There's an epidemic of diagnoses.
The condition being scrutinized is the toxic, uncivil, mistrustful polarization of American politics -- or, more precisely, political arguments. The practitioners of this sociological oncology are guys like me.
I wrote about the intolerant, us vs. them takeover of talk radio, cable news, the best seller list, dinner tables, bumper stickers, and Web sites several weeks ago in 50-50 America Is Spewing Venom. Two of the smart new writers on The New York Times, David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof, have weighed in (don't get me wrong, they didn't see my column, I'm sure). Now Time magazine has turned it into a cover story.
Now that, Herr Hegel, is a zeitgeist moment.
Since I wrote my column, I have received many wise and many wicked e-mails on the topic. In that time, I've also taken in a few bushels of e-rants from every conceivable angle on Howard Dean, Medicare, George Bush and corporate kleptocracy. I studied these closely, performed something of a linguistic deconstruction on them, and have, I hope, a small prescription for the problem of political alienation.
Two phrases should be banned from political arguments, public and private: "you just don't get it" and "liberal bias."
People who get frothy when arguing about politics these days employ these two phrases -- code words, really -- as sanctimonious trump cards that end debate, victoriously. "You think Howard Dean is all wet on special interests? You just don't get it. You lose, shut up." "You needle President Bush for saying the bombings in Iraq are a sign of progress? You're a stooge of liberal bias. You lose, shut up." You don't need an ear trumpet to get blasted by these bursts of empty air daily.
These phrases are substitutes for thought. They replace argument and articulation with assertion and insult.
"You don't get it" (YDGI henceforth) is, of course, ubiquitous. I do not get most issues relating to seventh grade social life, according to my daughter (though I am, for the record, a retired seventh grader). My wife does not get the role vintage toy pistols play in child development, according to my third grade son.
But in politics, YDGI is the province of the keepers of political correctness. It is a profoundly elitist locution. Feminists are authorized to declare who gets it and who does not. Liberal civil rights advocates, but not civil libertarians, have the privilege, as do liberal actors and actresses (oops, I think actresses is no longer p.c.) Dean supporters are YDGI-empowered. Most Bush-haters get it.
"It" in all cases is what "I" think.
But I quite clearly do not get it. And I'm so proud.
The YDGI card does not express disagreement, it announces dismissal. You don't get it -- you're dumb, unsophisticated, uncool and unworthy. It's great for middle school and below. Otherwise, it ought to be banned.
"Liberal bias" (LB) plays the exact same, irritating role for conservatives, Republicans and Clinton-Gore-haters. Michael Moore and Al Franken make good money with YDGI. Ann Coulter, Bernard Goldberg, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and literally scores of talk radio hosts make good money on LB.
The Washington Post is biased. The Washington Times is not. Get it?
Once the LB card is played, there can be no retort. You don't have a position, you have only a bias. I have no bias, just the power of true facts and pure logic, ergo I win.
As elitist as YDGI is, LB is more clever. The transformation of the word "liberal" into an insult is one of the great feats of ideological alchemy of the history of American political ideas. George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were all liberal. But now the word is a socially acceptable ethnic slur.
Combine that with "bias" and you've got a rhetorical killer app. Like YDGI, LB is, at its core, dismissive. Why would I continue to argue with you since you have a bias? By definition you cannot see your own bias, but I can. I have no bias. There is no conservative bias, just conservative principles and facts.
So before you tell your friendly neighborhood cyber-columnist that he doesn't get it or that he is marked by the Devil of liberal bias, think twice. And then come up with a more clever zinger.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer