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Wednesday, 04 November 2009 20:00

Ugly public discourse and the future of truth

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More and more these days, it seems those who follow the news have strong opinions on the tone of public debate, a topic that elicits as much discussion — perhaps more — than the actual news items we want to hear about.

Last week I wrote a column about a group of vocal citizens in Haywood County who have become regulars at the county commissioner meetings. Some have accused the group — or at least some of them — of being more interested in criticizing at all costs and giving their opinions rather than seeking information in hopes of bringing about positive change.

Agree or disagree with anything we’ve written about this particular group, but there’s little doubt that the tone of public discourse is a hot topic these days. Whether it’s TV’s talking heads or video footage of public meetings held in communities around the U.S., it seems traditional media, bloggers and everyone else is talking about the civility — or lack thereof — in our public discourse.

Remember Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during his nationally televised health care speech? That was in early September, and it capped off a summer of debate on health care that turned increasingly mean-spirited. Those public meetings made for good television. Watching the vitriol from some of these town hall meetings probably led to a windfall for all the television stations that broadcast them, but it would be hard to describe those events as reasonable public discourse.

Perhaps it’s our tame, ever-so-busy lives that make many appreciate the over-the-top political antics that are becoming so common. Or maybe it’s our ever-shrinking attention spans that lead many to appreciate feigned emotion and blustering rhetoric in the place of real intellectual debate or knowledge. Whatever the case, it’s a new era we are in.

Who knows where it will end. I suspect that if the traditional media that so many people love to hate — like newspapers, for example — become less and less as relevant sources for news, then the tone of debate will get increasingly negative and less knowledgeable. Say what you want, but most newspapers — and a few television broadcasters — work hard to maintain truth and integrity in their news reporting. We put opinions on the opinion page, and not in news stories. And we make our money by convincing readers that our stories correctly represent the issues we cover.

As more opinion and spin are passed off as news, our country and our society are headed for difficult times. Truth will get lost in the fog, and the number of people seeking the truth will diminish because they won’t know it when they see it.

Last week’s column did elicit many responses, including one in the Letters to the Editor section from the man who is challenging Sen. Joe Sam Queen. My favorite, though, came with these quotes, which address the issue at hand. Good stuff:

• “Democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by the badly educated,” from Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), British journalist, novelist and poet.

• “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” from Winston Churchill.

• And my favorite — “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously,” from Hubert Humphrey.

•••

For more than 30 years, since I graduated from high school and left the Fayetteville area, I’ve been following from afar the efforts by the Lumbee Indians to win federal recognition. Recently that effort got a big boost when a bill recognizing the Lumbee and six other tribes in Virginia passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee aren’t happy about it.

The Lumbee live in the area along Interstate 95 in Lumberton in Robeson County, which is in southeastern North Carolina. All around the small towns of Pembroke, Red Springs, St. Pauls, and Fairmont are communities of Native Americans who have fought for recognition for more than a hundred years. Their efforts have been stymied by several key factors, including that they don’t have a language and they don’t have anything resembling a rich cultural history (as the Cherokee do) that is tied to the region in which they live.

Many say the Lumbee are a mix of different ethnic groups and not actual Native Americans. One theory says they are the related to the English settlers who disappeared as part of the Lost Colony on the state’s coast.

Back in March, EBCI Chief Michell Hicks told a House committee that, “The House of Representatives should not pass a bill that allows persons of questionable at best Indian ancestry to be acknowledged as an Indian tribe.”

Now that the Lumbee have gotten this far, we can expect to see the intra-tribal squabbling to heat up.

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