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A More Civil and Honest Public Discourse?
Don’t hold your breath.


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Clifford D. May

President Obama last week refuted — clearly and commendably — those who have been attempting to exploit the bloodbath in Tucson to smear conservative polemicists and law-abiding gun owners. We cannot “use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other,” he said. He added that while “a simple lack of civility” did not cause a deeply disturbed young man to commit multiple murders, “a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation.”

How likely is it that we will soon have such a discourse? I’m more pessimistic than ever. Let me explain.

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On Jan. 11, Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed federal legislation to prevent people from knowingly bringing guns within 1,000 feet of any event at which members of Congress or federal judges are appearing.

I contributed a blog item to the Corner saying I thought the idea “worth considering” — not quite a ringing endorsement though it did suggest I didn’t regard it as the worst idea since spray-on hair. Within minutes, my Corner colleagues, Andy McCarthy and Jonah Goldberg, were making strong arguments in opposition, in the spirit of a civil and honest discourse. But about a hundred readers sent in comments along these lines: “Keep it up, and I’ll cancel my subscription.” “I’d rather have a law banning a congressman from coming within 1,000 feet of my firearm.” “An awful proposal indicative of some darker portions of May’s soul.” One reader asked: “What is this — the Huffington Post?”

As it happens, I soon received a call from the Huffington Post. The reporter sounded genuinely interested in my thinking. What logic had led me to the conclusion that this proposal might have merit?

I explained my thinking at some length but the piece he wrote ignored my reasoning, preferring instead to gleefully tell Huff Post readers that the “fragile Republican coalition isn’t handling Pete King’s gun bill well. … May tells HuffPost Hill…radical stuff that will prevent him from coming within 1,000 feet of a Tea Party rally…”

An example of my “radical stuff”: “Somebody who’s considered a danger to his campus shouldn’t be welcomed in a gun shop.”

Next, I received an e-mail from an editor at NPR. My views deserved a wider hearing, she said. Could I write an op-ed for them as quickly as possible? So I did. The editor wrote back (boldface in original):

Cliff — I love this piece, because it is so surprising and fresh! I want it to have more about you personally. Do you own any guns? Are you a hunter? Is this a new position for you? How did you get here?   

(I think you should start with something declarative. “I’ve changed my mind about gun control” — you decide, but make it attention-grabby).

She added that, in addition to publishing the piece on the NPR web site, they wanted me to come in and record a version for All Things Considered.  She suggested that — to save space — we cut the paragraph saying that what happened in Tucson was clearly not an act of political violence, encouraged by conservative political rhetoric or the fault of law-abiding gun owners.

I replied that I considered those points important to retain and that I couldn’t honestly say I had “changed my mind about gun control” — attention-grabby as that might be. I support the Bill of Rights — no exception for the Second Amendment. I simply believe there can be reasonable restrictions on all rights. Freedom of the press, for example, does not provide a license to steal and publish classified Pentagon memos. Perhaps there can be some common ground on which people on the Left and the Right can peacefully assemble? I added that I’d be glad to tighten the piece and make it more personal.

Care to guess what happened next?

She replied that her “supervisor” was not satisfied. “The piece isn’t working for her — I think she is looking for more of a description of your thoughts, and your personal journey, and a focus on the arguments surrounding this issue.…You’ve been so accommodating. I’m so sorry to ask you for more revisions. Let me know what you’d like to do.”

I said I understood: What NPR found interesting was not my perspective but simply the fact that I was deviating from conservative orthodoxy. And, in the end, I was just not serving up enough apostasy.

I should have seen this coming. A few years ago, an executive at NPR — a good journalist I knew from back when she and I both worked in newspapers — asked me to write occasional commentaries on national-security issues for Morning Edition. It soon became clear, however, that the producer to whom I was assigned did not welcome arguments with a conservative bent. The only commentaries they were eager to have from me were those criticizing other conservatives and their ideas.

The moral of this story is demoralizing. Despite what Obama called “the challenges of our nation,” too many people remain locked in ideological boxes. Why should so many NRO readers be outraged by an occasional item that does not reinforce their pre-existing opinions? Why should NPR, in part financed by taxpayers from across the political spectrum, allow only left-of-center voices access to what we used to call the public airways? If President Obama is serious about establishing “a more civil and honest public discourse” — and one speech does not demonstrate that beyond a reasonable doubt — he has his work cut out for him.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.



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