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Don Rogers: Give the critics rein

Anyone in the public eye knows all about critics.

I’m with Teddy Roosevelt here: It’s not the critic who counts, but the person in the arena. The one who sheds the blood, risks mistakes, forges ahead, daring greatly. Oh yeah.

Still, gather enough critics and you have a peanut gallery, a crowd, a voting bloc, a movement, maybe a party. Criticism has value, even if those being criticized would like to say otherwise, even if it hurts.

Anyway, we all have ’em and we all need ’em, from the president on down to you and me. We are judged, period. Welcome to the human race, the social contract as birthright. No escape.

Our exceptional American government, at least the ideal, was founded on criticism and will sink and soar on criticism. Our ability to give it, and our ability to accept it.

We’re not earning particularly high marks on either these days, between the trolling and the whining about all the supposedly best people who would lead but instead cower because their critics aren’t always nice. Doesn’t sound like a hallmark of the best to me. Just saying.

I’m just saying as someone who serves both as critic and judged. My political views tend not to hew to the right or left but stray across both, whatever idea itself seems to make the most sense or where the actual evidence points.

Middle of the road gets run over from both sides, partisan friends quip. Like viruses, the truth hasn’t registered with one of these too-often ridiculous parties, I’m tempted to reply.

Tribed up as we are, where people can’t just be wrong about something, but evil for entertaining the wrong view, it feels a little dangerous to speak up, doesn’t it?

This is an illusion, though, at least in our country. In fact, we’ve never been safer saying what we really think. Need I go through the war times, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the American Revolution? The Vietnam era?

Even today’s protests, constitutionally protected criticism, are tame compared to yesterday’s riots. The antifa are nothing compared to the Weathermen, the tikki torch frat boys to the KKK, Portland to Tulsa or even Watts.

We’re more wired in and much more dramatic about everything. Certainly yesterday’s sins still echo in knees on necks, mistaking license to endanger others for liberty, trying to shout down people with ideas we don’t like. Hitting outrage over every little thing.

No one seems to be holding back.

BLEMISHED PEARLS

Craft matters in criticism, at least persuasive criticism. Let’s just say blurting “fake news!” ain’t it.

Going dogmatic is most common, even among the pros. I’m surprised how lame, frankly, I find this approach even in such august spaces as The New Yorker, the Hoover Institute, The National Review, never mind Fox, Mother Jones or Townhall. Even my new favorite, “Letters from an American,” by Heather Cox Richardson.

None of these pundits would let the other side up for even a breath. And for me, at least, each ultimately fails. So you need to take in the full range of commentary, each with a liberal amount of skepticism.

Criticism is not news, fake or otherwise. It’s not supposed to be “objective,” one of those impossible ideals mainly conservative old goats like to imagine once existed in a mythical golden age, generally the ‘50s, an era we’re to believe was captured entirely in “Leave it to Beaver.” Pure white, women happily in their place, no freaks like a Ginsberg or a Kerouac or a Snyder to mess things up.

There are a few who engage more with ideas and consider the other side’s notions even if they wind up rejecting those: commentators like David Brooks, George Will, Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan; Thomas Friedman, E.J. Dionne, Fareed Zakaria, Cokie Roberts (RIP).

And lots of comedians, perhaps society’s sharpest thinkers: John Oliver, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, especially as Sarah Palin. There’s a rich historic legacy going back to Will Rogers and Mark Twain. Not fair, precisely, but they certainly could make people think. And that would be the point.

CLARITY

Here’s the key to giving and taking criticism: Do both with humility. Say what you think, certainly. Just understand you might well be wrong.

The bane of our age is the ego. We can read it in comments, see it in the streets, dear lord hear it in conversation. I’m right and yer wrong or more often now, they’re wrong since we don’t actually talk to them, and that’s that. They’re not only wrong, but morons, mental midgets, with defective morals to boot, demons for leaders.

So of course this must make us good, right, always. The stories we tell ourselves, almost entirely fiction.

I believe we need our critics. Not to let their judgments cripple us or to ignore as we puff up in our righteousness, but to see those motes the Bible talks about. Oh yeah, they’re there.

I’m with Teddy in forging ahead, daring greatly. But those often annoying critics, well, they can help us see better.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at drogers@sierrasun.com or 530-477-4299.


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