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Should We Try Listening?

Terry H. Schwadron

Feb. 29, 2020

I’m struck virtually daily now about the fear among Americans to disagree, to hear opinions — or worse factual information — with which they disagree. It comes out the opposite, of course, as counter-attacks to ideals held close, or an undue insistence that the speaker’s way is the only one valid.

We’re seeing it displayed in many, many ways as part of the presidential elections: Increasingly we want to hear only good things about our preferred candidate, and only lousy things about the opponent. So, here in few days before a third of primary states vote, we have organized social media attacks by both Trump loyalists and Bernie Bros as the race seems to be focusing on those ideological opposites reflected in the campaign, just as we have broadside attacks against main media outlets for not proving sufficiently supportive of the selected candidate.

But it is much broader than electoral politics.

We can see this principle in the — late — White House reaction to word and actual spread of coronavirus, with political ideology trumping science in trying to quell market reaction and public fear to disease. What seems primary here for the White House is the message, and the appointment of Vice President Mike Pence and other Cabinet members to filter any information from the Centers for Disease Control is as much about controlling perception as about sharing fact.

A report in The New York Times this week about children in Tennessee as young as 6 learning how to react with a squirt gun-like dose of Narcan to family opioid overdoses was remarkable not just for the age of would-be lifesavers, but by an organized reaction in the state by parent groups who object to the teachings. They believe that children should be children, and kept protected from the ugliness of illness and drugs. In “a region where socially conservative attitudes prevail — and addiction is often seen as a sin — health workers have encountered strong opposition from residents, school boards and police officers who consider Narcan to be a waste of resources and the training inappropriate for children,” reported The Times.

Sherry Barnett, state overdose prevention specialist in that area, said only three schools in eight counties have allowed her to provide students Narcan training. “We’re in the Bible Belt,” she said, “and a lot of schools here don’t like to admit drugs are a problem.”

It’s an anti-information attitude we’re seeing nationally in avoiding vaccinations for children who continue to be sent to public schools, or in efforts to avoid looking at the spreading epidemic of homelessness, or even, as Democratic candidates would argue, at the rise in the number of people who cannot afford health treatments.

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In the political world, this avoidance of reality translates into Climate Change denial, or of the consequences of burgeoning anti-immigration and anti-white social policies, or of economic policies that are fueling an unending income inequality that punishes minorities, women, workers — a vast majority of the country — for the wealth of a relatively much smaller wealthy class..

It is what is making anything close to an intelligent discussion about health in our nation possible, or appropriate environmental regulation or even such issues as banking laws.

We’re increasingly insistent not only on recognizing our own specific ideologies but our own specific facts.

Over the last week, the nation’s top security folks told Congressional committees that Russians are interfering in our elections once again with social media posts and the like, and that the efforts are specifically promoting Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as the two candidates — for whatever reasons Russian interests might have in that outcome.

But it was the reactions that once again proved most remarkable: National Security Adviser Robert Obrien insisted that intelligence agencies have not said that the efforts favor Trump, but acknowledged that it would make sense that they favor Sanders — a blatant and inappropriate political conclusion. Sanders himself said the Russians should scram, and Trump got upset not at the news, but for sharing it with Congress.

As voters and citizens, we are left with no useable, actionable information. We don’t know what to look for, what to reject, how to protect ourselves or our vote, or which version of alternative facts comes closest to being true. Perhaps we should ask Russia itself, which, naturally has reacted by saying that their country is not concerned with American politics.

I’ve seen Facebook friends post attacks on the media — not distinguishing between news reports and opinion columns — just because they perceive that their beloved candidate on any side now has been manhandled, which means not sufficiently buoying the candidate’s campaign.

I would tell them that if they are upset by news reports, even opinion columns, they should be really worried about sustained attacks from the other side of their debate.

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This fear of engagement, the fear of hearing a dissenting word is creating an important and unrelenting filter on public life and values.

Bernie Sanders does not want to speak to the annual American Israel PAC meeting because he disagrees with their expressed opinions; rather than seeking to persuade them a different view, he is skipping it altogether, as are Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete. Who knows, that group’s meetings have turned into a Trump-Benjamin Netanyahu rally. The annual Conservative PAC meeting has told Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, that because of his vote on impeachment, he is unwanted at their gathering. Trump avoids whole states that did not support him, or worse, uses is office — abuse in my book — to launch punishing legal and financial attacks against cities and states that did not vote in his favor in 2016.

Down-ballot Democratic candidates reportedly are opposing Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate because they fear having to defend policies that he backs that they do not. Rather than engage on the issues with thought-out, persuasive arguments of their own, they simply want to use Democratic Party rules in ways that can stop his movement.

There is something basically nuts here, and we would do well to recognize it.

We are at a point at which I would argue that we should be craving actual debate and discussion of public issues. We have lost our way as a nation on immigration, environment, economics, diplomacy, education, on scores of issues large and small, all because we refuse to start the discussion with fact — and then come to a consensus.

Let’s Make America Factual Again. At least let’s talk about it.

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www.terryschwadron.wordpress.com

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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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