Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Roosevelt's 1906 Warning about the Dangers of Slinging Mud and Raking Muck

by Nomad

Theodore RooseveltA speech on April 14, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt offers warnings about what happens when scandal mongers and hysterical sensationalists run amok. The evidence that Teddy had it right is every place you look today.

Politics, as most people know, can be a vicious animal. That's hardly news. It's always been that way. Political life brings out the worst - and more rarely, the best- in people. Things are often said and things are regularly done that would, under any other circumstance, be a shame to humanity.

"A Modern Day Lynching"

In these unprecedented days of America's first black presidency, all of us have witnessed some of the most vicious attacks on the character and motives of a president and, still worse, his own family. The opposition swears it has nothing to do with his race, but the defense is not particularly convincing. Every bad thing has been attributed to Obama even when the very same things were done- and often to a greater extent- by other presidents. 

When conservative Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination was in serious doubt, he was able to shame to the Senate committee with accusations that they were conducting "a modern-day lynching." He successfully used white guilt to shame the committee to stop asking very serious  and legitimate charges of sexual harassment. 
Today the conservative Congressmen appear to have no fears that they might be accused of conducting the same kind of character assassination of a twice democratically elected president. No allegation from people like Issa, Palin, Boehner or Cruz is too ridiculous or too baseless to be denounced by the news media. 
Last week, the Speaker of the House was caught in the embarrassing position of wildly claiming the President had acted unconstitutionally without even being able to name the actual offense. 

Muckraker Pilgrim's Progress

The Men with the Muck Rakes

One hundred and eight years ago, in April 1906, Teddy Roosevelt made a famous speech at the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone of the Office Building of the House of Representatives. It has been called his "Muckraking" speech, a reference to a character in "A Pilgrim's Progress." 

Though his words are often misunderstood, it was in many ways one of Roosevelt's most progressive speeches. The term "muckraker" has been generally understood to refer only journalists and expose writers of the age, but it can be applied more widely.

"A muckraker is a man," Roosevelt said, "could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor."

There were people, he said, like the Man with the Muck Rake, who consistently refuses to see what is lofty and precious and noble but instead fixes his eyes "with solemn intentness" on all that vile and debasing. Roosevelt said:
Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil.
Roosevelt applauded journalists, politicians and other public figures committed to the "relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life."

He credited every writer or speaker, and anybody who attacks with "merciless severity" this kind of corruption. Unbiased exposure was vital to any democratic republic.

However, he added, there was but one condition. Such attacks can only be useful if they are based on some degree of objective truth, and not slanted to fit into a particular agenda. Such attacks cannot be based on false allegations or misrepresentation, or just plain wishful thinking.

A liar is worse than a thief, he told his audience. To slander an honest man gladdens the soul of every scoundrel. "An epidemic of indiscriminate assault upon character does not good, but very great harm."

It was easy to misunderstand, Roosevelt conceded, what he was trying to say.
Some persons are sincerely incapable of understanding that to denounce mud slinging does not mean the endorsement of whitewashing;
But other people would purposefully encourage such confusion of these two very different ideas. That confusion serves their own selfish interests and is no way related to exposing the truth.
Gross and reckless assaults on character, whether on the stump or in newspaper, magazine, or book, create a morbid and vicious public sentiment, and at the same time act as a profound deterrent to able men of normal sensitiveness and tend to prevent them from entering the public service at any price.
(Clearly after reviewing  what Obama and his family have had to endure in the last six years, why would anybody want to be president? The job is, after all, hard enough.)

In his speech, Roosevelt was firm about one point. He didn't want anybody to think that he was in favor of protecting wrong-doers. He wasn't attempting to give immunity to anybody. Not at all.
In fact, he welcomed the "unsparing exposure of the politician who betrays his trust, of the big business man who makes or spends his fortune in illegitimate or corrupt ways." These men, he said, must be exposed and hunted down and their criminality punished.

However, it was also important to remember that if this corruption is attacked in a "sensational, lurid, and untruthful fashion" then the attack may do more damage to the public mind than the crime itself. 

Any war- even a war on corruption- must be conducted sanely as well as with resolve. The honest muckrakers of society, of course, are invaluable but only, he said, if they know when to stop raking the muck and to look upward and forward. 

Fox News

Moral Color-Blindness

Nearly from Day one of Obama's presidency, the news media has given voice to numerous conspiracy theories which have amounted to nothing.

That list was long: from allegations that he was not American, or  that his birth certificate was forged, to the claim he was a secret Muslim or a former terrorist, charges that his biological father, (a man he met only once and for a few hours) was considered a threat by the FBI, to baseless charges that he violated the War Powers Act in his handling of the Libyan crisis, the NSA scandal, the IRS profiling scandal, Obama's use of executive orders. Just when it couldn't get sillier and more preposterous, the news media would promote something a little more insane and factless.

After lots of noise from news organizations and years of investigation, costing the taxpayer millions, nothing incriminating has yet to be found. Once well-respected journalists have allowed these reckless allegations to go unchallenged. 

That is not to say, these claims have not had an effect. They have. They have made us all a little more hopeless and less sure. But that's something that Roosevelt saw this back in 1906.

He made this important observation about what happens when biased muckraking becomes a full-time occupation.
If they gradually grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck, their power of usefulness is gone. If the whole picture is painted black there remains no hue whereby to single out the rascals for distinction from their fellows.
In our time, we have seen such an effect on the public spirit. Polls show that public opinion on both Congress and the president has dipped to historic levels.  In his speech, Roosevelt was aware that this was the effect of sensational, indeed hysterical reporting of the news. 

