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Willem Lange: The Public Squares Proves Tempting to All Sorts of Speakers

East Montpelier

It’s probably the result of round-the-clock media coverage, coupled with the new freedom of anybody with an Internet connection to express himself anonymously (if he wishes) and more or less politely. More than ever before we seem to be bombarded with discussions of public policy — abortion, impaired driving, security versus privacy, gay marriage, gender equality, gun owners’ rights. You name it — it’s ad infinitum out there.

Because policy discussions lead to official regulations or laws, they’re essential. A lot of the amateur commentary, however, is not. It boils down to the old question of whose ox is being gored, or is likely to be; and there are plenty of radio hosts eager to help their listeners figure it out. On the other hand are the folks whose often thankless task is to balance apparently competing interests, determine which compromise is the best (or least onerous), and actually make the decision. Lyndon Johnson, reflecting once on the public outrage evoked by his decisions or policies, said he felt “like a jackass in a hailstorm, hunkered down and taking it.”

Congressional hearings to consider new laws and regulations are supposed to be fact-finding enterprises, and perhaps they once were. At the present time, given the intense polarization of our national legislature, they are essentially political theater. It’s in the government agencies and in our state legislatures where more serious discussion is likely to occur. A perfect example is the debate, around the turn of the century — this one — over the issue of civil unions in Vermont.

There was no doubt that the result, whatever it was, would totally please no one, and would, for a while, at least, infuriate and alienate those who felt themselves the losers. So, to give as many as possible of those affected by the outcome a chance to express themselves, the Legislature held public hearings. The speakers were held to a tight time limit, which meant the important arguments were up front.

The proceedings were broadcast on public radio and proved riveting listening — and the arguments stood in stark contrast to one another. The legislation passed, and the governor signed it into law. Within a decade, this groundbreaking decision had become an artifact of history. But no one was able to claim credibly that during the debate his voice had not been heard.

That seems to be the key to acceptance of new regulations — as well as, now that I think of it, election results. Thus it behooves any of us with skin in the game, or a dog in the fight, or an ox in the herd, to speak up in the most effective way we can. On the other hand, it behooves us to keep out of it if we won’t be affected, or know nothing or little about the subject being discussed.

A good example of that, for me, is the current debate over the legal limit of blood alcohol in determining impairment. The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended lowering it from the current .08 to .05, which would be in line with most of the rest of the world. Others with an interest in the subject — notably the owners of bars and restaurants — are dead set against any change. The debate has begun, and includes the folks who see any new regulations as more unwarranted government intrusion.

There probably will be none in this case; but there may well be a salubrious side effect — a discussion of how to thwart repeat offenders with serious alcohol problems. This may lead to interlock devices, stiffer sentencing and lengthy loss of driver’s license. But I’m not getting into it because, in spite of what the rules of thumb say about my size and tolerance, I know that I’m not at my best after even one drink, and won’t drive after two. I’ve tested this — years ago by going for a run after a drink, and nowadays by sitting down to type. There’s a clear difference in performance. But my conclusions and my arguments would be outliers, and like high and low gymnastic scores, discarded. So I’ll trust the experts on this one.

Then there’s the security-versus-privacy debate. I had thought that one pretty much over. Since the rise of international terrorism, surveillance of public places has proliferated to the point that, yesterday in Boston, the cab driver and I agreed that we were probably on camera during every minute of our trip from Copley Square, past the site of the bombing, to South Station. Considering what that surveillance accomplished only about six weeks ago, it was hard to resent it. But now comes information about the FBI’s monitoring of news reporters’ calls in an attempt to locate the source of leaks of “secret” information. Not to mention poor Private Manning, on trial and facing life imprisonment for sharing with Wikileaks the emails of very important people. You can understand the root of a certain amount of paranoia in the populace.

This comes into full flower when the folks who call themselves “law-abiding gun owners” (I think myself one, except for occasional speeding, but disdain to use the term) catch a whiff of smoke from the wigwams of the reasonable: those who’d like to see firmer regulation of the rapid-firing fantasy-inducing weapons favored by the irrational and homicidal among us. The discussion, such as it is, instantly degenerates into a “government weapons grab” tirade — as if their fellow citizens who disagree with them were unwitting tools of repression. There may indeed be some unwitting tools involved in this debate, but it’s not the parents of the martyred Newtown children.

The debates go on, simmering, droning and bubbling up everywhere — from the halls of Congress to the most vituperative blogs and websites imaginable. Personally, I love it! It’s a wonderful thing to live in a country where we can criticize security agencies without being ourselves “detained.” On the other hand, it’s vital for us to determine what’s really important; exercise and express critical thinking on those subjects; always keep listening; and never denigrate the motives of others, as if we wouldn’t feel the same way they do if we were living in their shoes.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.