On Not Irritating People

A couple years ago I asked a good friend of mine, someone who has a lot practical wisdom, whether I should take a stand more often and be more willing to enter controversy.  I said I was afraid sometimes by failing to speak up, I let bad ideas go unchallenged.  He said there are quiet ways to make a point.  He said,

There are enough people in the world irritating other people.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced he’s right.  I will go on trying to make positive suggestions in a gentle way, but I think I will try to avoid sarcasm–it’s so hard to tell someone’s “tone of voice” in writing.

I also think I will avoid politics, mostly, for the next four years.  The election is over and the people have spoken.  I will write my representatives and talk to people on a local level.

I will say this: I think President Obama is doing his best to bring people together.  Politics is inherently divisive, but he has tried to extend an open hand across the aisle.  If his gestures have been met with a clenched fist, he keeps on smiling.  I thought last night’s speech was remarkably free of blame and bitterness.

Every Idle Word

Michelle Obama
“I meant to say, as proud”
There’s is a verse in the Bible that says we will have to give account for every idle word we say.
It is true in politics. Sometimes words matter.

I find it interesting that sometimes a single idle word can destroy a political career, while at other times politicians have recovered from a faux pas.

Back in the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter remarked that sometimes it is desirable to preserve the “ethnic purity” of a neighborhood. To some that sounded racist, like an endorsement of segregation. Candidate Carter recovered by saying, “I meant ethnic heritage.”

Some politicians are so famous for slips of the tongue that, like Yogi Bera (“Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true”) they are given a pass. Purists cringe when they hear the pronunciation nuc-you-ler, but it never cost George W. Bush a vote. Dan Quayle was quoted as saying, before a trip to Latin America, “I wish I had studied Latin harder in high school.” He was ridiculed, but his lapses like that, or inability to spell potato, are probably not what cost him and George H. W. Bush the re-election.

Jesse Jackson’s political ambitions were hurt by a careless ethnic slur. Trent Lott was forced to resign when he made a flattering comment at Strom Thurmond’s one-hundredth birthday party. He said if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 the nation might have been spared “all these problems.” He forgot that Thurmond had run on a segregationist platform; and some journalists fluent in Southern speech detected a veiled euphemism in the cirumlocution “all these problems.”

The most striking case of a careless word derailing a promising career was Howard Dean’s “I have a scream” speech. He was not undone by a racial slur, or in fact by a word that offended anyone. It was the rising intonation of his “Yeah!” at the end of a geographical litany, that seemed undignified. For his exuberance, he was ridiculed into oblivion.

Maybe Michelle Obama simply left out a word. Maybe she meant to say, “I’ve never been as proud of my country as today.” Will she recover? Evidently the remark didn’t hurt her husband in the elections yesterday.

The Clinton Hate Meme

(Warning: Some of what follows makes for unpleasant and disturbing reading. If you are faint-hearted, scroll down to the “One Book” post.]

Richard Dawkins created the meme–or at least the word and the concept. Dawkins is a geneticist by trade. His first bestseller is called The Selfish Gene. He believed that this one concept can explain all the diversity of life. The gene is basically selfish–it’s only desire is to preserve its structure by replicating itself. Of course, the gene doesn’t know that it is selfish. What he means basically is that those genes that replicate themselves are the ones that survive; and those that don’t, don’t. Genes which cause behavior that leads to the replication of the gene are the genes that survive.

Even altruism, for example a vixen who risks her life to save her kits from a fire, is just an example of the selfish gene in action. The vixen is being impelled by her selfish genes. They don’t really care about her or the kits, they just want to copy themselves, on to eternity if possible.

Dawkins noticed a curious similarity of behavioral and cultural traits to the behavior of genes. Cultural artifacts–things like language (including its elements, such as individual words, grammatical patterns), traditions, customs, beliefs are memes. They are not literally passed on by mechanical reproduction like genes are; but they they do continue to replicate and survive.

Many memes survive because they are advantageous to their bearers. For example, patriotism has had a value in preserving groups of people from their enemies. Some memes, however, are like viruses or parasites. They survive with remarkable tenacity in spite of the ways they harm their hosts.

I lived across the river from Arkansas during the Clinton years. I was surrounded mostly by Christians, which meant (of course) conservative Republicans–even in a traditionally democratic region of the country. Politics is a rough sport, and people can have passionate opinions. I can understand people taking a stand on issues; I can understand believing that character is important. What I never understood was the level of vitriolic and irrational hatred of the Clintons. It became a self-replicating meme that survives to this day.

Bill Clinton had a distant relative who was raped by a thug named Wayne Dumond. So great was the hatred of the Clintons, that when Dumond was convicted of the crime, many people believed Dumond was innocent and had been railroaded due to the influence of the president. “The enemy of my enemy is my hero.” Dumond had earlier confessed to two sexual assaults and participation in a murder. Nevertheless, he became the hero of the Clinton haters.

Dumond himself was the victim of a brutal assault (many believe) by friends of the local sheriff under the Arkansas version of Sharia law. He was beaten and castrated. The sheriff had his testicles collected and packed in a pickle jar filled with formaldehyde; and he then displayed the specimen in his office. Many assumed the vigilantes were avenging the attack on the seventeen-year-old cheerleader; but it may have been more because he had threatened to expose corruption in the sheriff’s office.

Dumond was convicted of the rape and sentenced to life plus twenty years. Some Arkansans take things pretty literally, so I assume they would have kept Dumond’s rotting corpse in jail for twenty years after he expired from natural causes.

The conservative Republicans and conservative Baptists evidently pressured the new governor, Mike Huckabee, into freeing their persecuted hero, Wayne Dumond. Huckabee turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the mother of one of Dumond’s victims. She warned him that he would attack again, and not leave a witness to testify this time. The governor withdrew plans to pardon Dumond by direct action; but members of the parole board have testified that they were pressured to do the governor’s bidding.

Many sociologists believe rape is a hate crime motivated more by rage and the desire to dominate and humiliate, than by lust. In that sense, there is no real way to disarm a rapist. Dumond did attack again shortly after being released. He murdered a woman in Missouri.

Politics is a rough sport. Maybe Governor Huckabee made an honest mistake. But if a rising candidate can be derailed by an irrationally exuberant shout, it’s only fair that Reverend Huckabee be called to account for his tragic intervention to free a dangerous predator. The governor’s tragic mistake may have been fueled by the irrational hatred of Bill and Hillary Clinton which captured that segment of the political spectrum that has always prided itself in law and order, and family values.

[More details in the Arkansas Times]