Monday, June 11, 2007

The Problem With Group-Think

Yesterday I waded into the controversy surrounding Dr. James Holsinger's nomination to be U.S. Surgeon General. In that post I expressed both my disagreement with Holsinger's views on homosexuality and gay sex, and my deep conflict over his nomination. While I used to attend worship with him, I could never be mistaken for a big fan of his.

However, reading Max Blumenthal's views at the Huffington Post and the reader comments that followed it, I was reminded of what, far more than a kind of blind religious ideology, is wrong with the nature of public discourse in this country. Simply put, we so rarely really speak collegially with people who fundamentally disagree with us and our cherished values, that we have forgotten how to be charitable toward our "enemies."

While Blumenthal made some excellent points (especially in his criticism of Holsinger's involvement with a church that supports gay conversion therapy) he never considered any of the readily available evidence that Dr. Holsinger might not be the slave to a conservative evangelical ideology that his critics would have him be. As noted in my previous post on the subject (and in a Louisville Courier Journal article) in his previous positions of secular leadership Dr. Holsinger has supported expanding the public funding available for stem cell research and developed a reputation for treating people fairly without regard for sexual orientation. As the Courier Journal notes, "as chancellor [of the University of Kentucky's Chandler Medical Center], he once faced down two conservative state senators who threatened to withhold funding from a lesbian health-care seminar at UK in 2002."

I certainly have many reservations about James Holsinger. I am deeply concerned about his views on homosexuality, and have long lamented his (in my view) negative and reactionary impact on my denomination. But when his critics refuse to engage - even for a fleeting moment - any evidence that might paint a more complicated picture of him, they do neither their cause nor the broader cause of decent and reasonable public discourse any good.

I wonder if people like Blumenthal refuse to consider Holsinger's behavior in his previous positions of secular leadership (at the University of Kentucky and with Kentucky's state Cabinet for Health and Family Services because of some biased caricature of my home state. Perhaps it is simply assumed that everyone in Kentucky is a conservative evangelical homophobe, so Holsinger's ability to comport himself well in secular leadership in the state of Kentucky has no bearing on his ability to serve a national position. I don't know. And, perhaps I'm defending Holsinger - whom I've never seen fit to defend before, having vigorously opposed his influence on my denomination - out of some need to defend what remains of the dignity of my home state.

In any event, regardless of Holsinger's opponents motives in overlooking evidence that complicates their caricature of him, or of my own motives in defending a person whom I neither like nor support, this simple fact remains: when we only dialogue with people who already agree with us, we lose our ability to engage our ideological opponents with charity. That impoverishes our public discourse, and keeps us from being able to reason together.

This is most evident in the comments that follow Blumenthal's lopsided opinion-piece. Calling into question Holsinger's impeccable medical credentials, calling him names like "batsh*t crazy a$$hole" and "freakazoid;" these don't do anyone any good. They only mirror that which I hate about most neo-cons and conservative evangelicals, a willingness to believe the worst about their opponents, and to dismiss them with the wave of an unsupported ad hominem.

I don't know that Dr. Holsinger is fit to serve as U.S. Surgeon General. I have some serious misgivings about that. But I do know that as a human being, a doctor, and as a professor and administrator, he is worthy of some respect. And, as a nominee, he is worthy of reasonable consideration. It may well be that such reasonable consideration would find that he has no business being Surgeon General. But if our decision making process is so fraught with such unreasonable discourse as is coming from bloggers and others trying to apply pressure to Senators to dump a nominee for Surgeon General before they've even met with him, we will never be able to make reasonable decisions that benefit the public. We will simply have the same sort of government we've had for the duration of the Bush administration, with the only change being the name of the party controlling the House and Senate, and the content of the ideology being imposed on the public without a concern for well-reasoned public discourse.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your overall point, which seems to be that it's never too soon for public political deliberation to become reasonable (in Al Gore's sense of "reasonable," perhaps?). I largely agree, although it might be hard to tell from my comments at your last Holsinger post.

The charity of which you speak, though, is a two-way street. The public owes it to the government and to one another to treat others with respect and, when questions of public officeholding arise, to decide them based on reasons that bear on the candidate's qualifications. But remember, Holsinger isn't running for office; he's being nominated for a policymaking position that isn't directly accountable to the public. What that means is that Holsinger is in part a pawn in a larger game being played by the Bush administration. And that game is largely premised on Rove's patented "divide-and-conquer" political strategy:

-Send up a candidate whose primary virtue is that he is appealing to a large segment of your political base, but who is repellent to the other side's political base.
-Force contentious committee hearings and/or floor debate in Congress; the sound bites from the opposition can be replayed to the political base to keep them angry.
-When the candidate's nomination is blocked in committee or rejected on a floor vote, cast the opposition as "obstructionist." Score more political points with the base.
-If the nominee should get confirmed, well, that's OK, too.

If anything, Holsinger deserves the public's understanding and sympathy for getting caught up in this fracas. The larger point, though, is that the political strategy on the administration's side certainly isn't premised on the sort of charity you seek. Quite the reverse, actually-- it's premised on keeping as many people as possible outside the Beltway in the dark about what's really happening.

With that in mind, it seems that a certain level of cynicism regarding the administration and its motives is entirely warranted. It can be pushed too far, of course; many of the commenters at HuffPo cross the line (imagine that!). But if we're being advised to pretend that the nomination process under Bush/Rove is simply business as usual, and the only thing that's changed is those meanie bloggers, I think that's not right.