Convention speeches deliver politics for dummies.
Remember those math problems where you had to simplify a fraction or an algebraic expression?
Students learn that simplification is a useful tool, but if you go too far, you wind up with an incorrect answer. That’s true outside math class, too.
Oversimplification happens a lot during political campaigns. It’s intentional, and not surprising, but it still annoys me.
Convention speeches are particularly likely to be overdone. I probably shouldn’t watch them, but I do.
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Last week it was the Republicans, and this week it will be the Democrats. The Republicans tend to be better at stripping their messages down to a few words that catch people in their guts.
Mitt Romney, in his acceptance speech, said President Obama promised to heal the planet, but all Romney wants to do is help you and your family. It was a good line, though I kind of think the planet does need a little attention.
By that time in the speech I was feeling left out, like it isn’t my family he wants to help.
Romney went through the standard bipartisan message about America being a country of immigrants who came to find freedom and build a better future for their children.
The camera was panning around the convention hall and I could see that most of the folks there could find a piece of their family story in what he said.
That story captured a lot of what it is to be an American, but it also left out important parts of who we are, too.
I suppose you could say the ancestors of American Indians came to the continent looking for a better life, but not exactly in the United States, since it didn’t exist when they got here.
Their presence complicates the simple story of folks who arrive here and thrive with apparently no negative consequences. Political speeches generally leave them out, and often many other Americans, too.
Naturally I noticed the absence in the speech (and scarcity in the convention crowd) of another group of Americans who didn’t come looking for freedom, and certainly didn’t find it waiting on shore.
Yet, Romney even emphasized the part about America being from the very beginning all about freedom and equality for everyone.
I don’t expect a convention speech to get down to the complex details of our history. Some simplifying serves the interests of brevity, which is a blessing when it comes to most speeches.
I also get that the speech needs to be upbeat, but even that doesn’t require stripping out whole chunks of reality.
Romney even left out part of his own family’s story. He praised America’s early commitment to religious freedom but didn’t mention his ancestors left for Mexico so that they could practice their religion in peace. He did mention that his father was born in Mexico and came to the United States with his parents when the Mexican Revolution made it dangerous to remain there.
Romney talked about Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon and said that, like all Americans, he went to sleep after the landing knowing America was the greatest country in the world.
That was in 1969, and while the landing was an awe-inspiring event, it wasn’t the only thing on the minds of Americans.
We were still in Vietnam. And many of our cities were in distress. Romney mentioned growing up in Detroit but apparently was unaware of all that was happening around him, or even of who was around him. Or maybe he has forgotten.
I don’t think America’s history needs censoring to be upbeat.
How about saying part of our legacy is that the society is always dynamic, always trying to be better? It simplifies things, too, but not too far. I could live with that, and I think we could progress with that idea.
Of course maybe that’s not what his target audience wants. Progressing is work, and its meaning is contentious. The idea of returning to Nirvana is comforting. I expect President Obama will also feel the urge to paint our past in pastels.
I don’t fault politicians entirely. If we understood our own histories better they might not feel compelled to offer us nibbles of candy instead of something more substantive.
But I do blame them entirely when they move from omission to outright lies, not just about the past, but about the present, too.
Analysts across the political spectrum have commented on the tangle of distortions that comprised Paul Ryan’s speech accepting the nomination for vice president.
Airing and debating different perspectives is an essential part of crafting solutions to the challenges the nation faces. Intentional fabrication prevents healthy debate.
There is no excuse for that. And there is no way policy based on lies can add up to good governance.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday.
Reach him at 206-464-3346
or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @jerrylarge.