A National Rational Discourse
What We Think We Say


What is the national discourse and who says what it is?

There’s the national discourse in Washington DC, on cable TV, online, in bar rooms, coffeehouses, at NASCAR, at MoMA, according to Fox, according to Harper’s at Sardi’s and at Pinks. Which one is authentic?

The latest buzz regarding the national discourse is that the national discourse is in decline. While those taking part in the national discourse bemoan its decline, an outside observer, if there’s any left, might rightfully conclude that rather than decline, the national discourse is simply suffering from an input overload. An impulsive tweet, New York Times blog comment, YouTube short, extemporaneous cable retort, or Tumblr quote are considered in the territory. Anyone can join in. Come on. Let’s do the national discourse.

Last month here in Santa Ana, California, some wahoo graffitied a swastika with the message “We’re gonna kill Gov. Brown 2/14/11″ (a valentine’s day death threat directed at California’s newly elected governor). It was sprayed near South Coast Plaza on a segment of Segerstrom Avenue that stretches through a mile long corridor of nothing but six foot residential concrete backyard block walls. It is, in other words, a four lane alleyway. Which makes it, aside from the traffic, a perfect spot to tag.

“We’re gonna kill Gov. Brown” was reported, facebooked and tweeted in the OC as an example of our declining national discourse. It is, of course, not. Grafitti by a idiot is grafitti by a idiot. It is no more the tone of discourse for our nation than a pimple on your butt is the tone of your complexion. In the reality-based world, “We’re gonna kill Gov. Brown” is either an underground publicity campaign gone awry, a late night cry for help from children of a tea party family, the work of a radical homicidal deviant (the one we’re hoping it’s not), or the last gasp of Meg Whitman’s campaign as I imagine it. It and other dismal jabber are, I repeat, not signs of the decline of national discourse. The crude, boastful, intimidating and vaguely suicidal have always been with us in politics. If you don’t believe me, look it up.

Let’s go back a century to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson when threats ranged from the utilitarian “President Wilson ought to be killed… . If I had an opportunity, I would do it myself “ to the dogmatic "Wilson is a wooden-headed son of a bitch. I wish Wilson was in hell, and if I had the power I would put him there."

In 1941, protestors carried posters that read "Hang Roosevelt". If they were picketing today, they’d rate an in-depth segment on Rachel Maddow and a squawk-back from Sean Hannity. On the lighter side, Groucho Marx once said he thought "the only hope this country has is Nixon’s assassination." Nixon probably got the joke. Even dark humor couldn’t save us from the moral majority.

But enough about our vulgarity and more on our situation with input overload. First, we shouldn’t confuse jabber or IMs with national discourse. But more importantly, the state of our discourse is often measured by amplitude instead of content. What I’m saying is, it’s loud — amped up through our technology. Everyone playing a high-tech internet connected thumb piano believes they’re engaged in the discourse. They’re not. But they are making things a bit crowded on the scale on concern.

As a cure for out so-called decline, we could go back to three television networks and no internet. A well-placed lobbyist, government intrusion, or mass boredom with cable news porn would take care of that. As an alternative, we could individually learn how to control the volume — take responsibility, become selective and turn off the crap. That, however, would require that we pretend we are more civilized.

Be that as it may, we remain always ready to tag up a new area. Some of us have the power of megawatts, bandwidth and corporate logos, some the power of the pen and spray can. Either way, we’re all searching for the best wall to bomb.

What if Segerstrom Avenue was hit up with the phrase “The disparity between the rich and poor is killing us” instead of “We’re gonna kill Gov. Brown?” Would anyone tweet the difference? Whatever we say, spray or post won’t be the national discourse until people are singing it instead of pinging it. And with all the talk about the decline in national discourse, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast February 11, 2011

© NathanCallahan.com / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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