Separating wheat from chaff in public dialogue
“Charge and warn never offer a concrete solution.” — Franz Josef Strauss
“Jim, did you hear any solutions in all of that?” my companion asked after lunch at the summer meeting of the Colorado Water Congress Thursday in Steamboat Springs.
“Not one,” I replied.
We’d just finished listening to one of those guys who makes a career in these times out of stepping off a brightly decorated bus several times a day in communities across our country to throw a little red meat into an assembled group of folks who are mostly of the same mind about some issue or another. You’ve seen or heard of them here in Grand Junction, touting beliefs about what’s wrong with America that are usually formulated by particular special interest groups sponsoring their tours.
It was an interesting post-luncheon conversation I was lucky enough to have with one of Colorado’s longtime public leaders.
I’ve known Don Ament for years, as we’ve each engaged in various public efforts in and out of elected office. He’s a lifelong Coloradan with an enviable record of service of doing the hard work of seeking solutions and solving problems, rather than merely whining about them.
Ament is a northeastern Colorado farmer who served 14 years on his local school board and, for part of that time, as president of the Colorado Association of School Boards. He’s chaired the state board of education and served 12 years in the Colorado Legislature. He retired in 2007 after eight years as commissioner of agriculture in the administration of former Gov. Bill Owens but remains engaged on water and other issues.
We’re of different political parties, but our thoughts about what we’d just heard were remarkably similar, mostly disappointment in the treatment of an important topic.
Unlike Ament, our luncheon speaker wasn’t well-known. I went through the first 12 pages of Mike McKennas on Google, finding car dealers, hockey players, musicians, snowboard makers, auto racers and others, but nary a mention of our speaker. Turns out he’s an energy lobbyist for fossil fuel companies, and his firm, MWR Strategies, spends its time opposing the policies of the current administration in Washington.
So, maybe he might have been a fit as a speaker as the Colorado Water Congress joined with energy organizations to examine the many links between our water supplies and both the supply and demand side of energy production in Colorado. Those are important issues that deserve the serious consideration given them in other sessions at the meeting.
McKenna, we learned from the introduction to his presentation, was taking a break from one of those bus tours just to grace us with his presence. His audience would have been better informed had he remained on the bus and spared us his remarks, half stand-up comedy and half a recitation of real and/or imagined wrongs sprinkled with abundant references to his home state of Virginia and a few Thomas Jefferson quotes. In total, his talk was exceedingly negative; he ignored any mention of solutions, including when asked by his audience.
Certainly McKenna has every right to speak his mind and/or relate the feelings of his fossil fuel clients. The Colorado Water Congress can and should schedule speakers the group feels can inform members about important issues. There’s no requirement that meeting presentations be balanced or even informative.
But, before the whining about criticism of his presentation comes, let’s remember that freedom of speech doesn’t include freedom from criticism of what we say. That’s something folks on all sides of the political spectrum would do well to remember these days.
What Don Ament and I were able to agree on, despite our different political affiliations, is that little good comes from the sort of rhetoric we’d just heard. Opinions are fine, but serve best if they’re accompanied by factual information and some suggestion of solutions to whatever problem is being discussed.
What’s wrong with much of what we hear these days in political and policy discussions is that it’s mostly criticism, occasionally wellgrounded but often baseless when exposed to critical examination. It’s rhetoric designed to “fire up the base,” not to provide any basis for rational problem solving. In many cases, fundraising is the desired result, not any solution.
We’ll all be prisoners of that, on all sides of any argument, unless we demand something better.