Μηνιν αειδε, Θεα, Πηλιαδεω Αχιλος
Sing to me, Goddess, of the rage of Achilles, Pelias’ son.
Menin. Rage. Homer opens the Iliad as I’d like to open this blog entry, but smooth English grammar doesn’t permit it. But rage, anger, wrath, fury, is what I want to talk about here.
I’m American, but I’ve lived in the UK for over a decade. I’ve seen a way of conducting political (or religious, or philisophical) debate that most Americans don’t see, and that makes me worry about my native country.
My mother went to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park on her most recent visit over here. The speakers and their audience were all discussing religion, both Islam and Christianity. All of the debaters were passionate about their faiths, and varied widely in their views. But, my mother commented, “It was so good-natured. We could never have something like that in the States. Someone would get lynched.” And she’s right.
I’ve seen it in politcal debates online (witness the furore over entries on The Daily Kos and the thing with Kathryn Cramer, to name but two). I’ve seen it in the intensive partisanship that deadlocks Capitol Hill. I’ve seen it in media coverage, and media coverage of media coverage. I’ve seen it in real life, and I’ve felt it myself. There’s an undercurrent of eye-popping, vein-throbbing, fist-clenching and red-seeing anger in the way my fellow countrymen discuss important issues.
In British politics, I’ve seen Tories and Old Labour politicians, whose positions are further apart than anything you’ll see in the American mainstream, debate with humor and wit. I’ve also seen them sling insults and sarcasm at one another without losing the plot. An entire British political institution, Prime Minister’s Question Time, where the PM has to answer questions put by the opposition, in public, every week, with extra added heckling from the back benches, would not be possible in the US. Everyone would take it all too seriously and someone would burst a blood vessel.
No, not just seriously. Everyone would take it personally. The blogwars differ from the rest of US political debate not in nature but in degree, so an examination of them is useful. A typical blogwar starts with a provocative comment, followed by a reader of the opposite view losing his temper and posting some inflammatory trackback on his own site. Then a reader of the reader gets steamed and goes back to the original blog with an offer to wipe the grin off the writer’s face with a belt sander. Somewhere down the line someone took a political issue personally. US political debate usually takes more steps and ends well short of belt sander threats, but the transition from abstract to personal, from factual to furious, is the same. Read the editorials and letters of the SF Chron for a view of the polarity between the two sides. (Note that I don’t need to indicate a particular date’s opinion pages. It’s the same every day.)
This transatlantic difference leads to transatlantic misunderstandings. There is a perception in the US that the international media are “biased” against America. No doubt some media outlets are. But, at least in the UK, the media are “biased” against, in other words, critical of, pretty much everyone. Some of it’s a feeling that it is the duty of the Fourth Estate to question the powers that be. Some of it’s that conflict and scandal sell papers. Some of it is that the people who work in the media like that sort of conflict – that’s why they work in the media. Whatever the reason, the mainstream news sources over here use a harsher grade of investigative and invective sandpaper than their equivalents in the States. But because these things aren’t automatically personal, and aren’t taken as such, the system works.
Now, there is a valid argument that serious matters require serious discussion. Wars, death, money, politics – these are no laughing matter. Europeans, with a cynical smile for every issue, are preceived as being careless, ineffective, and effete. It’s like that little smile that Alex gets when he’s being really defiant and difficult. Taking things lightly like that is bad. We must be serious. That’s all very well until seriousness leads to over-seriousness and a personal identification with the cause under discussion. Then an attack on a position is an attack on the person holding the position, and we’re back to rage and thoughts of power tools.
What we’re not doing, when we get angry, is listening to the other side. And without listening, there can be no discussion, no cooperation, no compromise, no peace. So please, can we laugh a bit, and let go of the wrath?