Column input shows where readers — and I — sometimes take wrong turn

The only thing better than writing an opinion column is reading or listening to people’s feedback about it. It’s absolutely great!

And last week I received some terrific reader input on my column about the health care bill, titled “Opponents of liberal reform are definitely not my comrades.” This piece was crafted to elicit strong responses, and it proved effective in this sense. I wrote a follow-up column this week explaining my rationale; it’s titled “Don’t believe everything you’re not reading.”

Before addressing some of the comments I received, let me say that I truly appreciate everyone’s input. It’s obvious many readers didn’t agree with what I wrote last week, but I respect their viewpoints and recognize their sincerity. These people are among those with whom I’ve interacted over the years who clearly love this country and wish only the best for it.

The column was stuffed with as many politically charged buzzwords as possible as well as intricately phrased (albeit vague) statements. This tempted readers to project specific meanings into each paragraph while I actually meant something different.

These buzzwords and statements have very specific ideological connotations, but I was using them in their literal sense. There were many instances where a point I was making contradicted what people perceived me to be stating.

My purpose was to demonstrate how some people react negatively to certain words or phrases as a result of their preconceived biases. They quickly dismiss ideas and short-circuit meaningful dialogue on public policy issues because they misinterpret the entire point. I chose the health care debate because there is a great deal of misinformation about this topic.

How can we create substantial legislation if we don’t understand each other and refuse to listen? We as a society do ourselves a great disservice by periodically jumping to erroneous conclusions and closing ourselves to important ideas.

That’s what I had in mind when I wrote my column. I’ll highlight a few examples of some misunderstandings that came about — and I’ll start by describing how I fell into my own trap!

One woman called me after reading the column, and she was rather upset. She wanted to know why I would turn away potential friends simply because they didn’t agree with my position.

She was referring to my use of the word “comrade” in the title. Now, many readers understood this term as a reference to what communists call each other. I was counting on people interpreting the word this way, and for the most part it worked.

But this woman was too wise to be fooled by my linguistic sleight of hand. She knew the word meant “friend” (among other things), and she couldn’t believe I would be so closed-minded as to refuse to make friends with people who disagreed with me politically.

It never occurred to me that someone would read the title like this, but that’s what it said if you take its meaning literally. Seeing how my goal was to point out the differences in the perceived ideological meaning of my writing as opposed to its literal meaning, I failed to consider that someone would read a critical part of it literally.

And if you interpret the title literally, it comes off as very crass. How could I have missed this?

I tried to reassure this woman that I meant “comrade” more in the sense of an ally or compatriot, someone partnering with you in a significant cause. Coupling this with the previous phrase of “liberal reform” (an agenda based on the literal definition of “liberal,” which means free and unrestrained), the title was supposed to literally convey my desire to associate with others who champion the freedoms this nation provides.

It was never intended to infer that I wouldn’t make friends among those with differing opinions, but that’s what it ended up saying. The long and short of it, I was wrong for writing it this way.

Who knew the first person I’d trip up with my convoluted statements would be me? It’s good that this woman called my bluff and showed me my error. Let me state that I definitely consider her a friend and hope she understands my point, however poorly I made it.

I appreciate how hard that people like her work to make a good life for themselves and value their extraordinary contributions to our society. They are obviously very frustrated with how dismally our government is run and how much of their tax money is squandered, and I share many of their concerns. They want things to improve for themselves, their children and their fellow citizens, and their efforts should be honored by us all.

The goal of my column was to highlight the impasses we sometimes run into when trying to communicate about ideological issues and how we can avoid them. I did not wish to express any contempt for the many readers who may disagree with my viewpoints, and I apologize for inadvertently conveying such a message.

An e-mail I received from another reader points out a few of the problems people had with my column. In a previous blog posting, titled “Column on ‘liberal reform’ as American as baseball and apple pie, comrades,” I wrote an extensive analysis of the points I was making in a literal sense. So, I won’t need to rehash all those but will touch on a few brief examples of some of the misunderstandings I found in the comments people made.

Here is the text of this reader’s e-mail in its entirety:

“I struggle with Jerry Moore’s validation of our ‘right’ to health care (May 6). He says Congress can justify health care reform legislation. After all, we have ‘an established precedent of allowing welfare [spending] for the collective good.’ He is referring to Social Security and Medicare. The original intent of those programs was noble, but our government’s fiscal management has been abysmal. It has committed gross intergenerational theft. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, our unfunded liabilities of these programs exceed $107 trillion – 7 times the size of our economy and 10 times our national debt. Left unchecked, in 20 years these programs will require 50 percent of our income taxes. With that track record, we should be justifiably outraged that our government would even suggest another massive entitlement program.

“Opposing health care reform has been met with a favorite political comeback: being classified as extremist. For example, if you don’t espouse the concept of global warming, then you just don’t care about our planet. Or as Jerry suggests, those opposing radical policies ‘want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left.’ So there is no middle ground? His statement is merely provocative. No wonder our nation is polarized politically. Conservative politics doesn’t aim to eliminate government; it craves limited government, which is so clearly outlined in our Constitution.

“More worrisome is Jerry’s hope for a ‘novel global structure’ draped with a ‘revolutionary spirit of solidarity.’ He doesn’t tell us what he means, so I’ll guess. This notion isn’t new among the liberal elite. It is a world government that would have certain authorities impacting the future of our sovereignty — think European Union, but on a global scale. Despite this naïve notion of global kumbaya, our adversaries don’t consider themselves global citizens. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, to name a few, would like nothing better than to see a weaker U.S., our strength sapped by the empowerment of other countries participating in decisions about our best interests and our survival.

“If this is liberal reform, I want none of it.”

This reader makes many valid points, and I understand why he is less than enthusiastic for universal health care. But he jumped to some conclusions here, and this is how people become sidetracked on contentious issues.

My comment on “an established precedent of allowing welfare spending for the collective good” was actually a reference to the first paragraph of Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes Congress to collect taxes to provide for the “general welfare” of the nation. It’s not that universal health care is necessarily ideal, but there’s a plausible case to be made that it’s constitutional.

The e-mail then claims I declared that “those opposing radical policies ‘want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left.'” I didn’t write about those opposing “radical policies”; I wrote, “opponents to such radical rule-making want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left.”

As I pointed out in my previous blog post, this “radical rule-making” is our system of representative democracy whose rivals favor fascist governments. The desire to turn every state “red” is a reference to communists; their goal is definitely to create a stateless, classless society with no centralized authority.

The reader states that a latter portion of my column is vague and he’s not sure what I means, and then he says, “so I’ll guess.” Here is the crux of the problem with how some people approach public policy issues.

They realize they don’t fully understand some concept, but rather than admitting this they jump to a conclusion — and sometimes they’re wrong. If people aren’t sure of the meaning of some point, they should ask to have the idea clarified. Don’t presume to know the answer and devise conclusions based on potentially false information.

Ultimately, I’m not arguing against anyone’s political ideology. It’s the process we use to form these views that has me concerned, because sometimes we take a wrong turn and oppose concepts that aren’t quite what we think they are.

I’m no exception to this, as I demonstrated earlier. We’re all human and just as likely to make mistakes.

My point is that we need to commit ourselves to ensuring we understand each other’s positions on issues, and this often means we have to admit something eludes our grasp. It makes no sense to object to ideas if we’re not certain what they are, or we’re certain what they are and we’re still wrong. We thwart productive communication with other Americans when we do this, and I’m living proof of how easy it is to lead ourselves astray.

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