Sunday, January 15, 2012

When Fear Mongering for the Greater Good Isn't Good

Political discourse, by its very nature, can be a nasty business. And it's this last word that makes the difference: business. With so much money riding on each election, politics has become big business. And it's zero sum game: your loss is my victory. As such, there's very little room for an honest debate of ideas – there's too much at stake. If more people believe your idea than believe mine, I'm out of work. So discourse has continued its descent into the abyss and manipulation carries the day as they smugly mine the depths of intellectual dishonesty.

When I worked in Congress in the mid-90s as a press secretary I remember being apoplectic at some manipulative stunts President Clinton and his team pulled. The issue was the unsustainable growth of Social Security and Medicare (déjà vu anyone?). Republicans in Congress hammered out what they thought was a deal with the White House. They'd slow the annual growth of the programs from X% to .9X% (or some such fraction of the original). Then President Clinton went on national television and a hand-wringing tour of AARP hot-spots talking about standing up to the "draconian cuts in Social Security and Medicare" the Republicans were proposing.

Of course it was utter nonsense – the programs were not being cut, they just weren't going to grow as quickly as they had been. Since the future spending hadn't yet happened there was nothing to cut, draconically or otherwise. Then-Speaker Gingrich and other leaders didn't believe the President's manipulation of the facts would successfully scare senior citizens. They were, as Gingrich would say, "exactly and fundamentally wrong." The remarkably skilled President made us all eat a big sandwich of something that didn't taste very good. (I believe to this day Gingrich still has that taste in his mouth – part of the reason he comes across so angry.)

But that was 15 years ago. That kind of mere massaging of the facts would be welcome today. Just ask President Obama how he feels about Republican scare tactics that his health care reform included death panels to oversee the murder of senior citizens.

Both instances, and hundreds more between them are shameful manipulations. I mean "manipulation" in the true etymological sense. From manipulate – "control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously" (from the Oxford English Dictionary, emphasis added).

But is it unscrupulous to manipulate an argument for the common good? Forget about politics for a moment here – show me a politician who doesn't believe his or her entire career is "for the common good" and I'll show you somebody not actually in politics.

No, I mean would it be okay to manipulate a young person to, for example, prevent him from taking up smoking? Would it even be manipulation if you told him smoking damaged his lungs and could lead to his premature death. Those statements are completely accurate. It can't be unscrupulous to tell the truth, can it?

I vividly recall the terribly animated 1973 ABC After School Special "The Incredible, Indelible, Magical, Physical, Mystery Trip," starring Timer of "Time for Timer" fame. Timer, that Singing and Dancing yellow blob, booger, or piece of pollen, or whatever he was, shrunk two kids down to his microscopic size and took them on a journey through the body of their sleeping (passed out?) Uncle Carl. Carl drank and smoked and didn't exercise, and was generally unhealthy. Timer wanted the kids to see what Carl was doing to his body from the inside in the hopes that they would not follow down Carl's path, and maybe even convince Carl to change his ways before it was too late.

Like most ABC After School specials of the day, I was all over it. But when Timer brought the kids into Carl's lungs it was all over for me. You see, not only did Uncle Carl smoke, but my father smoked too.

Timer hammered the kids on the dangers of smoking and made it seem like Carl might not even survive the special. The smoking destroyed his lungs, thinned his blood, and was sending Carl to an early grave via the one-two punch of a heart attack and lung cancer. I was quite certain my father would be next.

I cried – no sobbed is a better description. And I remember imploring my father to stop smoking. My friend Dave and I even went so far as to steal our fathers' cigarettes. (To say they didn't care for that tactic would be like saying America dropped a few bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

I recall lying in bed at night for weeks after the special aired, unable to sleep and certain that every noise I heard from the other room was my father keeling over. I watched him like a hawk, sure that every cough was going to be his last, and that every time he paused while talking, he was having a heart attack.

I badgered him until he finally couldn't take it anymore and promised to quit smoking, which he did. For awhile.

The filmmakers knew just what they were doing. They preyed on my universal child's fear of losing a parent to turn me into what they hoped would be an effective lobbyist on their behalf. Even then my father knew smoking was bad for him. But he didn't quit/cut down until his teary-eyed son begged him to. So the special – the manipulation – worked. My fear was mongered, and the common good was had.

Flash forward to this past week when I would get my comeuppance.

After a particularly stressful and screamy evening, my twelve-year-old daughter was unable to sleep and we thought we heard her crying in her bed. I went to investigate and she was. Why? Well, the earlier screaming between her sister and mother and me, and the stress of her approaching Bat Mitzvah didn't help any, but what she was really upset about was that in school that day they had done a unit on alcohol and drugs.

Through sobs she explained to me that the teachers said even a little alcohol could kill a person and she was very worried about…me.

So here I was in my father's shoes from 39 years ago. He had sat at the foot of my bed trying to calm me down as I cried at him to stop smoking, and here I was at the foot of my daughter's bed trying to calm her down as she cried at me to stop drinking. Irony, you really know how to stick it to a guy.

Talk about a double-edged sword. Her thinking alcohol could kill her could be a good thing. But to the extent it got in the way of my drinking, well that might be a problem.

But what was I to do? Dash off an email to the teacher telling him to ease up on the anti-drinking rhetoric? May as well copy Child Protective Services so they could schedule the home visit.

So I walked a fine, logical line, explaining to her that if the teacher was talking about alcohol poisoning, the small amount of alcohol I drink, compared to my, ahem, body mass, couldn't do it. It might be dangerous to her and her friends, but I would be okay. We talked about not drinking and driving too, and all of it made sense to her and she calmed down.

Then I told her if she wanted to, she could take what was left of my bourbon in the other room and pour it down the drain. I figured she'd wipe her eyes and say it was okay.

Nope. The little minx cheerfully dumped it right into the sink. It took all I had in me to suppress a yelp, but I knew it would have been a red flag to her and we would be back to square one.

Eventually she fell asleep and I didn't pour myself another drink. (We were out of Sterno.)

(Just kidding, we had Sterno.)

But the incident did get me thinking. I had clearly been manipulated back in '73, as she was being manipulated now. But did the manipulation reach the same levels? Smoking in moderation isn't okay – it will still kill you. Drinking in moderation won't kill you, and may even have positive health benefits, we're told.

Is this blurring of the truthy line indicative of our decaying social discourse? Do teetotalers believe they can mislead kids because the end justifies the means? It's not wrong to want kids not to consume alcohol, but is scaring them with misinformation the right way to go about it?

When I explained to my died-in-the-wool Democrat grandparents in 1995 that the President was playing fast and loose with the facts on Medicare it made them angry. (Not angry enough to vote Republican, but they were a little disappointed in their President.)

So what happens when my daughter and her friends find out they can drink a beer and survive? That her gym teacher was maybe cutting some truth corners the way politicians do? I fear cynicism, already rising with each generation, could grow a little more with her generation.

And if their cynicism increases, it's going to take even more outrageous statements to get their attention. Which means the politicos will need to supe up their excavators and get digging as they hunt for rock bottom.

I'll keep an eye on the health syllabus at school, and in the meantime I think I'll try to ease back into my drinking in front of my daughter. I'll tell her I'm going to slow the rate of growth of my drinking. That should do the trick.

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