26 August 2009

Composite Portrait of a Town Hall Meeting

My Representative in Congress is Paul Tonko, a first-term Democrat. He held a "town hall-style meeting" on health care reform in Bethlehem yesterday. A number of accounts of the event have been published. The local newspaper version emphasizes the number of activists brought in by a pro-reform group and allows dissidents to complain that they were excluded, but notes that the crowd seemed evenly split. Meanwhile, a sympathetic report on Daily Kos accuses "Ron Paul cultists" of hogging the microphone. A more objective Kossack reports mike-hogging and impoliteness on both sides, but also directly challenges the newspaper account, claiming that the audience was overwhelmingly in favor of the Democratic reform plan. However, a reporter for the local Fox affiliate also described the crowd as 50-50. The moderator reports that the shouters drowned out potential questioners on both sides of the debate. She writes that "There was a gentleman towards the end who pointed out that calling your opponent a racist or Nazi doesn’t add anything to the dialogue." We can assume that those names were called during the meeting. Her blog is followed by several comments. These are representative:

Both sides came loaded for bear, and no one was willing to listen to see if their position could even be changed. I’m not sure what would be a better way to discuss this. Everyone seemed willing to talk and no one to listen. How do you start a discussion if people want to do one and not the other?

Boy that was something wasn’t it? I didn’t envy you being up there and I felt a little silly as well. I didn’t realize that people could be so violent over something so, well out of our hands. People need to realize that all that shouting and inappropiate language isn’t going to get us anywhere.

Somewhere along the line people seem to have forgotten what it means to debate. It is a reasoned exchange of ideas. It does not involve lying. It does not involve making things up. It does not involve not letting others talk. (If you shout someone down you are ultimately the loser, not the person shouted down.) For democracy to work, there must be this exchange of ideas, otherwise, it is a rule by mob, not unlike Nazi Germany....Much of the problem is that few of us are taught to think critically. Consequently, we allow ourselves to be swayed by talking points that may or not make sense, instead of weighing the evidence and coming to a reasoned conclusion.

I was at the meeting. I never saw anythign approaching a “near riot”, which was reported by at least one media source. Shouting, yes, yelling, yes, middle finger salutes, I guess, but Lydia [the moderator] and Paul handled these and more moderate questions and comments with aplomb and equity. And I moved around, to get a better sense of the crowd. Plenty of cops, local and state, including a police dog, struck me as a bit of overkill, but I guess you can never be too sure, even in Delmar.

There were partisan comments as well, but these provide something more like an objective view of the event. Whether they are cause for optimism or not is another story.

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