June 2007


Civil discourse has changed over the years.  Debate has become a lost art, replaced by bi-polar argument and an estrangement from comprehension or understanding.  Clarity and articulation of thought have been replaced by obfuscation and repetition of pre-determined talking points.  This has led to antagonism and levels of annoyance which routinely devolve into a state of rage for both parties, and a termination of communication.  This has led a division within our country and silenced all discussion on important issues that shape our society.  Has the failure of deliberation led to the ruin of adversarial discourse?  No, I say that responsibility lay elsewhere.  I say that the movement toward a politically correct, non-offensive, culture has silenced debate.

Historically, etiquette and decorum shaped the way we communicated and the manner in which we asserted ourselves.  In days before television and radio, conversation was our primary form of entertainment and debate considered a sport.  Both were important skills all children learned in school.  Rhetoric was the primary weapon with which one armed oneself; one which a master could mortally wound an opponent and assume victory.  Those who mastered the art of debate and had command of language were the ones who were able to assume positions of power.  Those with intellect rose above the crowd.

This is not to say that debate never denigrated into an uncivil verbal battle.  Insults were common during debate, and depending on the level of slight directed toward the other individual, some sort of physical confrontation may have developed.  History is filled with famous duels, where the combatants were defending their honor or that of someone close to them.  These conflicts were normally a result of what we refer to today (incorrectly) as an ad hominem attack, or in the common vernacular, a “yo momma” assertion.  Even though this lead to confrontation it was part and parcel of the decorum of the day.

Our society has attempted to tone down debate and de-claw it, so to speak.  To artificially develop a new decorum that supposedly makes discourse more accessible.  There has been a concerted effort made to make everything non-offensive and as neutral as possible, and while doing so, making discourse less accessible.  If you cannot offend, then debate will remain civil.  Unfortunately offense has two meanings, both important to argument.  Offense is not only the act of offending or making an affront, but, when you change the emphasis on a syllable, it is also an important tactic, where one makes a conscious decision to attack or become the aggressor.  That ability to offend, and immediately change to the offensive role in an argument, is the great equalizer.  By taking the offensive weapon away, we have eliminated a great rhetorical tool that can be used to undermine and defeat the opponent.

Some may argue that if an individual has the command of his spoken language that an insult is not required.  I call bullshit on that.  A prize fighter is taught many different punches to use against an opponent, and the most effective ones are those not expected.  A clever insult not only hits your adversary, it can distract him from his position and pull him off topic, potentially opening other gaps to attack.  I’m not saying that a run of insults is acceptable, or a way to win an argument, but a well placed affront to the dignity of your rival can leave an opening that can change the tone of the debate.  This is nothing more than a tactic, one that political correctness has attempted to remove from the rhetorical arsenal.  I feel that the loss of this weapon has weakened our ability to challenge those in power, and those who set the rules.

Those who define decorum have an unfair advantage.  They know they cannot be opposed in their home arena, as they have the tools and the ability to change the rules as they see fit.  Standing on decorum and using political correctness as their shield, the powerful continue to keep the common folk down, no matter how wrong they are.  Even though it is disrespectful and politically incorrect, why has no one stood up to President Bush and said, “Sir, you and your cabinet are complete failures and are manipulating the people of this country with your War on Terror.  Your dog, Barney, would do a better job at tracking down Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives!”  I think the national debate on this very important subject matter would come back to life in a very big way.

As much as insults can be counterproductive in a discussion they can also be an extremely effective apparatus to move a debate forward.  I certainly do not suggest that discussion breakdown to a game of the dozens, or a contest to see who can come up with the most inventive and cutting insult, but I am advocating utilizing any mechanism that can spurn more debate in our society.  Anyone who has ever observed two Arabs barter will certainly understand that their harsh words only hurt if they let them.  If we became less wishy-washy, and worried about our feelings so much, we may actually find ourselves in discussions that find resolutions to our biggest cultural problems.

