James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Begging to differ

Posted by James McPherson on June 9, 2008

As I noted a couple of days ago, one of the highlights of my childhood was listening in–and occasionally participating–as my parents argued politics with their friends. Occasionally things would become overly heated and the gathering would break up. My first coffee table was a hand-me-down with indents in the wood where a rum bottle had been pounded for emphasis during a discussion of the Vietnam War. But the friendships themselves held together because everyone knew that the people involved were good, even if the ideas sometimes weren’t.

Today one of the things I value most about my current job is my friendship with a conservative Southern Baptist who idolizes Ronald Reagan. I frequently describe Mike as “one of the funniest, best-educated, most loving, thoughtful, well-spoken people I know–who just happens to be wrong about almost everything.” He subscribes to National Review, while I subscribe to the Nation. Of course we’re also both middle-aged white guys with beards, glasses and Ph.D.’s, which makes us more like each other than either of us is like most of the other people in the world.

Mike and I typically get together for lunch after any significant political event such as a debate or primary. I do so because he knows more about media and politics than anyone else I know around here, and I love to talk about the issues. We send each other jokes about the other guy’s favored candidates and positions. When we see each other in public we’ll exchange insults of a sort that make those around us–people far more accustomed to the modern practice of avoiding the discussion of anything that might cause discomfort–reflexively cringe. For example, the last time I stepped into the bloodmobile, there was Mike already lying prone and bleeding into a bag. “So did you make them promise not to give any of your blood to save liberals?” I called the length of the bus. Laughing, he responded: “No, I asked them to give it all to liberals. I figure it might make them smarter.” See, I told you he was a funny guy.

More important than our willingness to exchange ideas, jokes and insults, however, is the fact that we send each other jokes about our own favored candidates and positions. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Life is too short to be taken seriously.” More accurately, I’d argue that life is too short to take ourselves very seriously.

Mike subscribes to National Review and watches Fox News, but he also reads the Nation and listens to NPR. As you can see from the links on the right side of this page, I also rely on news from a range of perspectives. We both believe that generally speaking more information is better than less information, and that the best response to bad speech is better speech (more on my reasons why here). We rarely take criticism of our positions personally, and when we do take it personally–for example, when I may have gone a bit over the top in some of the language in a letter to the local paper pointing out that George Bush was a war criminal–we tend to recognize that fact and avoid each other for a couple of days.

When 24-hour cable news arrived, I hoped it would add depth to our understanding of events, that with more time to fill, broadcasters would spend more time examining individual issues. Instead, of course, they spend most of their time regurgitating trivial news stories and commenting on (rather than reporting on) events of the day. Bias, fluff and sensationalism became more prevalent, not less so.

I have found the blogosphere to be similarly disappointing in many respects. While the Internet provides amazing access to information of all sorts, and greatly expands the number of voices worth reading, it also increases the overall “noise” of the discussion. And without the kind of interaction that Mike and I have, which allows both increased verbal context and the recognition that the person at the other end of the argument is essentially a good human being regardless of his/her political beliefs, it becomes far too easy to take potshots and engage in name calling.

Add to that the idea that too many of us feel obligated to have opinions on virtually any topic, regardless of how well informed we may be about that topic, it becomes easier to attack the messenger than the message. Comparing our “language environment” to what is commonly known to ecologists like my brother as “the tragedy of the commons,” Suzette Haden Elgin notes in a book titled How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable that we worry primarily about our own needs:

People have discovered that they can put food on the table by ranting and raving on the radio or television, or by bullying their colleagues and employees. They’ve learned that they can confidence and self-esteem from using language to demonstrate their power over others, and that this not only makes them feel good but seems to help them get ahead. They’ve found that sarcasm is a quick and easy way to make a child behave. They’ve found that ethnic jokes make people laugh, and it’s pleasant to be a big hit with the crowd. These are immediate and obvious rewards, the way bug-free tomatoes are; they have far more power to affect people than the alleged consequences of language behavior in some distant and hypothetical future.

As a former editorial writer and now a blogger, I sincerely hope that language has an effect, and I don’t deny that sometimes I slip into a bit of name calling myself–sometimes with good motives, to generate thought, sometime with less wholesome motives because I’m cranky.  Last Christmas my wife gave me a T-shirt that reads, “Stupidity is not a crime, you’re free to go,” and I suspect she didn’t pick it up just because it was on sale and she thought I could wear it while doing yard work. Frankly the comma splice bothers me, but I happen to be wearing the shirt as I write this.

It is too easy  to spout half-formed opinions, and I know that if I do so in my interactions with Mike, I’ll be verbally skewered. As a result, if I don’t have a good answer for something, I don’t offer any answer until I know more. So feel free to skewer me here, too. Having been a journalist for years, a grad student for too long, and a college professor for a decade, I honestly don’t mind the criticism (my wife has accused me of enjoying it). For the sake of enlightenment, of course, I hope you’ll attack the message more than the messenger. But I can live with either one.

29 Responses to “Begging to differ”

  1. byjane said

    First, I agree totally about comma splices. They are an affront to my retinas. However, in England, they are common and correct–and who are we to argue with the Brits!

    Second, thank you so much for pointing out the paragraph of this book of which I had never heard (note the correct grammar there, please) which says oh-so-much-better what I was trying to say in my blog post.

    Third, I say with the greatest respect for the messenger: were you cranky when you wrote that BlogHer comment?

  2. James McPherson said

    Yes, I must admit that I was a bit cranky with that post. It led to an interesting “discussion” with another blogger, though, on BlogHer and then on her own site. That exchange actually helped prompt this post.

