Growing up in New York City in the 1970s and early 80s, I was subjected to Sally Jessy Raphael’s vacuous blather on WMCA-AM each day. My only consolation was the thought that at least we were spared from seeing that yenta on TV. When she later crashed the boob tube as well, I learned an important life lesson: things can always get worse.
The Great Immigration Debate of 2007 is hopefully over, at least as concerns the incomprehensible “comprehensive” bill. Senators have taken a well-deserved recess; the longer the better, some say. They go to the state that elected them so they can pretend that’s still home when they pretend to smile while delivering speeches they pretend to mean to people whom they pretend mean something to them. Most importantly, they go to use their persiflage to raise purses large. Often when I ponder the modern senator I find myself caught in this philosophical quandary: is the plural of doofus doofuses or doofi?
But putting aside for a moment our front men and women in Washington, what about us as the rearguard back home? Are we approaching weighty matters of national policy with the requisite depth? If the approaches politicians use to try and convince us of things are any indication, they think us a shallow bunch.
Look at the rhetoric the President himself employed in promoting the immigration bill; the senatorial jargon tracked closely to his lead. Over and over he made the same point, albeit in a few variant phrasings. “The status quo is unacceptable.” “The current system is clearly not working.” Senator Kennedy added that we must “change our broken system”. Well, that is as it may be. The question is: when did current flaws become a presumptive argument for any piece of junk you throw on the table?
Part of the problem comes from politicians projecting from what they know how to do best, namely elections. Very often the new person becomes elected simply as an expression of the communal disgust at the last person’s bungling. Carried over to legislative debate, this turns into the hollow appeal to vote for this bill because the situation without the bill is bad. Well, yes, but perhaps after the bill it will be worse. Especially when you have some of the same Senators who made the last bad bill writing the new one.
To do this in an intellectually meaningful fashion, the President or the senators must present the problem like college professors. 1) point out existing problems on the ground. 2)explain how current law is causing those problems 3) project how the proffered new law proposes to remedy those flaws. We, as students, should also be sharp enough to ask the follow-up questions 4) please explain how the framers of the last law failed to anticipate its downside or shortcomings. 5) please explain how the new law has built in fail-safes against such oversights. 6) please explain why full enforcement of the old law would not be an adequate solution.
It is time to bring back the blackboard. It is true that between Kennedy and Reagan we suffered through a series of dorky-looking Presidents, even less palatable to the viewing eye than Sally Jessy Raphael. Perhaps as part of a clever strategy to divert attention from their mopey mugs, they liked to give speeches alongside blackboards. These slates would include facts and figures about the subject du jour, or bullet points to make an argument. The living rooms of America were turned into classrooms for a brief, comfortable while, and people felt they had been engaged in a substantive process of reflection.
Now, the closest thing we get to logic is this. 1) Things are bad. 2) We are putting forth a solution 3) You seem to be in the way 4) You must be bad, too, if you want bad things to stay bad and stop smart people who propose things to make bad things good from advancing their agenda. Well, no, I want to make bad things good, but I need to know in what way are they bad, is current law being administered in good faith and still not making things good, is the bad irreparable using existing criteria, how does the new law eliminate bad and facilitate good, and what guarantees do we have of the good faith to administer this new regime of laws
Of course, if the Presidents and Senators don’t have the looks or the confidence to go on TV, or if they don’t have the smarts to do the analysis, I am available. What do I offer as proof that I would be a good host for a political show on TV? Simple. “The status quo is unacceptable.” “The current system is clearly not working.”