Katon Dawson gets it. Why doesn’t everybody?
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
OVER A LATE breakfast at a New York deli in September 2004, S.C. Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson cheerfully told me this story:
Years earlier, as a novice candidate who had been burned once by his own frankness, he started carrying a piece of paper that he would look at whenever he spoke to one of my colleagues. On it he had written some good advice: “Cindi Scoppe is not your friend.”
It did not mean she was his “enemy”; it was just his reminder to be wary because a good reporter isn’t on anybody’s side.
You see, Katon Dawson gets it. Plenty of other people don’t.
I believe that one of my few qualifications for my job is that I am vehemently, stridently, nonpartisan. Mr. Dawson, and his Democratic counterpart Joe Erwin, would say I’m too harsh.
But the problem isn’t just the two major parties, loathsome as they may be. It’s this ubiquitous thing of everything being divided into “sides” — you’ve got to pick, one or the other — to the point that even smart people are unable to frame issues any other way.
Here’s another anecdote, involving the same Ms. Scoppe: A lawmaker told her there was an inconsistency on last Sunday’s editorial page.
The editorial criticized House members for rejecting, on specious grounds, business leaders’ input in the tax reform debate. The column dissected the General Assembly’s rush to override the governor’s veto of an odious bill stripping local governments of the ability to regulate billboards in their communities.
When Cindi told me the lawmaker said the two pieces contradicted each other, I retorted, “Huh?” If anything, they had a consistent theme: the Legislature acting against the public interest.
But the lawmaker saw it this way: The editorial slapped lawmakers for not doing what business wanted them to do, and the column hit them for doing what “business” (the billboard industry) wanted.
I responded, “Say what?”
Cindi said maybe we hadn’t expressed ourselves clearly enough. At this, I got a bit shrill: “How on Earth could we have been expected to anticipate that anybody would read it THAT way?”
And yet, people are always reading what we write that way. The whole world encourages them to perceive every public expression as pro-business or anti-business, or siding with Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, black people or white people, rich or poor, fat or thin… you get the idea. That’s the trouble. Everybody gets the idea.
This is a profoundly flawed way of looking at the world. If you accept or reject arguments, or even facts, according to whether they help or hurt your side, how can we ever get together and solve anything in a way that serves the common good?
And yes, I know that the news media — especially television, although print is a culprit too — help create and reinforce this dichotomous world view. But that just makes me feel more obligated to use this page to encourage multilateral discussions that help people see things as they are, rather than the way one side or the other wants them to be.
We’re not alone in this. We ran an op-ed piece Thursday from an assistant professor at USC-Aiken who faces the exact same problem every day in the classroom.
Steven Millies wrote about a disturbing Emory University study. When the study’s author “showed negative information to his subjects about a politician they admired, the areas of their brains that control emotion lit up, while their reasoning centers showed no new activity.” Worse, when the subjects rejected information that they did not want to hear, their brains were rewarded in a pattern “similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix.”
The damning conclusion was “that our political opinions are dominated by emotion, and that the reasoning part of our brain is not interested in political information that challenges us. In fact, our brains will work very hard to avoid that information.”
This means Dr. Millies has an uphill fight in trying to teach his students that “In our political choices, we should not settle for the hollow comfort of feeling gratifyingly consistent in our assurance that one party is always right and the other always is wrong.”
The trouble is, according to polls, about two-thirds of the electorate does cling to such assurance. That makes things tough for a fair-minded professor. It also makes it tough to publish a nonpartisan editorial page, and persuade partisans that that is actually what you are doing. No matter what you wrote the day before or the day after, a partisan tends to remember only the last thing you said that ticked him off, and to take that as proof positive that you’re on that other side.
It doesn’t help that so many editorial pages are partisan, even at the best papers. You can almost always predict which “side” The New York Times will be on, and rely upon The Wall Street Journal to take the opposite view.
None of us is immune to wrapping ourselves in comforting notions. Look at me: I didn’t want to hear what Cindi was trying to tell me. But I try to learn. I try to anticipate the way partisans of all sorts will perceive what I’m saying, and to express myself in a way that they see what I mean. But I often fail, and often in ways that surprise me, even after three decades of observing politics.
Now here’s another perception problem to think about: “pro-business” or “anti-business.” Well, all I can say is that I’ll try.
In the meantime, just in case anyone is still unclear: Sometimes business people are right; sometimes they’re wrong; sometimes they’re both. And when we write about them, we’re doing our best to sort all that out.
It’s just like S.C. lawmakers: They don’t always do stupid stuff. It’s merely coincidence that on the two issues we wrote about last Sunday, they did.
Katon Dawson gets it. Why doesn’t everybody?