my mind). But this time, it will be as much or more a vote against his opponent as it will be a vote of confidence in him. And, in large part, that inability to consider supporting the Romney/ Ryan ticket is rooted in the severe truthiness problem that appears almost every time someone from that campaign opens their mouth. Sure, the Republican platform is loaded with extremist stances that turn my stomach. I respect the right of any citizen to disagree with my opinion – THAT is democracy. I also respect their right to make their opinion known, to work for it, and to act upon it. They are doing so. What I cannot, and will not abide, however, are words spoken with a deliberate attempt to convey one message, while either their actions, or the historical record clearly say something different. I am not concerned that Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on issues throughout his political career. So has every other good politician. Times change. So do circumstances. Therefore, I question someone who stays tied to a position that has already grown obsolete. I AM concerned that in this election cycle, neither party has shied away from making statements that they either do or should know to be factually untrue. And I am particularly concerned about one party’s seemingly clear choice to choose truthiness over truth, without much, if any, subtlety. I share the following from a reposting by a friend of mine, Abbie Banks, on Facebook earlier today: “Audrey O'Dea said --->>> "Normally I wouldn't be posting Fox News' take on anything. But this time I am, as a display of how badly Paul Ryan lied in his speech. The fact that Fox is calling out the GOP VP pick for his untruths, shows how bad it must be. "Greatest number of blatant lies slipped into a single speech.””” That pretty much sums up my disgust by midday the morning after. And here is the ironic part – it didn’t need to be this way. As this post from my friend, Julie Silver, also on Facebook earlier today so eloquently makes clear: “"Late last night, after the speeches were finished, David Axelrod went into his bedroom closet, closed the door and to a bunch of clothes on hangers, delivered the perfect GOP keynote that could topple President Obama. His speech hit all the incumbent's weaknesses, all the stress points with jujitsu accuracy. He offered tough criticisms and thoughtful solutions. And it was all based on the President's record. He did it without a single lie. Then when he concluded, he breathed a sigh of relief that wasn't the speech that Ryan gave. Not even close. Then he stepped out of the closet, leaving behind a rack of pressed suits who could turn the tide of history if only they could speak." -- Nell Scovell” The bottom line is that Paul Ryan, like so many others on the Tea Party, right-extreme of the Republican Party have foolishly done before him, took his eyes off the prize. They are so busy attacking Obama, demonizing him, vilifying him, attempting to drive him from office, that they forgot to look at what might be the best strategy to actually get their candidate elected!! Stretching the truth, at times outright breaking it, in the era of the Internet and instantaneous fact-checking, is a losing strategy. By the end of Ryan’s speech, all the television pundits and the cyber community were buzzing, astonished at the number of demonstrably false statements Ryan gave in a single speech. At best, it was an example of lazy hubris which ought to render the man and his support staff ineligible, in the eyes of a thinking electorate, of surviving as a serious candidate. At worst, it was the Big Lie. There. I said it. Didn’t claim for sure that this was the intent, because I do not know that for sure. But I am willing to go there today, because I have no better way of expressing how outrageous this speech was. Quibble if you want over whether $716 billion dollars that Ryan lists as savings in his own Medicare Reform Plan are or aren’t “raiding” of Medicare when Obama does it (to pay for “Obamacare,” which is not yet a 4-letter word, despite far too much venom and effort spent to make it so). I am not sure whether that rises to the level of outright lie, or is just a hideous, if all-too-familiar, shading of language. Accuse your opponent, the incumbent, of walking away from the findings of a congressional committee trying to resolve budget issues. That makes good sense as a campaign strategy if you want to label him as weak in this area. However, when you were a member of that very same committee, and voted against its findings, you kind of lose the moral high ground when the rest of the story comes out, and you should. So maybe you should have picked a different argument. Again, not sure this reaches a level of deliberate truth avoidance, any more than the last example. Which, if nothing else, demonstrates how far we have already sunk away from honest debate. However, when you accuse the President of being responsible for the closing of an auto plant in the Midwest, and make a personal statement to attach yourself to that community, you really need to make sure that the President was in office at the time the plant closed. And last night, Paul Ryan gave us a flat out lie on this one. The plant he was describing closed in 2008. Obama took office in 2009! Honest mistake? Possibly, but if it is, it is a huge and bad one. The type for which multiple heads should roll. The type which makes you look foolish enough that reasonable people might reconsider their support for you. However, given the context of the man and the campaign, it stretches disbelief to see it as anything but a deliberate lie. This is all highly troubling on its own. Coming as it does in the midst of a moment in history in which the richest 1% in our country are both being demonized as never before, but also appear to be making the most blatant power grab in American history, coming from the party whose platform makes clear their support for and from that 1% at the expense of the middle class, it becomes far more troubling. I will not go into how I come to the rather paranoid sounding conclusion I am about to draw in this blog (if I continue to see it happening, I will in a subsequent one, I promise), but, if allowed to continue unchecked, this growing outright class warfare will eventually force an American confrontation between democracy on the one hand and capitalism on the other. Reread that statement as many times as you need to for its significance to sink in. And then try to refute it. Please! I want to be wrong about this. I just don’t believe any longer that I am. And there is one more troubling element in all of this. There appears to be a deliberately growing “information gap” being displayed and expoited here as it is in many other elements of our daily life. Sure, the talking heads on television, during and immediately after Ryan’s speech, were falling all over each other trying to come up with the greatest volume of truthiness gaffes. They were talking to the same remarkably small, self-selecting portion of the population that chose to watch the speech themselves, and heard the same lies and half-truths with their own ears. And yes, the internet has been abuzz last night and all day today with new and old tidbits (and isn’t it eerily silent from the camp that one would expect should be supporting Mr. Ryan’s words?). But again, this is material that all but the same political junkies are generally ignoring. However, in the “mainstream” commercial media – the morning television news shows, the all-news radio formats, most of the nation’s newspapers, the places where most of America still get their "news," there was a glaring omission in much of the coverage. Many talked about how the speech “energized” the convention. Precious few talked about the problems of honesty the speech had. And therefore, those who blissfully ignored the speech itself, who won’t bother to read a transcript or follow on-line discussions about it, may never know that a candidate for Vice President outright LIED to the American public in a brazen attempt to make his opponent look bad, and to get himself elected. And therefore, some of these folks, who, if they did know, might be moved to change their mind about his fitness as their candidate, may never be given the opportunity to do so. THAT failing of the mainstream media is just as dangerous, just as glaring as the either unwillingness or inability of Paul Ryan to give a speech last night that was honest and truthful. In the words of the folk song from the 60’s, “There’s battle lines being drawn… nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong…” If we cannot rely on candidates to care about the truth, cannot count on the mainstream media to raise the red flag and report such breeches clearly to us, then we have little choice but to see them as on a side not our own. We cannot afford to all be wrong, especially in a battle in which there will be no winners....

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