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Stop Laughing
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Belittling Even The Nuttiest Political Comments Doesn't Help The Conversation

When Sarah Palin told Muslims to "refudiate" plans for a mosque near 9/11's ground zero a few weeks ago, I was shocked that some media talking heads dismissed her because she invented a word. They need to stop laughing.

On the language front, refudiate is a helluva lot more understandable than many of the words, abbreviations, and acronyms that get tweeted these days. Everyone knew what she meant, at least kinda, and if we want to analyze or mock the use of language by political or public figures, there are similarly enough sub-subordinate clauses, parenthetical interludes, and passive verbs in most comments from President Obama to warrant a deconstructing chuckle.

Her idea deserved a more reasoned analysis mostly because it was so unreasonable. What was she asking "peaceful Muslims" to do, exactly? Whose heartland did she believe the construction plans "stabbed?" There were factual inaccuracies: the plans call for a community center, not a mosque, and it's located 2 blocks away from the site, not at it. Her follow-up statement didn't mention that the promoters for the center are renowned for advocating interfaith dialog, they're all Americans, and the local political and community leaders approved the plans.

More broadly, her logic was suspect: even if the plans were for a mosque, would that mean that Jews shouldn't build temples in or near the West Bank (or in Jerusalem)? Should Christians be banned from building churches in Arab or Muslim countries? Blood is spilled regularly because the Dome of the Rock is so close to the Western Wall, and in many countries Christians are indeed prohibited from publicly practicing their religion (not only because of theocratic differences, as evidenced by the Communist Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, for instance).

Shouldn't all Americans refudiate such intolerance, whether here or abroad?

It's not easy or always comfortable, but I say such thinking is at the core of American exceptionalism. We are different from everyone else because we hold ourselves to higher standards; our beliefs are pure Enlightenment idealism that are impossible to live up to. What makes us different is that we try. We're better than everyone else when we practice what we preach. So our exceptionalism isn't about what rules and norms we're allowed to break but rather how hard we work to do better than other countries.

Anyway, this laughing thing really bothers me. It's condescending and it only serves to confirm Palin's claims of being persecuted and attacked. The same goes for Glenn Beck or any other rabble-rousers, irrespective of their political leanings. I caught recently a clip of his loony declaration that the new Financial Reform legislation meant the American republic had "died." The video edit was meant to elicit a laugh, but his point about the bill's length (2300 pages) deserved more: Glass-Steagall was all of 53 pages long. It's hard not to suspect that something's wrong, but is the problem that printers used too much ink and killed democracy? Hahah...er...we didn't talk about it.

One word or too many words...the ideas coming from national personalities deserve reasoned and fair attention, not glib derision. Take away talk radio and the talk shows on Fox and MSNBC, and the rest of the mediasphere that claims to be "mainstream" risks falling into the political calculations of one party or the other if they take such comments anything less than seriously. A smirk or snarky comment isn't reporting, however much focus groups have told you that your audience will appreciate it. Laughing is lamestream.

It doesn't help that so much nuttiness comes from those who oppose the current adminstration. You can stifle a laugh only so many times in response to accusations that President Obama is a foreign usurper, or that he's a socialist. But there are serious policy differences behind these wild claims -- or there need to be, if those people supporting them want a turn at running things -- and it's the media’s job to bring those issues into the light of day. Similarly, it's too easy to contrast the nuttiness with the apparently serious policy moves coming from the party in power, and in doing do make the nuttiness seem nuttier.

This isn't fair, or particularly honest, as the President's policies could be equally nutty, or they could well be partially or completely wrong. They're just not as funny or easy to laugh at. Michelle Malkin ranking about the Democrats' reign of darkness? Funny. Al Gore on global warming, or the intricacies of cap and trade? Not so funn...zzzzzzzzzz.

I don't believe conservatives and liberals are at war in America, or that patriots are busy standing up to the unpatriotic. Extremist minorities and their chosen evangelists want us to believe otherwise, and when our media (or we as citizens) laugh at ideas, we do their bidding and advance their interests. We need to stop shooting the imperfect messengers and missing our chance to talk about or understand perfectly valid or relevant ideas. Our national debate is between what’s rational and what’s stupid, and we’re losing our ability to tell the difference.

And that's nothing to laugh at.

Added: 29th July 2010

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