Column: Undercurrents: More Thought and Civility Needed in Public Debate By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday December 09, 2005

Abraham Lincoln being my favorite U.S. president, I often follow his advice on unconstructive criticism: “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business.” But two types of criticisms get my immediate attention. One is if someone accuses me of a factual error—my opinions are my opinions, but they ought to be based on the correct facts. The second is if I get called out of my name, which I do not appreciate. 

(For the uninitiated, “called out of your name” is an African-American/Southern saying meaning someone using a derogatory term to identify you, rather than the name you actually carry.) 

Recently a reader, someone identifying himself as Ryan Tate, managed to do both—accuse me of factual error and call me out of my name—in a short amount of words, so he has my attention. 

In response to the Dec. 2 column “The Problem Behind Oakland’s Liquor Store Problem,” Mr. Tate writes the Daily Planet editors in an e-mail: “Could you please forward the following [newspaper article link] to J. Douglas Allen-Taylor. It details how the City of Oakland’s Neighborhood Law Corps has shut down five liquor stores in the past two years. … His statement about ‘benign neglect’ is willfully ignorant and totally inexcusable. If his goal is to attack Jerry Brown, I’m sure there are plenty of true facts he can dig up to do so—there is no need to make up lies.” 

The link referred to a Dec. 1 Jim Herron Zamora San Francisco Chronicle article “Oakland—Handling Liquor Stores Already On The Agenda.” 

I am going to give Mr. Tate the presumption of laziness rather than deliberate misrepresentation, presuming that he simply failed to either completely read or fully comprehend what he was reading in either the Jim Herron Zamora article or my column. 

First, the facts. 

In his Chronicle article, Mr. Zamora wrote, “In the mid-1990s, Oakland adopted a series of ordinances allowing the city to place restrictive conditions on liquor stores and bars... That effort became reality when the Oakland city attorney started the Neighborhood Law Corps in 2002, which placed individual attorneys out in different parts of the city to deal with community complaints. … The law corps published a guide, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” which rates the city’s liquor stores.” Mr. Zamora went on to say that “the city, working with religious leaders, also prodded dozens of liquor store owners to sign a pledge” to take certain actions to mitigate the negative effects of liquor sales in their communities. 

Tell me when you get to the part in the article that outlines Mr. Brown’s role in helping to solve the problem. In fact, nowhere does the Zamora article even mention Jerry Brown. 

In my “Liquor Store Problem” column, I accused Mr. Brown of “benign neglect” over Oakland’s liquor store problem, pretty much ignoring it over the years he has been mayor, but jumping into the mix with a newspaper quotation now that it has become a hot law enforcement issue in the city (and Mr. Brown is running for the top law enforcement position in the state). In the same column, however, I also mentioned City Attorney John Russo’s work with regulating Oakland’s liquor stores, quoted (favorably) from the Neighborhood Law Corps “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” report that was talked about in the Zamora Chronicle article which Mr. Tate asked me to read, and added that “thanks to the actions of a coalition of community activists and receptive public officials, there is a moratorium on new liquor licenses in Alameda County.” 

The column, then, appears to me to be fair, giving credit to those Oakland officials who have been working on Oakland’s problem liquor store problem, and chastising Mr. Brown for not. If Mr. Tate—or Mr. Brown, or anyone from Mr. Brown’s office, or anyone else—has some information that Mr. Brown has actually been working on solving the liquor store problem, then please pass it along. As I’ve said, I haven’t seen any evidence of it. 

But what disturbs me is not so much Mr. Tate’s misstating of the facts to make his point, but his decision to call me a liar in the process. This sort of name-calling-from-afar is starting to develop into a bit of a trend. A couple of weeks ago, the Daily Planet published a letter from reader Page McKane, who began by saying, “To J. Douglas Allen-Taylor: You would actually be funny, if only you weren’t so stupid” (concerning a recent column on redistricting). 

As Ned on the corner used to say, “No, folks, you don’t know me well enough to call me that.” 

We are traveling through a bottom land in American political “dialogue” where shouting and name-calling has replaced research and debate as the tools of choice. 

Although I never realized his value during the days when he was the pre-eminent political moderator in the country, I now long for the return of the type of political discussion that used to be carried out by conservative intellectual activist William F. Buckley. Mr. Buckley gave his opponents all the time they needed to make their points—uninterrupted—and then he would slowly and methodically dice their arguments up, smiling that wicked grin all the while, never resorting to personal attack. Convinced that he was the smartest person on his television show set, as well as convinced his positions were correct, putting in the hard work needed to fully research the issue (including what his opponents actually said in total, rather than just skimming over the surface), Mr. Buckley believed that in a fair, civil debate he would always win. 

Today, that sort of civil discourse has long dissolved in that sort of snarling, snapping, mean-spirited personal attacks that we see so often on such outlets as the various Fox News shows, where the person who “wins” the debate is the one who can outshout his opponent. It is a world dominated by people like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Anne Coulter. (Shouted down at a University of Connecticut speech this week, Coulter decided to engage in a question-and-answer session instead, saying that “I love to engage in repartee with people who are stupider than I am.” “Stupid” seems to be one of the put-down word of choice, these days, among people who you disagree with.) This is a world where too many people tend to read the first paragraph of a column or paper or statement—decide that they are against it—and are already deep into their “scathing” replies before they have taken the time to come to the end of the original entry. This is a world where the Jerry Springer show has become the model for our political dialogue, where the mob mentality rules. It is not the kind of world I want to live in. It is not the kind of political debates I want to have. 

And so, a long time ago, I decided that in these columns, even though I disagreed with someone, I would not call them out of their names. In these columns, I have often criticized the mayor of Oakland, the state Senate president pro tem, the California governor, and the president of the United States, and criticized them sharply. But as far as I can remember (and let me know if I’ve done otherwise), I’ve never called these individuals anything but Mr. Brown, Mr. Perata, Mr. Schwarzenegger, or Mr. Bush. No derogatory nicknames. No snickering disrespect. Given names or titles, one or the other—nothing more. After that, of course, you are free to wail away at their views or their actions, to the best of your beliefs, and to your heart’s content. 

I ask only the same thing, in return. d