Thursday, September 16, 2004

Restore America's Ability to Discuss Ideas

Published on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 by the Miami Herald
Restore America's Ability to Discuss Ideas
by Robert Steinback

Published on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 by the Miami Herald
Restore America's Ability to Discuss Ideas
by Robert Steinback

For at least the last two years, I've been a man obsessed.

I intrude on the conversations of strangers to debate my concerns and criticisms of the U.S. involvement in Iraq specifically and the Bush administration generally. I argue loudly with people on my television and radio, though of course they can't hear me. I struggle to write columns that don't include the words Bush, Iraq or terrorism. (My editors are nodding as they read this.)

What's motivating me? Everyone I meet seems to have a theory -- but I don't believe any of them.

The most curious motivation ascribed to me is ''hatred.'' I am accused of believing as I do because I hate President Bush, Republicans, conservatives, Christians or perhaps even America itself. This allegation always puzzles me -- I don't even hate anyone I know personally. Why would I hate people I haven't even met? And the claim that I hate America is beyond silly. I should hate the country whose core principles overcame innate human cruelty, enabling my forebears to climb from slavery to prosperity? Nonsense.

I've deduced that what people really mean when they accuse me of hatred is, ''If you loved America, you wouldn't dare criticize what it does.'' But can't criticism sometimes be an expression of love?

Another accusation is that I take my political stances because -- because -- I'm a Democrat and/or a liberal. When considering an issue, I allegedly ask myself, ''What's the Democratic and/or liberal position?'' and then mindlessly adopt it.

This is a clever gambit, as I am indeed a Democrat, and since January 2001 for sure, a comfortably self-described liberal. But my political orientation doesn't define my stance on issues. I don't need anyone to tell me what to believe; I'm quite capable of determining my own beliefs.

My easy counterpoint: If it were true that partisanship defined my positions on issues, my alarm at talk of war in Iraq should have been soothed by the many Senate Democrats who blindly voted to give Bush the authority to go to war in October 2002. In fact, my outrage was greatly intensified when the ostensible opposition party couldn't find the backbone to rise in opposition. So much for partisan boosterism.

I've also heard the claim that I'm lying to advance the liberal media's insidious agenda and thus my career. Aside from the utter idiocy of trying to advance a journalism career by choosing to lie -- Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass might testify to the folly in this -- if advancement were my aim, I've surely picked the wrong track. A conservative black commentator can go far these days, if on novelty value alone (I'd have been a regular on Fox News by now), while black middle-to-left commentators are a dime a dozen.

There are other accusations -- I'm enthralled by Bill Clinton, I'm a socialist, I'm parroting talking points from the Democratic National Committee -- you get the idea. They're all designed for one purpose: to head off a debate on issues.

So what does motivate me? I'm only doing what I've always done: following my intellectual passion. I review the evidence, both hard and circumstantial, apply the logic that seems most persuasive to me, and refract it all through the prism of my principles. These have combined to create in me a belief that America, under this administration, is headed down an ill-advised, regressive path.

But I recognize this is only my opinion. I expect some people to agree and others not to. I would never just assume I'm right; my obligation is to present my argument anew in each conversation, in each column -- that's why I love, and live for, debate.

What I can't grasp is why so few people who contest my opinions can accept them as genuine. With breathtaking, but fairly predictable speed, the ''debate'' turns into an analysis of my motivations for taking the positions I do. It no longer is about what I am saying, but why I am saying it.

I'm sure it goes both ways; there must be issue-focused conservatives tired of accusations they are motivated by racism, greed, fascism or that old standby, hatred. I just don't seem to run into many. Perhaps we are mutually endangered species.

Our society is becoming increasingly unwilling to -- and sadly, incapable of -- debating ideas. Some might attribute this to the current presidential manure-slinging campaign, but I rather suspect this campaign is a reflection of us. This is more likely a trend than an anomaly.

Ours is a demand-and-supply world: We get what we ask for. We're sold whatever we're willing to buy. We receive only what we demand.

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