    Those silly Brits–they’re also inclined to put commas outside of quotation makes and to add an extraneous “u” to certain words. You’d think they invented the language, or something.

  3. […] in Media literacy, Politics, Religion, Written elsewhere by James McPherson on July 7th, 2008 My conservative buddy and I share one thing in common–both of us are consistently surprised by the ignorance […]

  4. Dark Skies said

    Another good post!

    BTW, I added your blog to my blogroll in an effort to offer a different perspective to my readers.

    Keep up the good work!


  5. James McPherson said

    Thanks, DS. As you can see, I’ve added you as well–though I’m not sure you feel about the alphabet putting you between Daily Kos and the Democratic Party!

  6. Dark Skies said

    “I’m not sure you feel about the alphabet putting you between Daily Kos and the Democratic Party!”

    Heheh! That’s great…I like it!


  7. […] member at the university in which I teach, I am a Christian. So is one of my best friends, but we disagree on many things. The university president, in his latest quarterly message to alums and friends of […]

  8. […] and nobler” line, which captures the essence of Clinton’s speech. And I am again reminded that seeing people strongly disagree–often with considerable justification–but still […]

  9. […] Begging to differ […]

  10. […] McCain at last night’s Al Smith dinner. Both men were funny, and showed American politics as it can be, tough but […]

  11. […] (after all, we’ve heard about the anti-American bias in that category), nor are even my most bipartisan political efforts here likely to win me the Nobel Peace Prize. My time as a journalist probably […]

  12. […] readers will know that I also strongly agree with the idea about using other media and seeking alternative voices. That’s why the long […]

  13. […] in the fact that even when I know I’ll offend people, I try to do it in a thoughtful way that encourages dialogue rather than closing it off. I try to do the same elsewhere, as well: At least one […]

  14. […] Begging to differ […]

  15. sandrar said

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  16. […] to speak for them (you’ll notice the disclaimer at the top of this page), and they understand the role of political discussion in a free society. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Technology Break DownSMS or […]

  17. I don’t know If I said it already but …Great site…keep up the good work. 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read….

  18. […] from throughout the political spectrum. I think all Americans should do so, for reasons I’ve expressed previously. As I’ve also mentioned before, I also occasionally try to point out an error and/or to […]

  19. Yes, I did like it. Very nice. 🙂 I’m gonna have to add you to my blogroll now. 🙂

  20. James McPherson said

    I just added you to mine, under “Political Web/blog sites.” WordPress put you between “Political Voices of Women” and “Politico.” 🙂

  21. Ted Fine said

    One if my biggest concerns about today’s political discourse is it’s “sound bite” nature. To say the very least, today’s political issues are both complicated and complex (yes, there is a difference). Any politician that tries to explain a problem or his or her solution insults our intelligences and makes our national discourse useless.

  22. A pen said

    Hello James and readers. This shall be my opening salvo in this blog and it is part of my mental ballast, so to speak.
    Points 1-7 with special emphasis on the 5th in regards to our common view of the media today.

    From “Discourse, power and access” by Teun A. van Dijk;
    2 Social power is defined in terms of the control exercised by one group
    or organisation (or its ‘members) over the actions and/or the minds of
    (the members of) another group, thus limiting the freedom of action
    of the others, or influencing their knowledge, attitudes or ideologies.

    5 Power is based on privileged access to valued social resources, such as
    wealth, jobs, status, or indeed, a preferential access to public discourse
    and communication.

    Click to access Discourse,%20power%20and%20access.pdf

    With that in mind another observation is due, that of being a group member or a leader makes all the difference in the world when we discuss politics. Group members, individuals, are not the same as a political party.

    Politics in our great nation was designed to be a never ending dispute simply by building on the base nature of man to be unable to resist growing his power. We must be animated in this contest of liberty versus tyranny simply because mans ability to acquire power is seconded by his ability to abuse it. No amount of good intentions, education or moral conviction has ever staunched long the abuse of trust.

    In the end if we as a nation of free people entrusted with self rule it is vital as many people be brought to the discourse as possible and we must suffer their inabilities and terseness only because they either lack the skill or are inherrently cruel. If the former we must teach through our best efforts but if the latter we may issue with temerity our opinions. Failing to do this simply negates the public voice and sets us on a path of social dominance via leadership among groups becoming the voice of their collective power which is exactly what is easiest to abuse.

  23. James McPherson said

    The chapter looks interesting, and I’ll read it when I get a chance. A pen, thanks for the link, and for joining the conversation here.

  24. […] written in the past about how much I value my regular discussions with a friend and colleague who happens […]

  25. […] if most of us could figure out who the two “sides” would be–keeping in mind that most Americans agree on more than they disagree about–the vast majority of Americans today lack the desperation […]

  26. I’m glad you posted your link for I very much enjoyed your post.

    I believe another problem with the written word is that one loses the emotions of the spoken word. I can attest to this as I have been banned from quite a few sites by my comments. So either A) They don’t have a sense of humor or B) They don’t have a sense of humor. 😉

  27. James McPherson said

    Thanks, and you’re right. I’ve been banned from banned from a couple of sites, despite the fact that I try to be polite (at least at first), and have far more frequently been attacked with irrelevant ad hominems. Those who lack a sense of humor often also lack the ability to make a reasoned argument, it seems. Thanks for the comment.

  28. Is this your latest post, then? I’ll have to follow you…..I’m off to the other site to be silly.

  29. James McPherson said

    No, this one is now four years old, from back when I posted much more regularly; it just happened to be relevant to the topic over on the other site. You can see the latest ones by clicking on “home” or just the name of the blog above, or just go here: https://jmcpherson.wordpress.com/. Thanks.

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