Our adherence to this Politically Correct rule continues to weaken our society.  We fail to engage in discussion attempting to find the answers to important issues because we are afraid to offend.  I find that to be quite ironic as it has always been our greatest leaders who have not worried about who they offend, they just made the comments and decisions that worked for the majority.  We should strive to deliver our positions in the most eloquent manner, but if the message being delivered to us is an endless insult to our intelligence, an attack on the dignity of the individual delivering said message is fair game in my estimation.  Failing to do just means the message is acceptable, and the dumbing down of our society continues.

When it comes to communication, Darwin was wrong.  The strong do not survive, nor do they pass their superior traits on to the next generation.  Superior traits get lost in the crowd, as all things continue to gravitate toward the mean.  We may believe that we take strides to improve society, and our culture as a whole, but the stark reality is that we continue to regress to the mean.  We continue to appeal to the masses rather than encouraging the masses to emulate those who are exceptional.  Political correctness does not lead to more balance within society, it helps sustain the status quo.  When people are afraid to speak their minds they remain silent.  When people are prevented from sharing their outrage in what ever verbal form they desire, they are censored.  Political correctness does not make our society better, it only makes it weaker.

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Watching professional golf is akin to watching paint dry for most people.  Even as ex-teaching professional, I must admit, I rarely watch the sport anymore.  The game has become very predictable, less appealing, and down right boring.  The players appear to all be clones, playing the game the same way, employing the same pre-shot routine, and having the same over-coached mechanical swing.  To make matters worse, the broadcasters do very little to make the game interesting and show the dynamics of the modern game and the players who are supposed to be their product to promote. 

It wasn’t always that way. The game used to be different.  I used to enjoy watching the final two rounds of almost any tournament that drew the big names of the game.  It was thrilling to see the greats of the game battle it out each and every week.  Palmer, Trevino, Nicklaus, and Player were the established giants.  Players like Watson, Weiskopf, Zoeller, Ballesteros and Miller were the challengers, beginning a transition of power and an influx of interesting personalities.  The 90’s saw players like Norman, Faldo, Couples and the ever charismatic Payne Stewart rise to the top.  Golf was actually enjoyable to watch as the results were usually in doubt week to week, and the players brought their own unique character to the game.  Things were in for a major change as a tempest was forming on the horizon.  This gathering storm was named Tiger Woods. 

Tiger burst onto the scene and became dominant in his second year on the tour.  Golf did everything it could to capitalize on this rising star and the potential new audience he could reach.  The face of Woods was everywhere, and the established players were shoved to the sidelines.  Tiger was the wunderkind that golf saw as a potential way to increase attendance and viewership on television.  What they didn’t know was that their actions would alienate other players, the hardcore fans, and the long standing traditions of the game.  Tiger would be great for business, but would he be great for the game? 

There is no doubt that Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the game today.  Tiger brings an amazing skill set to the course that makes him difficult to beat.  His blend of raw power, incredible control, delicate touch, and an imagination unparalleled by his peers make him a one man wrecking crew on the links.  There are other players that are longer off the tee.  Some are better around the green.  A few are better putters.  When it comes to putting it all together no other player in the game today comes close to Tiger Woods.  The only player that can beat Tiger is usually Tiger himself. 

As if Tiger needed another edge one was on the way, and one that would make the game what it is today.  Tiger not only was becoming dominant on the fairways and greens, but he was also becoming the biggest selling commodity in advertising.  You couldn’t swing a broken wedge without seeing Tiger’s likeness.  As Tiger’s popularity outside the game became greater, advertisers placed more pressure on broadcasters to show even more of their new cash cow.  Sadly, those bringing the game of golf to the masses fell into step and did just that.  Golf broadcasts became a four hour product placement.  While this was great for advertisers, and great for the new casual fans that Tiger attracted to the game, it was death to the long time hardcore fans of the game of golf. 

