A lesson in knee-jerk politics

By David Schutz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 1, 2005

Back in those halcyon days of October 2004, I attended a speech by David T. Hardy, author of "Michael Moore Is a Big, Fat, Stupid White Man," who was on campus to act as a counterbalance to the impending arrival of the stupid white man himself.

Most people who were there would probably remember that night because of the woman in the audience who asked Hardy an anti-Bush question and was promptly hissed and booed. However, I remember it for an entirely different reason.

As a libertarian, Hardy opposes the Patriot Act as an intrusion in citizens' personal lives. When he was going into his reasoning for this, one red-meat conservative leaned over to another and said, "What in the crap?! This guy's not a real Republican!" and then both promptly exited the lecture hall.

These two did not walk out because of Hardy's ideological position or his arguments for his position. He could have said, "I don't like the Patriot Act because it is stinky," and all they would have heard were the first six words of that sentence.

They objected to Hardy not because of the content of his view, but because his view was not aligned with the "mainstream conservative view" (i.e. the view of the president). The position that Hardy was arguing was actually quite conservative, but these two defectors would probably be considered the real conservatives, by themselves and by society, while Hardy would be considered the outsider.

This and incidents like it have created an air of "knee-jerk politics," where it is almost an involuntary reaction to disagree with anyone who holds a position different from yours on an issue, regardless of the reasons that that person has for holding his or her position.

It's gotten so bad that it's unclear whether or not the word "conservative" has simply become synonymous with the phrase "agrees with George W. Bush" and the word "liberal" has become synonymous with "disagrees with George W. Bush."

For example, a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that it is unlikely that fetuses under 29 weeks old have the capacity to feel pain. One would think this would be news that would greatly affect the ongoing national debate over the morality of abortion.

One would be wrong. The Associated Press reported that the mailbox of Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, the editor in chief of JAMA, was flooded with hate mail telling her that her "license should be revoked," that she should "get a real job" and that "eternity will definitely bring justice for (her)."

These attacks are troubling because, firstly, this report was not made up of new information but was actually a review of many other studies, some of which had been conducted years earlier, and secondly, the attacks themselves are a case study of knee-jerk politics.

The attackers could care less what implications this report has on the moral justifications of abortion; they only care that the report goes against what they believe or were told to believe, and so, empirical facts be damned, they oppose it.

Knee-jerk politics have trickled down, as most cultural phenomena do, to the campus level. Universities, usually havens of level-headed deliberation, have become places where controversial thoughts are verboten.

A perfect example of this was the University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill's comparing the victims of Sept. 11 to Nazis and the fiasco that ensued. His comments were idiotically hyperbolic, not to mention totally insensitive, but perhaps they could have gotten people thinking about the consequences of U.S. foreign policy on our image overseas.

Or not. Almost everyone on the right wing, from the top (Colorado Gov. Bill Owens) to the bottom (talk radio demagogue/junkie Rush Limbaugh) demanded Churchill's head be thrust onto a pointy stick posthaste, and in the process, demonstrated exactly why universities' tenure policies were developed in the first place. The first casualty of this war against Churchill: the issues.

The state of public debate in this country is out of control. America needs to stop, take a deep breath, and realize that there is validity to the arguments of both the left and the right.

If Americans can start examining why they believe what they believe instead of putting their fingers in their collective ears and trying to shout louder than their supposed adversaries, they might find that there's really not that much division after all.

David Schultz is a political science and philosophy senior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.