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The dying art of arguing - Bob Paslay

We had a newsroom discussion the other day about whether Bill Clinton's infidelity to Hillary was a character flaw that spilled over into his public life. One reporter was arguing this and several of us said history shows that strongly driven leaders, like former presidents, have had these extramarital encounters and have not shown any sign of it bleeding over into the way they purport themselves.

One person arguing our side then begins to say personal slights at the person on the other side, arguing that his brain is frozen in ice and he will never grow. Have you ever been in an argument and you are so offended by the tactics of someone on your side you want to switch sides?

Why is it that the great old art of arguing in a civil way has died and you feel compelled to think you are totally right and your opponent is totally wrong and a moron to boot for not seeing the error of his ways?

I wish I could say this is an aberration. But a couple of months ago I was in a bar in Atlanta and one guy named Fred pops off that he doesn't like Hillary Clinton, "that lesbian." I was raised in a family of lawyers in which we were encouraged to argue around the dinner table. A friend once spent the night and later talked about how we were always arguing. But I said it was just a free exchange of ideas, not an argument in the sense that you dislike the other person.

So with this background, coupled with my journalism proclivity to probe and argue, I bore into this guy. I said a lesbian is someone who has physical or emotional attractions to someone of the same gender. Had he ever looked into Hillary's window and seen her do anything of this kind. Had he read any writings of hers or seen any interviews that would indicate that? So in the throes of my Socrates imitation, the guy gets mad and tells me to go Cheney myself. End of discussion.

That is why I don't like to argue politics any more. The zealots on both sides are always right. No one budges. No one sees grays. No one asks questions because they want your idea of the answers. This raw bullyism doesn't interest me and only leaves me mad and frustrated. You only have to look as far as the news talk shows to see this. Everyone tries to talk louder than the other. There is no exchange of views, only a blabbering of doctrines they believe. I used to like William F. Buckley's "Firing Lone" because first he was respectful of the guest, regardless of whether he agreed with him or her and secondly, at the end of the interview you came away with a pretty good interplay of ideas.

In a good civil argument, you may not change your mind but you are required to bring all the ammo forward and organize your thoughts and sharpen your points. You also can learn something from the other side. Maybe you have not heard of one of the authors or experts the other side is using and you learn about them.

Now that I am grousing, let me talk about the whole issues of spin doctors, reality checks and politics.

Last week when John Kerry came in on a boat with his Vietnam veteran friends, ABC's anchor said something to the effect that this was orchestrated to show he is strong on the military and would be a good commander and chief. I don't need commentators on either side telling me what things mean. I need them to report the news and let me figure out, duh, what something means or why it was done.

I was an English major and it was in vogue to see "symbolism" in everything. I remember one character in a story had on a red shirt and I said that see, red is a symbol for blood and in this case the character sees himself bathed in the blood of the lamb. My professor responded: Did you ever thing he went down to the department store to the sales rack and red was the only color shirt in his size and that is why he is wearing a red shirt?

Spin doctors in the new politics say nothing is done that doesn't have a spin effect. The problem now is that the politicians and their "handlers" respond to this fully. If a politician is seen as aloof and cool, don't push his ideas and say everyone is different in the world and you don't have to be a cookie cutter cardboard cutout. Instead, have his daughters tell how nice daddy is. Get him to wear more polo shirts and hug more babies, pet more cute dogs. Craft everything with an eye to how it will spin.

At the same time, everyone is pulling back the curtain and showing how all the gears work. So it all becomes some sort of a game in which we worry about the mechanism rather than the election. Political junkies always did this but now everyone is more obsessed with the way the engine works under the hood.

It's like when the wizard is caught in the Wizard of Oz, when the curtain is pulled back and all the magic is gone. Have you ever thought how Oz is never the same again after that? Magicians who show how the magic tricks are done destroy the illusion and eventually the craft. OK, I'm through. So now it is time to talk about the old goat who is always thinking back to better times.

Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor of the News Daily and the Daily Herald and can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 257 or at bpaslay@news-daily.com.