Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

To me, there are three reasons to get cable television: HBO, ESPN and C-Span. One of the best things about C-Span is question time, during which the British Prime Minister is asked pointed questions and sometime is (gasp) heckled.

Heckling has been a source of consternation since the town hall meetings started veering out of control this August; then a minor congressman's rude shout-out during the President's terrific speech last night captured disproportionate coverage on the news this morning.

I like President Obama a lot; I am pretty sure I wouldn't like Congressman Wilson at all. But could we get a grip? Elected officials are supposed to be big girls and boys, and they should be able to take control of events. Barney Frank showed us just how to do it a few weeks ago:

In the end, the heckler looks just plain stupid. And Nancy Pelosi did pretty well with the daggers she sent out into the House chamber--she reminded me of Mrs. Athnos when my 3rd grade class misbehaved (Mrs. Athnos was one of my all-time favorite teachers).

Should there be limits? Of course--whenever violence is threatened or implied, heckling goes beyond the pale. Congressmen (and Presidents) should be able to handle shouters, but people should not be allowed to brandish guns at political events, and effigy burnings are unacceptable. But yelling opinions (even inane ones) at politicians is part of the essence of democracy.

During my first year as an assistant professor, I lost control of a class to a couple of hecklers. Part of what they were heckling about was unfair: I was following in the footsteps of an influential and beloved teacher--James Graaskamp--and I really couldn't help the fact that I wasn't him. But part of the heckling was justified--I was trying to teach Sherwin Rosen's hedonic pricing paper to real estate MBAs, and it was simply inappropriate material given the goals of an MBA degree. I am not saying that I liked being heckled, but it made me think hard about how to teach what I was assigned to teach. I have never been treated rudely in class since then.


Anonymous said...

Yes, the PM's addresses are certainly more informative, entertaining, and agile than the stultified addresses that passes for political theatre in the US. I've always liked that coverage because the PM actually has to respond to the questions of the opposition leader, actually has to debate and think on his/her feet. Since both are usually fair debaters, it's pretty obvious when the argument of one side is worthless because it just can't keep up.

As with political campaigns, Presidential addresses to Congress are not a particularly useful way for leaders to debate political differences in the public eye. Sadly, we really don't have anything of that sort in this country.

Don Coffin said...

I received a fund-raising email about Wilson's comment from the Demoncratic Congressional Campaign Committee; I attempted to respond that I was not all that opposed to heckling, that I had wanted to heckle presidents beginning with Richard Nixon.

I continues that my problem is that there are aparently a lot of members of Congresss apparently can't recognize the truth (or a lie) when it spits at them.

Unfortunately, the DCCC's email system apparently does not allow email recipients to respond.

Which pretty much eliminates email heckling, I guess.

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jouer au poker en ligne said...

Since both are usually fair debaters, it's pretty obvious when the argument of one side is worthless because it just can't keep up.