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Archive for Thursday, September 18, 2003

Debate volume still rising

September 18, 2003

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— Boston -- I never actually got a black belt in combat journalism. A few years ago, in a misguided moment, I agreed to go on "The O'Reilly Factor." Dashing out of the office to the studio, I literally ran into a glass door -- a glass door that had been there forever. I figured this was God's way of telling me not to mix it up with Bill.

Since then, I've found less self-destructive ways of avoiding food-fight TV. But I too have yearned for someone to elbow the bullies off the bully pulpit. I have wondered, where, oh where is the Democratic Rush Limbaugh, the Liberal Bill O'Reilly, the Rational Ann Coulter?

The search for the Great Left Hope has engendered a good deal of soul-searching. The search committee has reasoned away the lack of liberal attack dogs with arguments that range from the elitist -- "we don't do mud wrestling" -- to the defeatist -- "we're too wimpy."

Some searchers insisted that liberals are open-minded and talk with both hands instead of accusing with one. Others have said that liberals just aren't good entertainers: "Do you know liberals have no sense of humor?" (No, but if you hum a few bars, I can fake it.) And some simply maintain that liberals aren't angry enough to do screed TV or rant-lit.

Now it appears that ranting has become an equal opportunity occupation.

In the last couple of years the best-seller booklists were the playground for the rich and right. We had highbrow titles such as: "Useful Idiots," "Bias," "Slander," "No Spin Zone," "Let Freedom Ring." This year the left struck back with "Lies (and the Lying Liars who Tell Them)," "Big Lies," "Thieves in High Places" as well as "Stupid White Men."

The left seems to have found its inner anger. The prime example of the summer was the eloquent match-up between O'Reilly and Al Franken. On a book convention panel they exchanged views: "Hey SHUT UP!" "I won't shut up!" This shouting match ended up in the 21st century version of a duel, a stupid lawsuit by Fox News -- Do you know conservatives have no sense of humor? -- that catapulted Franken into the No. 1 slot on Amazon.com.

"Lies," Franken's screed against screeds, is truly funny in a fact-checker sort of way. As for authors Jim Hightower and Joe Conason, You go, boys. But I suddenly found myself with this goody-two-shoes worry: What happens when you stoop to conquer the political high ground?

OK, the most recent person to mourn the lack of civilized political debate was Ann Coulter, who said "the country is trapped in a political discourse that resembles professional wrestling." That's like Arnold Schwarzenegger complaining that voters pay too much attention to body image.

I don't want to send any author to an anger management class. Remember radio shock jock Michael Savage's response: "You manage your anger, Mr. Liberal, because that's another one of your liberal tricks. ... You know what I say, 'Drop dead.'"

Still, I can't help thinking about political rant-lit the way I think about political candidates. The belovedly bellicose James Carville once said "If your opponent is drowning, throw the son of a bitch an anvil." You want a politician who fights back. And you want politics to be more than just a fight.

Politicians and parties who don't answer attack ads are sunk. But if they do get (equally) down and dirty, they turn off more people who think politicians are just kids fighting in the playground.

This is especially true among my chromosomal cohort group. Talk radio shows have long had a gender gap between XYs and XXs. On some shows 75 percent of the listeners are men. All the screaming and chest-thumping, as media scholar Marty Kaplan told the Los Angeles Times, is "not a mating call." Women just don't want to hear men yelling at them. Been there, done that.

The rant doesn't just split genders, it's a driving force in the polarization of politics. We don't do ambivalence anymore. Nuance be damned. The middle ground is mush for the wimps. So the contenders in this food fight now stand on either side of a great political divide hurling opinions at each other.

I realize you can't judge a book by its title. Some of the anger in rant-lit is a marketing ploy. But the message is that, right or left, right and left, you have to yell to be heard. Never mind that more people in the middle put their hands over their ears. You just yell louder. And louder.

Pretty soon, you end up with a political debate that has the tone of flaming e-mail. It consists of people hovering around two poles and screaming: "Liar, liar, pants on fire." Come to think of it, anybody wanna buy a book title?




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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