Verbal Thugs on the Rampage

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The latest politi-buzz is all about these health care reform town hall meetings and the accomplished shouters who are attending them. Because the world needed another cute new catchphrase, we've been told that this strange new phenomenon of crabby conservatives is an example of "astroturf," or a professionally manufactured, fake grassroots movement.

There's been a lot of back-and-forth about whether the outrage expressed in these meetings is real or not. Could it be the result of a targeted campaign by conservative elites to send "verbal thugs" to purposely disrupt meetings? Of course. Could it also be the result of genuine outrage by anti-Obama folks who think our president is bringing socialism to our shores? Of course.

There's no way to know where one begins and the other ends. More than likely they overlap-a political synergy that anti-health care operatives must find very convenient. Rather than ask whether this is astroturf or fresh grass, we should be asking why things have turned so ugly. Why are our legislators being drowned out at their own meetings by people who believe that their freedom of speech entitles them to keep others from being free to speak? Things are getting so hot at these meetings that the legislators are yelling back-Georgia Rep. David Scott appeared to lose it when a doctor asked him a provocative question at a local meeting. Sen. Claire McCaskill had to get school-marmish with some rowdy Missourians at another meeting Tuesday.

Republicans should be horrified that people are doing this in their name. It's a bit too late to distance the party from the tactics, too ... it was clear weeks ago that Republicans are not trying to craft an alternative plan to Obama's. The party's strategy is a complete avoidance of any action on health care, by any means necessary. The town hall meeting disruptors are just another means to that end.

Politically speaking, the Republicans know they are up against a Barack and a hard place. Obama has shrewdly made deals with conservative Democrats, big pharmaceuticals and probably other players we don't yet know about. The GOP does not have the votes or lobbying muscle to put up a fight in Washington, so it's decided that shaping public opinion a la 1994 is the way to kill the baby in the crib.

As far as the politicos are concerned, there is no difference between astroturf and grass-they both give you news coverage, the kind of coverage that plants essential seeds of doubt in the minds of wavering voters who aren't sure whether they can support Obama's plan. The White House is worried enough about this to begin counterpunching on a separate "Reality Check" Web site launched Monday and working on its own online viral strategies.

This kind of strategy comes at a great cost to the truth. The verbal thugs aren't interested in policy details. They would rather link the health care plan to euthanasia for the elderly, socialism and abortion than discuss the fine points of a public plan. They realize that a bit of feisty shouting at a meeting can make it to YouTube and then cable news within hours-and it's an effective way to change the terms of the debate.

My friends living inside the beltway would probably tell me to get over it. This is the way the game is played, and the verbal thugs should be hailed as a brilliant post-Rovian strategy rather than a blow to freedom of speech.

But what if this is what we can expect for the next seven years? Obama has vowed to take on other 800-pound gorillas in the future like education and energy policy. Should we expect the conservatives in Congress to use the same tactics, throwing aside any possibility of bipartisan policies?

Yes, almost definitely. Education and energy have extremely powerful enemies who will turn to astroturf or any other floor covering to sway public opinion with misstatements. But it would be nice to see conservatives explicitly distance themselves from the verbal thugs rather than tacitly approve of what's going on. Those commentators and politicians who joke about these disruptions on national television, tut-tutting while still giving verbal thugs cover by excusing their conduct as "honest folks expressing an opinion," are guilty of a cynicism much worse than that of the verbal thugs themselves.

In Berkeley we'd like to think that academia rises above the level of these town hall meetings, but does it? We've seen people shout and talk past each other on the Palestine issue for years-last semester's recall of ASUC Sen. John Moghtader proved there is no bottom to the well of ridiculousness. Berkeley advertises tolerance and open-mindedness on campus, but sometimes I wonder whether we deliver on that promise. We need to make sure our curricula are not predesigned to reinforce ideas we had before coming to Berkeley. And we need to reject the idea that we can only sway public opinion through drama, insults, rude behavior and YouTube-worthy video.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is wrong to call all of the disruptors "un-American." I'll bet there are several verbal thugs who genuinely think that health care will ruin the country. They're not un-American for being ignorant and allowing themselves to be manipulated for political purposes. But they don't get a free pass, either, and neither should students and faculty who follow the same practices.

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