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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fair
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Citizen Dave: Prescriptions for better political discussion -- stop whining and turn off the screamers
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On a historic primary election day, it's a good time to consider the nature of political discussion around here.

There was a concern among a lot of Democrats that a gubernatorial recall primary would be bad for the party, but it turned out to be a pretty civil affair. In the end, the nominee will be better off for the ability to sharpen their message, and for having kept Scott Walker's attack machine more or less at bay for a few weeks.

I wasn't surprised by that given the nature of the people involved in the primary. Do not expect this to last into the rest of May and early June, however. Things are about to get nasty, so here are some thoughts that you might find reassuring, unless you don't.

I gave a speech a week or so ago to the induction ceremony for the Phi Beta Kappa honors society. I say this to impress you, but actually I was chosen because I work for a free meal, and because I served as an abject lesson in what happens when you don't complete your graduate work.

Anyway, I chose as my topic the state of political discourse. I started out by claiming that things aren't as bad as we think. It's hard to make a case that political rhetoric is any less restrained or polite than it ever was.

It goes back to the beginning. Thomas Paine wrote an open letter to President George Washington charging that people ask him, "whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?" Paine went so far as to say that he now prayed for the death of the letter's recipient and the sooner the better.

But to the extent things are any different today, it's probably the product of instant and endless communication, so that accusations can fly faster and with more frequency, fueled by lots of money. You can't do anything about technology, and based on recent court rulings and a lack of general political will on the subject, we're unlikely to be able to do much about the money any time soon either.

So what does that leave? Well, a couple changes in the way we act as consumers of political rhetoric might help.

The first thing is to be more tolerant, and less quick to react to the slightest slight. Because identifying as the victim is central to the DNA of the left, this is, unfortunately, more an affliction of my people. The left loves to be offended, though conservatives are catching on to the strategy as well.

Bill Maher wrote a great piece about this sort of thing recently in The New York Times:

Let's have an amnesty -- from the left and the right -- on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let's make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.

I know we can do this. I spent eight years being mayor, getting knocked around pretty good now and then and I never once claimed to be "insulted," "hurt," "offended"," or "outraged." I never demanded that anyone apologize to me for anything.

My favorite example of phony offense was the time I missed the annual city employee's bowling tournament. Brenda Konkel, who is an absolute master at this stuff, claimed that my missing the bowling tournament was an "insult" to all city employees. Trust me. I've been to that bowling tournament seven times. I'm pretty sure they managed to have a good time without me.

So, step one is to buck up and stop whining about how offended and insulted we all are.

The second thing we can all do is just shut out the noise we don't need to hear. Consuming information is like eating food. You can choose the fish and the broccoli, or the cheeseburgers and the Cheetos.

I was told the other day by somebody that some talk radio host was blasting me. I shrugged and ordered lunch. I never listen to talk radio, or read blogs I don't like, or read the comments at the end of news stories. I have never once heard the Rush Limbaugh show and don't feel any poorer for it.

I don't watch O'Reilly, but I also gave up on Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow. I was on The Ed Show once during last year's troubles. I shivered in the cold night in front of the Capitol only to be asked by Ed why the governor hadn't returned my calls personally on the security issues surrounding the protests. I don't know. The guy had just destroyed a couple generations of labor peace and I was supposed to be upset that I got to talk to his chief of staff instead of him?

It seemed to me like a petty thing to make an issue of, but that's the kind of stuff that happens on these shows. While I often agree with Schultz and Maddow on the issues, they practice the same kind of high volume bluster that the right wing guys do. No thanks.

It's not a question of not wanting to hear from the other side. There's plenty of balanced news coverage out there and there are conservative commentators I read who I respect, like David Brooks.

A good example of high nutrition public policy debate is the back-to-back op-eds this week by Paul Krugman and Brooks regarding how to fix the economy. Krugman believes in a lot more pump priming while Brooks argues that the problems are structural. I'm an ideological twin of Krugman, but I thought Brooks was persuasive and his column made me rethink my position.

My point is that in a media environment with so many options you're not forced to eat the junk food just to get a balanced diet.

So if you don't like this blog, I have an answer for you. Stop reading it. There are plenty of other blogs out there. And while you're at it you can also defriend me, untweet me, take me off your Christmas card list, and cross the street when you see me coming. Life is too short to go out of your way to get upset.

It's okay. I won't be insulted or offended, and I won't ask you to apologize.

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