Monday, October 14, 2013

A Plague on False Centrists

“A plague on both houses!” I've seen that line from Romeo and Juliet quoted repeatedly for the last two weeks,  as pundits and bloggers devoted to “balance” argue that the Democrats and Republicans share the blame for the current budget shutdown and the looming threat of default. The line itself is a cliche, but quoting Shakespeare makes you sound learned, and that is too often the major aim of both-sides-do-it journalism: making the journalist seem wise and above the inconvenient facts of the fray. Shakespeare was a poet, not a pundit, more interested in dramatic complexity than sound bites but if we’re going to mine his plays for lessons, we should remember what we’re quoting. Saying “a plague on both your houses” does not solve political conflict in Romeo and Juliet or in the real world. It accelerates a destructive feud, and it's meant to. Those who curse both houses are not trying to make peace. They are egging on a brawl.

    The line “a plague on both your houses” is of course spoken by Romeo’s friend Mercutio, mortally wounded in a street duel. Taken out of context, it sounds like an accusation that the Montague and Capulet families are both equally violent and equally blameworthy. But the audience can see for itself that this is not true. Romeo steadily refuses to fight. He and the other Montague on stage, his cousin Benvolio, work tirelessly to head off the duel, and when that fails Romeo physically throws himself between the fighters to stop them. Romeo and Juliet is a play about dangerous civil disorder, and the leaders of the Montague and Capulet houses do share the blame for disrupting the peace. The senior leaders who should rein in each house’s servants and young men, the clowns and hotheads, instead actually encourage aggression. But Mercutio pretends that there is no difference between the play’s most violent characters and its handful of peacemakers, no difference between starting a fight and trying to stop it. His pretense of neutrality is worse than an empty pose; it actively promotes violent conflict.

    Mercutio deliberately goads one of Juliet’s cousins to combat, and when Romeo refuses to be baited Mercutio jumps in to start the fray. He not only wants a fight; he insists. “A plague on both your houses” is the cry of a man killed with a sword in his hand. It is meant to spur Romeo to further bloodshed, accusing him of causing the death he tried to prevent, and it succeeds. Every death in Romeo and Juliet comes after the "plague on both houses" line. Blaming both sides equally undermines the peacemakers but empowers the hostile and unreasonable, freeing them from any public responsibility. If every time you kill a Montague (or a Capulet), people shake their heads and blame both the Montagues and Capulets, you might as will kill as many Montagues or Capulets as you can; your victims split the blame with you. And if you have to take half the blame every time you try to make peace and get attacked with a sword instead, you will never manage to make peace. Apportioning half the guilt for every crime to the criminal and half to the criminal’s sworn enemy is not an act of moderation. It promotes and rewards extremism.

    The American media has unerringly taken the side of confrontation and brinksmanship and discord, through years of mounting political disputes and manufactured crises. The press has done this while pretending neutrality with sad, wise shakes of the head, lamenting the unreasonableness of both sides. That head-shaking is not neutrality. It is active intervention on behalf of the unreasonable. Unprecedented acts of obstructionism are treated as routine tactics. Partisans abusing the legislative process to extract concessions are awarded the same stature and coverage given to national leaders seeking compromise. Worse, those who work for conciliation and those who work against it are portrayed as equally partisan, as if deal-making and deal-breaking were simply two sides of the same coin. Individual journalists may be liberal or conservative, but the political media itself is clearly biased toward confrontation: indifferent to policy results but hungry for drama, always looking for more juicy showdowns and shutdowns and crises. So the press has played Mercutio, standing in the street hoping to see a fight, scoring the “winners” and “losers” of every pointless showdown. The media pose as objective bystanders because they only forgive half of every crime and only slander half of every good deed. But absolving the cheats and brawlers is not objectivity. Cursing the peacemakers is not standing honest witness. The press has not been a bystander. It has acted, scene after pointless scene, to build more conflict. Our political journalists have helped to write the sorry drama our nation must now play out. They should take their bows.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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