Anger is not patriotism

(The following is a reprint of a guest column in the Ogden Standard Examiner to be published the week of July 8.)

Everybody in America is angry these days. We’re mad the “gummit” is collecting all that metadata on our phone calls and emails. We’re mad at the IRS for giving some political groups extra scrutiny. We’re mad at Attorney General John Swallow and the weekly revelations about his past associations with persons of ill repute.

Not that we don’t have problems, but it seems as if anger is the new national sport. I wonder sometimes if we even care what we’re angry about. Put a little different twist on the above stories, and we might all be angry in the opposite direction. If we’d had another terrorist attack instead of Edward Snowden, we’d all be screaming about why wasn’t the government doing a better job collecting intelligence to prevent attacks (which is exactly what happened in 2001 and why the Patriot Act authorized the gathering of said metadata). Put a different spin on the IRS story, and we could all be yelling about wealthy political donors directing their minions in Washington to allow them to buy politicians with taxpayer-subsidized money.

I think many of us are confusing anger with patriotism; that somehow we’ve done our civic duty if we simply hate the government vehemently enough. I’m reminded of a quote from former Speaker Sam Rayburn: “A jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” One obvious factor leading to this environment is the strategy of one of America’s major political parties to be anti-government. Anger for these guys means success at the ballot box. A clever political strategy, but one that doesn’t fix anything.

Two facts are important here. One is that we live in a complex, interconnected world, where technology allows non-state actors to do significant damage to our homeland, and where commerce is increasingly global. Comfortable, idealistic, simplistic solutions won’t work. The second is that at the very moment our duties as American citizens became more complex, we’re increasingly canceling our newspaper subscriptions, neglecting proper civic education for ourselves and our children, refusing to listen to facts that conflict with our pre-conceived notions, and spending way too much time following Honey Boo-Boo and the Kardashians.

One would think Utahns would be examples for the nation in bucking this trend. After all, the leaders of the state’s predominant religion constantly admonish us to carefully and prayerfully study the issues and candidates and be involved in civic affairs. The facts, however, are discouraging. In about two decades, we’ve gone from being among the highest to one of the lowest in voter participation. And during that same period, many of us who do vote don’t put nearly enough effort into this important task.

An example here is illustrative. Last year I did a Facebook post about Weber County Attorney Dee Smith and his qualifications to become Utah’s Attorney General. An old acquaintance replied that he was angry at Obama. What that had to do with who should be Utah’s chief law enforcement officer or the price of rice in China, he didn’t say. Many are angry that the revelations about John Swallow didn’t come out before the election, but I believe Gov. Herbert’s frank assessment that he would have been elected anyway. In Utah, Republicans are simply assumed to be people of high moral character. No need to waste time actually checking into their character or qualifications. If Republican Party delegates say a professional political fund raiser and back-room dealer is more qualified than one of Utah’s most respected criminal prosecutors, why should a humble average citizen like me second-guess them?

What’s discouraging about sitting here writing this is the fact that those who need the message aren’t getting it. You are a newspaper reader. I’m preaching to the choir.

We often hear the phrase “we need to run government like a business”. Good idea! Those involved in problem-solving activities in private industry know the last thing in the world you want is anger. Looking for someone to blame is anathema. In industry, we look at problems as an opportunity to improve the system, and those efforts must be based on facts and data rather than ideology. Differing opinions and real teamwork is valued.

What to do? Next time someone starts spouting off, challenge them. Make them look at all sides of the argument. Ask what they would do, and be ready to point out the contradictions. You may lose some friends, but who knows? Actual thinking may break out.

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