When you paint the world as black and sullied as that, it induces a kind of "moral color-blindness." The public tends to see all men in the same distrustful light, not black or white but a dim gray.
In other words, they neither believe in the truth of the attack, nor in the honesty of the man who is attacked; they grow as suspicious of the accusation as of the offense; it becomes well-nigh hopeless to stir them either to wrath against wrongdoing or to enthusiasm for what is right; and such a mental attitude in the public gives hope to every knave, and is the despair of honest men.
Discouraged voters tend to see no difference between any of their political representatives Every business man must be corrupt and without redemption. And for each do-gooder, there must always be a hidden motive behind every proposed solution. Every step forward is, the defeatists will tell you, part of a hidden agenda.

In the end, a general attitude of cynicism and indifference does untold damage to the country as a whole.  
Roosevelt recognized the problem: After a daily dose of negative reporting, followed by negative political ads, followed by negative sometimes offensive and insulting - comments online, or hysterical hate radio rants, citizens become fed up with the debates. Furthermore, they are simply unable to tell honesty from dishonesty.
In this case, we are then all forced to rely on superficial intuition, debased by our own preconceptions or prejudices, or, still worse, on the last thing we heard. 

When, after some time, we learn we were mistaken about this or that politician, that we were wrong, we may decide it makes no difference anyway. We simply choose to stop voting. 

In short, Roosevelt said, instead of informing us of the problems that need fixing or of the corruption that lurks under the surface, we are left us feeling like suckers after each election.
The fool who has not sense to discriminate between what is good and what is bad is well-nigh as dangerous as the man who does discriminate and yet chooses the bad.
After all, given all of the lies Fox News has been caught telling about the Iraq War, about the economy and Obama and Bush, only fools would still be paying any attention. 
Blame on the moral color-blindness.

Cycles of Cynicism, Apathy, and Despair

Constant and hysterical sensationalism, Roosevelt said, will in the long term not anger us into action. It will never lead to significant progress. It will instead cause us to shrug in indifference or turn away in despair from the fight. A long-standing form of concern fatigue.

This widespread indifference and apathy threaten to undermine the principles of self-government. What kind of statement does it make to the rest of the world when more Americans would rather watch the Super Bowl  than vote  in the midterm elections. That's what happened in 2010. 
And the disastrous result was a big win for the Tea Party, politically unskilled extremists whose mission was to block the president's  "agenda," to undermine his leadership, to force him out in the next election and, if all that failed, then to shut down the government. (In fact, the Tea Party achieved none of those goals but it has been successful at wasting a lot of time and money.)

On a list of critical issues, from gun control, to climate change, from immigration reform to LGBTQ Rights/Marriage Equality, from income equality to Health Care Reform,  the impact of the Tea Party win was overwhelmingly negative. (On women's issues alone, there has been a dramatic erosion of the rights of female citizens.) 

Still worse, the disapproval- apathy- non-participation cycle becomes self-reinforcing.  Last year, Americans' approval of the way Congress handled its job averaged at a mere 14% and bottomed out at year's end at 9%, the lowest in Gallup's 39-year history of asking the question. 
When so few actually participate in the political process, who is actually to blame for that?
Americans would like to lay the entire blame on the corporate media, or crooked politicians or the president or the Koch brothers. But when voters are overcome by apathy, somebody will always step into the power vacuum.  As Roosevelt once remarked:
If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month.
Moreover, this downward spiraling cycle comes at a critical time in US history when the democracy is under serious threat. For example, conservative Supreme Court justices have re-defined the meaning of political corruption in campaigns. Lobbyists for narrow interests have been able to shut down whatever legislation they choose, even when it benefits the majority of Americans. 

In the end, to achieve a better nation, to combat the threat, we need every last vote. Yet a majority of voters, desensitized by the hysterical reporting of factually incorrect statements by the opposition, would rather sit at home and let others decide the path the nation will take. 
Neglect and abandonment is a shameful way for the great American social experiment to end. 

A Wicked Thing

Dishonest journalism and hysterical sensationalism, (like the kind so often seen on Fox News) Roosevelt warned us, will in the long term not anger us into action. It will instead cause us to shrug in indifference or turn away in despair from the fight.

When it came to marshaling our strength to fight corruption, there was, Roosevelt warned. no time to waste. The forces of evil were as "great and terrible: in his robber-baron days as they are in our own Koch brothers era. As Roosevelt said, this was the time for action, not apathy and discouragement.  
There is any amount of good in the world, and there never was a time when loftier and more disinterested work for the betterment of mankind was being done than now. ..It is a foolish and timid. no less than a wicked thing, to blink at the fact that the forces of evil are strong, but it is even worse to fail to take into account the strength of the forces that tell for good.
This prevailing cynicism can make us forget that "the forces of truth and love and courage and honesty and generosity and sympathy are also stronger than ever before." To think otherwise is defeatist and amounts to submission and surrender.

As Roosevelt said as the cornerstone of the House of Representatives building was set down that April day in 1906:
Bad though a state of hysterical excitement is, and evil though the results are which come from the violent oscillations such excitement invariably produces, yet a sodden acquiescence in evil is even worse.
Remember that, the next time you hear somebody say there is no difference in either party and that voting is an exercise in futility.
Remember also to ask yourself: Whose interest does such your apathy and your cynicism actually serve?