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Writing (and Thinking) for the Public 101

Ann Coulter's columns (at least the occasional ones that I come across) have begun to read as if she keeps a diary of one-line zingers and worthwhile points that she strings together to form an essay. A column from yesterday is typical; it makes some good points, but good points that could be better massaged into a train of thought. The following was one paragraph, however, that hit the mark for me today:

Liberals simply refuse to consider thoughts that would interfere with their lemming-like groupthink. They hold their hands over their ears like little children who don't want to listen to mother.

The target into which this arrow pricked was a letter to the editor of the Providence Journal by Louise Knight, of Chepachet, Rhode Island:

We elect candidates. We have a democratic system of voting our candidates into office. If we don't like the job they are doing, we vote them out in the next election.

California Gov. Gray Davis was elected twice, so the people must have wanted him. The right wing tried to impeach President Clinton, and in Texas Tom Delay is playing funny games with redistricting so the Republicans will have greater control over the House and Senate. Oh, don't forget the debacle in Florida!

To the great army of the unemployed, the minimum-wage earners and just plain folks: Next election, you be the judge.

Such letters often set me off in search of the op-eds that they summarize, like third-grade book reviews. And it is only recently that I've begun learning to curb my urge to send a letter in response (of course, the blog helps in that regard). I think what has always lured me into taking up the arguments is that they seem such simple points to rebut. Yet, when the person to whom one is responding won't take hands away from ears, even simple points can never be made.

Before I move on, I'll tie up Knight's loose thread: California has a (non-partisan) provision for recalls that has been attempted before (once, I believe, against Ronald Reagan), and it is left to the people to decide whether or not they still want Davis, not to some right-wing inner circle. As a point of fact, Bill Clinton was "impeached," but the Senate acquitted him of the charges; nonetheless, impeachment is a legitimate, albeit difficult, proceeding within our form of government, and Clinton lied under oath and showed tremendous disrespect for his office; moreover, there is a movement afoot among the Democrats to impeach President Bush, proving that the proceeding and the threat thereof is not a partisan exercise. Tom Delay is a U.S. Congressman, which is not an office within the Texas state government, and redistricting is a standard procedure used (and abused) by both parties when they have the opportunity, in some cases breaking out districts for no other reason than that it will ensure the reelection of incumbents. As for Florida, it was Gore and the Texas Supreme Court that sought to change the rules while the game was in progress.

As straightforward as I believe these points to be, I imagine that Ms. Knight's litany paints too much the picture that she wants to see for her to allow the colors to be blurred. The Democrats — those of large soft money donations from rich supporters — are for the people, the Republicans against; end of story. Any evidence to the contrary must be lies, spin, or irrelevancies. Leaving open those three slots enables one never to delve into the complex decision-making required to foster a healthy society, regardless of the topic.

A similar tactic is at work in the latest Providence Journal op-ed to stump for gay marriage, this one by Providence Unitarian Reverend Richelle C. Russell:

One group of people who live, work and love right alongside another group of people is completely left out when it comes to marriage.

I am interested in marriage for any number of reasons. As a career minister I have performed more weddings than I can count. As a Unitarian-Universalist minister, I am also able to bless same-sex unions. I have performed a good number of these, too. I will never forget the private ceremony that I performed blessing the union of two fine young men surrounded by their immediate families, all devout, high-ranking Mormons quietly living out their family values.

At all the holy unions I've performed, there has never been a dry eye in the house. All attending were acutely aware of the courage and commitment necessary for the same-sex couple to stand before their community to be blessed in a house of worship.

Russell herewith transforms the definition of marriage to his desire without so much as a thought to his having done so, much less to the social ramifications of such a shift. Parents cry when their sons "commit" to other parents' sons, so all must be joyfully fulfilled; end of story. What happens thereafter is irrelevant. Whether the Rev. Russell's point of view obscures the actual attitude toward marriage among homosexuals is moot. Those who refuse to act on the end conclusion of all of Russell's preconceptions and erroneous assessments must be bigots, because there can be no questioning of his suppositions. They are settled.

One lesson in writing that I recall specifically being taught was to purposefully anticipate and address objections. This practice underlies the maxim that clear expression results from and leads to clear thought. If an idea doesn't jibe with a neat little essay or worldview, one should not discard or ignore it, but make a point of incorporating it. And writers who won't thus challenge themselves are most unlikely to accept the challenge from others.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 02:06 PM EST