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David Weinberger

David Weinberger

Posted: April 21, 2007 03:33 PM

Zero Tolerance for Humans


John McCain singing "Bomb bomb bomb, Iran" to the tune of "Barbara Ann" wasn't even exactly a joke. He was clarifying a question from the audience that used euphemisms and circumlocutions to urge him to bomb Iran. Being famously quirky and ready to blurt out what he thinks, McCain not only said the words that the questioner had been afraid to utter, he turned them into a refrain.

A great moment in politics? A terrific witticism? A graceful Kennedy-esque use of humor? Nah. But in seizing on it, progressives are doing more harm than McCain's little ditty could have done even if we take it at its worst. We are dragging the process down, legitimizing the tactic, debasing understanding, and driving nuance out of the system. Frankly, taking McCain down a peg just isn't worth it.

In fact, by shoving McCain's face into this particular pie, we make it just a little harder -- a little -- for our world to live in peace.

The Republicans have played the gotcha game with consummate skill. It's almost admirable, the way you might tell a thug, "Wow, that guy never saw your sucker punch coming." From Muskie crying (oh the shame!), to Dukakis' imitation of Snoopy riding in a tank, to Kerry botching a joke about Bush's military non-service -- oh, wait, we did that one to ourselves -- the Republicans have excelled in freezing the frame on the moment that makes Democrats look worst.

But the ground is shifting. The Internet is going to expose every human moment, every foible, every "gaffe," providing instant opposition research. Either we turn every nose pick into a reason to disqualify or we instead decide that until the Messiah finally shows up, we're going to just have to make do electing imperfect humans as leaders.

So, MoveOn.org can decide to make political hay out of McCain's gaffe, but we all pay a price for it. We legitimize taking moments out of context and seizing upon the least sympathetic interpretation. We tell politicians that they'd better stay on message 24/7 and never stick their arms outside their cage. We exult in a smarmy self-congratulations as if none of our moments would make us look bad if posted to YouTube.

Each of these are exactly contrary to how we need to act as humans if we are to live together in peace. Understanding, sympathy, context, nuance, openness, humility...That's what we progressives should be modeling. That's how peace begins. Let's declare unilateral disarmament in this particular arms race. Let's preemptively forgive one another for the sin of being human.

The good news is that the pervasiveness of the Internet may well force us to give up on our Zero Tolerance for Humans policy. When every human moment of every politician is exposed, we will have no choice but to accept that gaffes are the natural human state. We'll know that the rules have changed for the better when the most damaging YouTubes are the ones that catch politicians trying to appear more than human.

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