Napoleon Bonaparte cautioned, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” Listening to the vitriolic and hateful comments offered by a variety of actors on the public stage and their wholesale admissions of ignorance – “no, I haven’t read the bill” (health care, Arizona immigration, etc.) – one may be left with little more than malice.

We need look no further than that which passes for public discourse. Anyone with an opposing opinion is vilified, trivialized and passed off as a left/right wing nut job. In school we learned the art of debate. Oftentimes we were assigned the “pro” side of a point of view with which we disagreed, or the “con” side of a point of view with which we agreed. The exercise itself evinced that there were (at least) two points of view on any given issue. It allowed for the possibility that people of good will and good character could disagree, and do so agreeably.

Everyone agreed we needed health care reform, but differed on defining the problem and outlining the solutions. Industries, political opponents, commentators, politicians, etc., became instant villains, and the conversation became rife with enough hatred and synthetic indignation to fill both houses of Congress.

I am not sure when, precisely, that notion of allowing divergent viewpoints went out of vogue, but clearly – it is gone. In school, our assignment was to persuade; with logic, fact and passion. In today’s “debates,” partisans armed with their own opinions and their own facts ignore at their convenience the very real and predictable behaviors of markets, economies and the opinions and wishes of their constituents.

It appears that a cross section of Americans have “had it” with this nonsense. To them, whether it is incompetence or malice is a distinction without a difference. Bravo! I grew up in New England, where the concept of a town hall meeting was a cherished example of impassioned but still appropriate discourse. Friends argued, decisions were made, and everyone left to go back to their important roles as friends and good neighbors. We prospered and grew a great country to live in.

Maybe I am just getting nostalgic, but those old values and methods are looking pretty darned good right about now.

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