With the advent of the very Tiger-centric broadcasting of tournaments, jokingly called Tiger TV, the other players faded into oblivion.  The only players that got any coverage were the players that won a tournament over Woods.  Those in contention got little to no coverage.  If Tiger was in the field, the coverage all focused on him.  Even if Woods was eight to ten strokes off the pace the coverage was still focused on Tiger.  Don’t think for a second that this doesn’t work against every player out there.  Like Tiger, all the players on the tour have sponsors and these guys don’t get paid without getting their sponsor logos some coverage on TV.  The pressure on players to over-achieve and win was immense, and as any golfer knows, pressure is the enemy of anyone trying to post a number.  Broadcasters set up this pressure-cooker, and they kept the temperature on high with every minute of every broadcast.  Tiger could do no wrong, and no else could do no right.  Tiger’s on course behavior was questionable at times, and his caddie crossed many a boundary that would have had other players sanctioned.  Worst of all, Tiger’s gallery was sideshow in its own right.  In one tournament, Tiger’s gallery picked up a several hundred pound boulder so their favorite player would not incur a penalty for an unplayable lie.  Yet the broadcast community had nothing to say about these incidents that made a mockery of the time honored traditions of the game of golf.  Tiger had an unfair advantage. 

The media is a very powerful ally to Tiger.  Those who attempt to unseat the favorite do so under immense pressure.  When they finally do find themselves in the limelight the focus is not on them.  It still remains on Tiger.  The underdog is bombarded with questions about how they will withstand Tiger’s onslaught, or how they will continue to over-achieve and manage to fluke out a victory.  This weighs heavily on a players mind and plays tricks on his psyche.  Mind games are routinely played between players, but when the media does your dirty work for you, you have found an incredible advantage that is impossible to compete with.  I am certain that is why 54-hole leader, Aaron Baddeley, folded like a cheap tent.  When you are blitzkrieged by the media vultures and intimated you are lucky to be where you are, and that a Tiger is lurking in the weeds for you, it can get to you.  Especially when you are playing with that Tiger in the final pairing the next day; talk about being set up for failure?  This explains many of the self-destructions we have witnessed on past Sundays when Tiger was trailing the pack.  This may also explain why Angel Cabrera was able to hold his emotions in check and not succumb to the pressure built up by the media; Cabrera does not speak English. 

This is the point where the frustration really starts to surface.  For the first time in a few years I decided to spend the Father’s Day weekend doing something that was once a tradition; watching the U.S. Open.  This was the final two rounds of one of the great tournaments, featuring an all-world international field, at one of the classic courses in America, staged at Oakmont Country Club just outside Pittsburgh.  The competition was intense, as many players were still in the hunt for one of golf’s most prestigious trophies, but the coverage was pretty well exactly what I had come to expect, and why I didn’t bother to watch it any more.  This presentation of this world event was nothing more than a poorly disguised Tiger Woods cheerleading session. NBC Sports has a long tradition of producing quality programming, but I have to say that this production was embarrassing.  Listening to the inane ravings of host Dan Hicks and the gushing praise of Johnny Miller made one sick.  These two “journalists” proclaimed Tiger’s Saturday round as “the greatest round of ball striking in U.S. Open history.”  That is pretty steep praise when you consider that this was the 107th U.S. Open, and the greatest players in the game have participated in this tournament.  Certainly there must have been one or two rounds played in the past that were superior to the round Woods put in.  Yes, it was impressive that his missed only one green in regulation, but the greatest round of ball striking?  Surely Bobby Jones, Walter Hagan, Ben Hogan, or Jack Nicklaus must have put in a superior round, using much inferior equipment?  Maybe Miller and company did not consider the legendary round one Francis Ouimet played against Harry Vardon back in 1913?  One thing is for certain, according to the NBC crew, Disney will be producing a sequel to “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and it will be scripted around Tiger’s third round at the 2007 U.S. Open. 

