Tales of our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Political behavior teaches us lately to distrust the political process.
The political forum deals with ever more alleged “lies” told by Party X, Party Y, or both of them. “Lies” are commonly pictured as more clear-cut than they really are. Lies have many forms, such as complete falsehoods, half-truths, and small truths that focus on smallish points.
The news is also muddled up with less obvious deceits. We need to admit out loud a rough-cut set of insidious devices that breed their own woes because they divert and mislead. Three slipshod instincts that hide in each of us are sarcasm, exaggeration, and venting.
Cogent messages begin with a common understanding of terms: “Satire” is the art of setting up a scene that says the opposite of what makes sense, for humorous effect. “Sarcasm” is a spurt of satire, free of humor. Sarcasm is a time-honored way of stretching the basics to make a point stand out more vividly. Yet, prolific overuse has turned this handy old tool into a double-edged sword, as will be shown further on.
Each of us assumes that we rarely “exaggerate”. Take a closer look at the word. Did you ever use a comparison to add a nice dash of color? It may be as small as blurting out that someone is “blind as a bat” when you knew full well that bats are extra perceptive animals? You exaggerated. Did you ever blurt out “we always know what those guys will do” when you knew full well some of those guys do the opposite? You exaggerated. Don’t get me wrong. Day in and day out, citizens cannot be held to judicial-quality facts. In court, judges prevent public-style guesswork by enforcing rules of evidence. Yet where pizzazz wins the day, exaggeration is the rule.
“Venting” is more straightforward. “Venting” means getting riled up and letting off steam to save our own pipes from bursting.
Thus, sarcasm, exaggeration, and venting are three special tones of voice that have untold uses and cause untold distress in politics. None of these voices is used to “lie” per se, yet the coarse truths they tell are more confounding than clarifying. In such moments, politics works doggedly to make the worst of its chances.
Each camp internally believes its sarcasm, exaggeration, and venting are harmless, since this talk is obviously not some detailed mapping of ideas. Yet the other big camp keeps reciting these hidden extremes to prove the ugly core of their foes—all hard evidence of the havoc being wrought by their foes’ overblown ideas. I have seen these paired behaviors firsthand because I get lobbied a lot by all sorts of interest groups.
With these dual habits, the two big parties mirror each other. Both parties have fractured into pieces that no longer can talk with its own contrary wings. Each party dodges its own home-brewed defects by reciting quotations from the most outlandish part of the opposing party. We have no place left to deal with the nation’s serious issues.
Worse yet: the running battle sinks into clashing over which party resorts to violence to get what it wants. Pause to stack up campaign ads from TV, snail mail, and email for candidates in any party or from activist groups for any cause. The large majority of campaign ads promise to “fight” for this and that presumed “good”, and “fight” against the awful foes who fight to end them.
How exact is the term “fight” meant to be? Who defines “fight”, on behalf of each wing of each party? How much physical “pressure” exerted on judges, juries, witnesses, and congressmen still counts as “peaceful” fighting? What forum decides?
So it is. The two political parties and its members critique each other’s performances on the big stage. The heady banter is partly for sport and part serious. Trouble boils over when both moods fuse into one. Forms of truth deceive.
People nod in agreement when I compare political talk with classic lyrics in the American songbook — “It is only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea.”