Thu, Feb

New Year's Revolutions: First, Stay Angry


GELFAND’S WORLD-It was two days after the 9/11 attacks, on September 13, 2001, that Dave Barry published a column which began, "No humor column today. I don't want to write it, and you don't want to read it." I suspect that this is how most of us feel about trying to do a traditional Year in Review for 2016. To me, it's sufficient to say that a near-majority of the American people (but controlling a majority of the Electoral votes) made a terrible decision, and the remaining majority will have to endure its effects. We can, however, think about what we plan to do about the new administration in the coming year.

What to do? Here's a start: As a friend of mine put it, the first thing to do is to stay angry. Remember your anger. Don't let it go. In a way, this is a prescription for independents and Democrats to take the same approach that the Republican core have taken during the past several Democratic presidencies. The hatred directed towards Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went far beyond what any rational analysis could possibly justify. That emotion, carried on chronically and with intensity, had an effect on the political process and ultimately on legislation.

The difference between 2017 and those other years is that our concerns are justified. We need to figure out how to act effectively, even if we don't have it in ourselves to be a hate filled mob.

We do have justification for our anger. Everything about the incoming administration and its allies in the congress screams reactionary. Some of what we are hearing would have been inconceivable even just a few years ago. It seems hard to believe that any rational politician would talk about phasing out Medicare, but we've seen the Speaker of the House talking seriously about it. Others in that party have put Social Security, always considered a "third rail" in our lifetimes, in the crosshairs.

And then there is the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. The House Republicans have been licking their chops about repeal for half a decade. This is the government program that will be the first big test. And it is a big test, particularly if you either have some preexisting condition or expect to live long enough (say 45 or so) that you will develop one.

An email arrived this week explaining that one day in January will be dedicated to protesting the possible changes to Obamacare. I don't know where those people learned their protest skills, but one day isn't enough. It needs to be a national campaign that begins right now and continues for as long as it takes, week after week and month after month. There should be no congressional office left unvisited by people who rely on the new system for health insurance. There should be no American city with a population over 30,000 that doesn't see pro-Obamacare demonstrations.

It's time that the rational and humane people in this country learn to fight back against the irrationalist impulse that fuels the right wing movement, the movement that brought on the disaster of 2016. We need to figure out how to balance and counteract the kinds of tactics that talk radio and Fox News use to mislead people. We've been looking for a strategy for more than 20 years, and we haven't quite put our collective finger on it yet.

I have a thought: We've been too nice. We have to change that. It's the kind of thought that nice liberals didn't vocalize much, until now. But fighting back is as American as a Mary Pickford movie, and we have to learn how.

We also need to learn to not be intimidated by right wing blowback. The right wing has perfected a technique which finds something to focus on, and then invites its followers to express their outrage. It doesn't matter how trivial the event is. One time, the president was sipping from a cup of coffee as he walked down the steps of Air Force One. At the bottom, a member of the armed services saluted, and Obama absent mindedly returned the salute without changing the hand holding his coffee cup. This became the cause of the day for the right wing. They used the event to imply that the president didn't respect members of the armed services.

That's right. They manufactured outrage over which hand held a cup of coffee, or that there was a cup of coffee at all. Outrage, real or feigned, is the weapon of choice for the right wing echo chamber.

We shouldn't let the right wing intimidate us with its phony outrage. We should relish it, because it will be the proof that we've struck a nerve. Whatever their outrage, double down on it. Ask for more, and explain why we too are outraged.

One other thing. We need to understand that being coldly intellectual is not always the most effective course: people don't necessarily react to the beauty of our logic or the presentation of our facts. The other side has a different tack. They use ridicule and overstatement. They raise their voices and let their feelings be heard. This seems -- shall I be so indelicate as to put it this way -- kind of rude. The other side has played at being school yard bullies, and we've watched and tsk-tsk'd at their crudeness.

When I suggest that we fight back in a similar fashion with ridicule and volume, it may sound crude, but there is a point to the exercise. The right wing uses ridicule and anger as a way of establishing its tribal boundaries and keeping its converts within the pack. You don't attract the next generation to your own pack by ignoring the bullying tactics of the opposition, neither are you likely to attract people from the other side over to your side.

But there is some possibility to attract people from the other side by establishing that your side is stronger. What that word stronger is supposed to represent will have different meanings in different contexts. In the academic context, it refers to the intellectual content. But in the social context of politics, we refer to stronger social bonds and more developed communities. In other words, the goal is to teach right wingers that they are less respected (or popular) than the other side. We make that case using logic and facts, history and story, but we need to understand that the story needs to be told with emotion and belief.

There is also a case to be made for repetition. The other side knows that part of the process. That's why we refer to the right wing echo chamber. They've learned how to take a trivial subject such as emails -- about the equivalent of doing 45 in a 35 zone -- and turn it into high treason. They got away with it using repetition and overstatement. We may be a little too honorable to get into that level of overstatement, but it's not dishonorable on our part to use repetition.

The right wing has been driven by fear of loss: loss of religious power, loss of guns, loss of white privilege. Now we fear for our own losses -- reproductive freedom, health care, the scientific approach to global warming -- and we should respond in kind. Let the members of congress and the new president be faced with massive rallies, hundreds of thousands of letters, and personal visits by those who will be most affected by health care cuts. When congressman Darrell Issa is visited by Republicans who fear the loss of their Medicare, that will be a sign that public sentiment is moving. (Note that Issa won reelection by a mere 1621 votes out of 310 thousand votes cast, a mere zero point six percent difference. Let's find all the Darrell Issas across the country and arrange constituent visits.)

All this talk of rallies and marches can't help but remind us of the antiwar protests of the 1960s. I'm particularly reminded of one aspect of that era, the teach-in. Teach-ins were gatherings in which experts on southeast Asia and foreign affairs explained the background of the Viet Nam conflict to students who would otherwise have remained ignorant and confused. The teach-in movement expanded, and pretty soon all kinds of people were attending. I suggest that we start doing teach-ins about global warming. The point is to educate a large mass of people about the technical realities of global warming so they will be immunized against the ad hominems and trivializations of the right wing. We might start by summarizing the different kinds of information that point unanimously to the existence of human-induced global warming. It is a way to educate people against the propaganda of the right wing.

We might continue by educating people about the failures of supply side economics (cutting taxes on the rich) in terms of building the economy.

We might also consider educating people about the realities of deficit spending and the national debt, that neither is a bad thing per se, and that each can be used constructively. We might want to begin a national conversation the first time that the Republican congress goes into deficit spending for the military budget.

There will be much to discuss and I intend to discuss it here on CityWatch. Next year's topics will certainly go beyond national politics  -- everything from parking enforcement to municipal government reform to pseudoscience is subject to discussion. They are all grist for the word processor. But first we have to deal with the political and legislative emergency that we've fallen into. We have a lot to talk about in this upcoming year. Let's start the conversation.

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]