NBC should go back to the drawing board when it comes to their coverage of golf.  They need to understand that they are covering the Professional Golfers Association tour, not the Tiger Woods and Friends tour.  There are 185 other players out there who participate in these events, and there are fans out there that want to see what these guys can do too.  They need to focus on the guys who are in the thick of things and build them up, not tear them down.  During Sunday’s final round we heard every story imaginable about how 36-hole leader, Angel Cabrera, had failed during his career, and then heard more about how Tiger was likely to succeed.  Instead of telling the amazing journey that the Argentinean would take to find his way to this pinnacle in his life, we were yet again reminded of his inferiority and Tiger’s superiority.  Golf used to be a gentleman’s game, and was broadcast accordingly.  This low brow broadcasting needs to stop and the commentary needs to take the impartial position it used to have, for the good of the sport and those who bother to watch it. 

It has been said that first impressions mean everything, so the initial post to a blog should try and set the tone for the writing.  I expect the entries in this blog to be insightful, thought provoking, humorous, caustic and accusatory.  It is meant to give people a chance to ponder the thoughts of an other individual, and possibly make them think about their own perceptions.  It is my chance to stretch myself, and at the same time ask the reader to stretch themselves.  The following is an appropriate posting and will hopefully achieve the goal of making the reader consider the lens they view the world through, and stretch their perception.  It was originally a submission I penned for the annual Vanity Fair Essay Contest, and is preceded by the question that framed the context.

In a nation defined by video games, reality TV, and virtual friendships, with a White House that has perfected the art of politics as public relations, what is reality to Americans today?  And did we ever have a grasp of it? 

Perception is reality.  Information drives perception.  Today Americans have access to more information than they will ever be able to consume, yet are accused of not being in touch with reality.  With access to all of this data, how can Americans possibly be missing what the majority of the world observes?  Is the reality Americans perceive based on the same information the world accepts, or are Americans subject to a manipulation at the source, and an intentional alteration of reality?  That so many feel America is out of touch from reality it must be concluded that the information Americans get is either insufficient to gain the proper perspective, or that the information has been modified and inhibits the development of a clearly defined image of reality. 

From the moment our species became sentient beings, aware of ourselves within our surroundings, reality has been whatever has been perceived by each individual.  Whatever stimuli had been synthesized into thought, no matter what the level of rational, this has become part of each individual’s perception of his or her environment.  This perception is reality for each individual.   

Reality varies slightly from individual to individual, and as man evolved into a social animal, living together in groups, the need for a collective consciousness arose.  Individuals shared their unique experiences with the group and expanded the information base from which each entity could develop their own perspective of the world around them.  As this experiential sharing continued a group consciousness developed.  The societal standard became a norm which each individual had to adopt, or fear being rejected from the tribe to fend for themselves.  Groupthink became an effective way to manage the herd.   

As societies continued to develop, so did the need to control the membership and their perceptions of reality.  Groupthink was only so effective in having the general population perceiving things in the same manner.  As man’s ability to rationalize developed, experiences needed to not only be shared but corroborated to become part of the societal consciousness.  This led to questioning and challenges to leadership within the group.  Answers were not easy to find so an omnipotent power was established to explain the unexplainable.  Religion was born, and with it a series of constraints man had to live by, passed down by the supreme power.  The hierarchy within the collective was re-established and control once again assumed.  But, for society to attain the success that leadership envisioned, the societal perception of reality needed to be managed.  Rituals and ceremony of worship would provide the mechanisms for this control, and allow for the manipulation of perception of reality. 

Throughout recorded history access to information has been the mechanism that induced change in societies.  For those who control society it is in their best interest to manage the flow of information.  The Roman Catholic Church did not become the dominant religion in Europe during the dark ages by educating people and allowing them to think for themselves.  Europe was kept ignorant under the boot heel of the papacy and the Church raked in an ungodly fortune by instilling fear in the uniformed masses.  Only education and access to information broke the strangle hold the Church had around the neck of the people. 

