It's noisy out there, but the truth keeps getting through

By Jayson Jacoby November 05, 2010 09:11 am

Another election has passed, and the predominant sentiment among Americans, or so it seems to me, is that we’re exhausted and could use a vacation.

Preferably to some place in the tropics which is not at present having its topography rearranged by a hurricane.

Our commonest complaints, as we languish in the post-election malaise, are that the campaigns were slimy, and the media’s appetite for the vitriolic stew was insatiable.

This ability of Americans to rediscover our disdain for politics every couple of years, to react to its ugly but utterly predictable excesses with the innocent wonder of a child discovering some previously unknown aspect of the world, tickles me as always.

We’ve created a sophisticated, and occasionally erudite, society.

Yet we’re amazingly adept at acting like rubes.

For the whole of our country’s history, political campaigns have indulged in the most puerile of tactics.

In the 1828 presidential election, to name but one egregious and distant example, Andrew Jackson’s supporters called John Quincy Adams a “pimp” and claimed he had procured an American girl as a concubine for the Russian czar.

Which makes the charges that Chris Dudley wants to cut taxes for the rich, or that John Kitzhaber would like nothing more than to saddle Oregon with a sales tax, seem quaintly civilized.

Despite this rich history of sleaze, with each campaign season we seem to treat the first appearance of a sophomoric attack ad or a snarling TV demagogue as though it were a unique affront to the electoral process, a fresh new blight on our republic.

Every election is indeed different from its predecessors.

Yet the characteristics that distinguish one from another are in the main minor matters.

This year in Oregon, for instance, Kitzhaber and Dudley, the two major party candidates for governor, spent a record amount of money, with the result that their TV commercials achieved a new level of ubiquity.

But it’s the content of those and other ads, rather than their frequency, that we cite as proof of the unprecedented decline in the quality of our political discourse.

And judging by that content — I heard no mention of pimps — I just can’t get too worked up.

But here’s the thing: Even if I conceded that political speech has slunk to heretofore unknown depths of depravity, I would argue that Americans have never been better equipped to sift through all the trash to find the chunks of sustenance.

Which is why I think the ostensible reason for the rally that Comedy Central stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert put on last weekend in Washington, D.C., is specious.

Their chief critique, it seems to me, is that the media and politicians incite political discord among Americans by hoisting ideologues into bully pulpits, by emphasizing the extreme beliefs and shunning the voices of moderation.

I think Stewart and Colbert might be on to something.

They’re also a couple centuries late in making this shocking discovery, but let’s not quibble over the timing.

High-level campaigns have always been, at their core, heavily publicized Dean Martin roasts, only without the humor.

Or, usually, Dean Martin.

This annoys me occasionally — as when I see the same inane TV spot five times in the first half of a football game, for instance.

But I’m not so chagrined about the situation as Colbert and Stewart seem to be.

They’re alarmed by the strident nature of political dialogue in America.

But rather than be troubled by the volume, I take comfort in it. Except by volume I mean the abundance of opinions and biases and assertions to which we are daily bombarded, not the number of decibels with which these messages are conveyed.

I suppose the difference is that, unlike the worriers, I believe, as Agent Mulder did, that the truth is out there.

Moreover, I believe that a society is healthier which erects few impediments on the flow of information.

That flow will pick up some worthless flotsam along the way, of course. And the occasional bit will clog a headgate. But so long as the system is well-designed it’s no great task to yank out the debris and get the refreshing stream going again.

There is no scarcity of shouters, certainly. I don’t begrudge Stewart and Colbert chastising the worst offenders.

Yet I don’t believe the blowhards have anything like the influence that the two comics and other commentators suggest.

For one thing, the resulting cacophony is at least as likely to annoy the listener as persuade him.

For another, neither side of the political spectrum owns a majority stake, much less a monopoly, on the avalanche of information that constantly sweeps into America’s living rooms.

But wait, the critics counter, what about the popularity of O’Reilly and Olbermann, Limbaugh and Maddow, those pundits who, as the cliche goes, merely tell (or yell) precisely what their fans want to hear?

The salient question, though, is rarely asked.

Did Rush Limbaugh “create” his legions of dittoheads by co-opting millions of Americans whose political ambivalence left them vulnerable to a conniving manipulator?

Limbaugh is plenty clever, all right. But his brilliance is as an entertainer, not a budding dictator.

What Limbaugh did is far more mundane, it seems to me, than malevolent.

He recognized the beliefs that a goodly number of Americans hold dear, and then he perfected the art of repeating those beliefs in ways his listeners always wished they could.

The dittoheads were already out there, is what I’m saying. Limbaugh merely gave them a name and a new pre-set on their radio.

His myriad imitators, on both the left and the right, have only capitalized, to lesser degrees, on Limbaugh’s success.

The more vital point, though, is that none of them, including Limbaugh, has spawned a political movement with anything but illusory and temporary power.

And the proof of their ultimate impotence comes from the very events — elections — that prompted the Stewart-Colbert rally and other bouts of public hand-wringing.

If the prevalence of partisanship had such dire effects, then how to explain that Americans, in the span of eight years, elected as their president George W. Bush (twice) and Barack Obama?

The acolytes of the right and the left, with few exceptions, will vote for their party’s candidates.

But neither side has a majority.

And so, with every national election, we are reminded that the so-called “undecided” or “swing” voters will tell the tale.

That they can veer as wildly as from Bush to Obama, a shift which requires gusts of considerable velocity, greatly eases my mind.

I can’t help but conclude that those who diagnose America as suffering from a chronic and debilitating illness have perhaps mistaken the condition for a periodic but benign infection, the sort which most of us are well-equipped to expel after a brief spell of lethargy.

In his concluding remarks at the rally, Stewart said this: “The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror.”

Most of us have ventured into a fun house, and found it by turns amusing and a trifle frightening.

But ultimately we also understand that the fun house is as ephemeral as the carnival which brought it to town.

Stewart also pointed out that, contrary to the atmosphere of near-constant acrimony that the media tends to portray, Americans understand how to compromise to get things done.

“The only place we don’t is here,” Stewart said, gesturing to the U.S. Capitol, “or on cable TV.”

Fortunately, neither of those places is where we fill in our ballots.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.