Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Setting The Agenda

On the way in to the office, someone came up behind me so close that I couldn’t see his headlights, then swerved around me, and cut in front of me before taking off. He was driving some little import with thin tires, decals on the side and rear window, and one of those exhaust resonators that make the car sound like it’s farting at a high rate of speed when you floor the accelerator.

This wouldn’t have bothered me except I was going slightly over the speed limit in the middle lane of a three-lane expressway and there were no other cars around me. Speed Demon could have been in either of the other lanes and blown past me at 80 without having to tailgate me and – I can only assume – provoke me into doing something stupid like drag racing with him. After all, I’m in a Mustang GT with a 5.0 liter engine and there weren’t a lot of other cars on that stretch of the road. But I did not rise to the bait; I know where the cops hang out on that road, and I also don’t feel like my manhood is being challenged when a teenager tries to show me his. It’s petty, stupid, and can lead to disaster – this spring, after the release of 2 Fast 2 Furious, an insipid action flick about street racing filmed in Miami, there were a number of accidents involving teenage boys imitating the film, and one boy was killed when he cut his dad’s Corvette in half on a phone pole. The bottom line is that I refuse to allow someone else to set the agenda for me, whether it’s on the road or in life.

In a larger mode, that’s what’s happening in the current political debate. We all know that in the last ten years the Right has set the standard for goading, bullying, exaggerating, hating, and just plain lying about their political opponents, while we on the other side have, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, cowered in the corner and whimpered, “Please don’t hurt me.” Now, thanks in large part to the over-the-top arrogance of some of the Right (Tom DeLay comes to mind) and many Democrats getting to the point where we’ve Had Enough, we are fighting back. It is no surprise that someone like Howard Dean with his flinty disposition and refusal to suffer fools gladly has captured the imagination of a lot of the Democrats who have Had Enough. A cottage industry in the left-wing punditry is the “I-Hate-Bush” article, and I have no need to point out that the blogosphere has generated a blizzard of commentary dedicated to demonizing, from the sublime to the ridiculous, every aspect of the Bush presidency as well as the man, his family, and his pets. We are giving back as good as we got during the Clinton Administration, and by God, there is a certain satisfaction in doing it.

Unfortunately, as good as it feels and as much as they deserve it, it’s a short-term thing and could backfire. Handing the Right such things as Jonathan Chait’s article in the The New Republic about how much he hates Bush lets them point at us and say we’re the ones spewing “hate speech.” It lets them once again be in charge of the agenda. That can’t happen. We have to be the ones who should be, in biz-speak, pro-active. Complaining without providing a solution is just bitching.

I learned a few lessons as a camp counselor and school teacher. One of them is that you never win an argument with a bully, especially if your excuse is, “It all started when he hit me back.”

Update: Nick Kristof has a point of view on this in his column in today’s NY Times. He makes it sound like all the “incivility” is the Democrats’ fault, which is either naive or patronizing; take your pick.