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Opinion page editor Rick Holmes and other writers blog about national politics and issues. Holmes & Co. is a Blog for Independent Minds, a place for a free-flowing discussion of policy, news and opinion. This blog is the online cousin of the Opinion ...
Political Views
Opinion page editor Rick Holmes and other writers blog about national politics and issues. Holmes & Co. is a Blog for Independent Minds, a place for a free-flowing discussion of policy, news and opinion. This blog is the online cousin of the Opinion section of the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Mass. As such, our focus starts there and spreads to include Massachusetts, the nation and the world. Since successful blogs create communities of readers and writers, we hope the & Co. will also come to include you.
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By Tom Driscoll
Jan. 3, 2014 11:18 a.m.

One of our esteemed colleagues just now posted a “modest proposal” on the topic of unemployment (and deadheading cargo ships). As no doubt the learned scholar was aware when he chose the turn of phrase —modest proposal —the allusion is to 18th Century essayist Jonathan Swift’s famous proposition for dealing with an excessive and impoverished Irish population back in his day. Swift’s recipe for social and economic reform was a simple one —eat the poor. Of course that original modest proposal was made tongue in cheek, not fork in hand. No one would ever seriously consider culinary advice from (or about) an Irishman in the first place. The irony is key. The proposition here and just now on exporting our unemployed lacked somewhat on that score. It led with the same air of dismissive disregard for society’s burdens and managed the same kind of provocative pseudo-seriousness —yet the aftertaste was more contempt than consideration.
This puts me in mind of an article I came across recently and a set of concerns I’ve had percolating for a while now. The name of the book and the focus of the article is something the authors refer to as “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and The New Incivility.” Jeffrey Barry and Sarah Sobieraj rightly point out in the excerpt of their book that was carried on salon.com that there is nothing at all new about incivility. Rant has been an aspect of rhetoric from the dawning of our dear republic. But there is something new and noteworthy in the way it situates itself in the body politic —and simply sells.
Historians will point out that we’ve always had such divisiveness as we have today. They love to tell us about Adams and Jefferson campaign slurs. Lincoln lambasted as ‘The illinois Ape’ et cetera, et cetera, and no doubt that’s a useful caution to those of us who would over romanticize a past that never was. But the same advice pays forward to the future. We enjoy a media abounding in choices and seemingly open to all manner (and lack thereof) of expression. There is something to celebrate as the discourse becomes more and more rambunctious and democratic. But there is also the danger of losing our ‘unum’ as our ‘pluribus’ proliferates.
There is a new contour to the media landscape and it has given rise to a new civility —or more aptly —a new incivility. The same atomized and variegated media marketplace, with its oh so many niches —demographics and sub-demographics for reality tv and masterpiece theatre, stoner cartoons and disneyfied hypnotics, Hannah Montana and Myley Cyrus, has also given rise to a kind of niche oriented public discourse. With public affairs as entertainment options, our inclination these days is to surf channels rather than bridge chasms. After all, what really is so funny about civil civic discourse and thoughtful public policy —let alone peace, love and understanding? What engages us is what grabs our attention. On that score outrage and ridicule are the winning combination —reason, consideration, compromise and consensus —not so much.
The old narrow media elite, peddling three or four brands of very similar experience had an interest in not offending or insulting large swaths of their potential audience. As such they saw political opinion as something to handle arms length and gingerly. There was a motive of profit protection in the practice of tact, but it also made for a place at least seemingly not owned or aligned with a partisan or advocate’s outlook. Before choosing there was time and place for deliberate choice. No argument there were valid perspectives closed out of that homogenized and pasteurized past and we should be glad of a more diverse and inclusive popular political culture. But without gate keepers to the forum what will be the rule? He who hollers loudest holds the floor? Loudest, broadest, rudest?
Perhaps the strangest phenomena of this new more liberated landscape are the decided self-caricatured personas who make outrage and offense their stock and trade. You know who they are. They know who they are. They may not offer insight, but they gain notice and that in the end is what the marketplace values. One has to wonder if they really believe in the product they push. Is it self deprecation or candor when one them describes himself as a rodeo clown? What do they make of our debate? Of our politics and our public process? One can suppose they serve the whole as provocateurs, but have we made a fitting place for the considerate discourse they supposedly provoke? Or have we come to a point where outrage and insult are the coin of the realm? Do we play in just as much when we’re offended as when we agree with the latest grotesque? With more and more of the discourse given over to the loudest, broadest, rudest of the loud, broad and rude: Coulter and Limbaugh and Hannity —O’Donnell and Mathews and Bashir —Colbert and Stewart laughing at the whole lot —you really have to wonder.
And then there’s that aftertaste.

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