Information became the liberator from oppression.  The more information that people had access to, the more education they acquired, the more difficult they were to control.  As the flow of information increased it decreased the control of the elites.  Power was now in the hands of those who were able to get their message across to the common folk.  Armies were no longer controlled by those who would pay them, but by those who could appeal to their hearts and minds.  Governments would rise and fall because of ideas and the ability of these ideas to become part of the collective consciousness.  More than one noble would lose his or her head as the people became empowered by the spread of information.   

Those who came to rule because of information were wise to the power of this new weapon.  They knew that if they hoped to retain their seat of influence they must somehow manage the flow of information and manipulate the message which found its way into the public consciousness.  Two schools of thought emerged in how information should be managed. 

Despots took the approach of using the information as a weapon of oppression; used the flow of information to take power, then restricted it to maintain their control.  Joseph Stalin recognized this strategy.  “The press must grow day in and day out – it is our Party’s sharpest and most powerful weapon,” Stalin bemused to his political colleagues in April of 1923.  The control of information and the manipulation of the message which would become reality for millions would be used to solidify his seat of power and guarantee his ability to control the people.  Adolf Hitler was very wise to the ability of information to shape the perception of the people.  His understanding and use of propaganda allowed the Nazi Party to undertake some of the most heinous acts known to man.  Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “I soon realized that the correct use of propaganda is a true art which has remained practically unknown to the bourgeois parties.”  He would later write, “For this, to be sure, from the child’s primer down to the last newspaper, every theater and every movie house, every advertising pillar and every billboard, must be pressed into the service of this one great mission.”  Manipulation of the message that would reach the unwashed masses would lead to their control and their unwitting duplicity in whatever venture the government would decide to undertake. 

Progressive leaders, like the founding fathers of America, believed that an open society and free speech were imperative to the success of the collective.  Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”  He feared that if the flow of information fell under government or institutional control that an important mechanism would be lost in keeping the people informed.  “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” he wrote in a letter to Colonel Edward Carrington in January of 1787.  Jefferson feared if the government controlled the media the information that enable our freedom would become the shackles which enslave us. 

Has Jefferson’s vision come to fruition?  Have we allowed the flow of information to fall under government and institutional control, manipulating our perceptions to meet the goals an elite ruling class?  One has to wonder. 

The Bush White House has been exposed for manipulating the intelligence to start a war with Iraq.  The same White House has been guilty of inserting produced stories (nee propaganda) into the media.  Certain corporate owned media outlets have been more than cooperative in delivering whatever message the government has decided to release.  They have been less than diligent in their pursuit of news in the political arena when it concerns the White House and the GOP.  These media outlets have been part and parcel in the concerted effort to “wag the dog.”  The message has been manipulated, and with it the average American’s ability to perceive the reality with which the rest of the world is forced to live. 

Much of the information the American people receives polarizes the population.  This is intentional.  The information is meant to divide.  Small groups are easier to manage and more susceptible to groupthink.  The “us or them” mentality plays rights into the hands of those who wish to manage the zeitgeist.  If Americans continue to participate in this practice they will continue to perceive a false reality.  Americans must learn to discern.  They must understand when observation becomes awareness.  Americans must decide; is information meant to inform or obfuscate?   

Americans have the ability to decide whether their perception of reality is manipulated.  Americans can stop the press from feeding them what they want to hear and encourage the press to instead give only the facts which allow Americans to find reality.  “All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to,” Hitler wrote.  Americans should not allow for similar tactics to be utilized against them, and the dumbing-down of a proud nation.  The perception that America is out of touch with reality must change.  Americans need to get in touch with the rest of the world and their reality.  The onus is clearly on the nation, as the only ones who can get America back in touch with reality are Americans.  It is important that this international assessment of America change, as international perception is American reality.