City of Madison

Former City of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's Blog

Consider This

March 26, 2009 5:29 PM

One of the most crisp answers given by President Obama at his news conference this week was in response to a question about why he waited two days before commenting on the AIG bonus scandal. "It was because I like to know what I'm talking about," the President said.

What a concept. Slow down. Get the facts. Think about them. Then have something intelligent to say.

Slow is in these days in everything but public discourse. It started with slow food. The idea was - in contrast to fast food - that people might enjoy slowing down, taking time to taste their meals, often making it themselves using local ingredients. Now the concept has spread to all kinds of slow things - even slow parenting. But the basic idea is the same: slow down, be considerate and deliberate and, as a result, enjoy higher quality.

It's a good idea. So, why doesn't it seem to apply to public debate? Actually, public discourse is going very rapidly in the other direction. Some of it has to do with the weakening of traditional news gathering, some of it with the obliteration of news cycles, and nearly all of it comes back to technology.

It is now possible to email to the masses, instantly text everyone, twitter away, comment immediately at the bottom of news stories on line and write blogs like this one. (Although technically I am told that this is not a blog because we don't have instant comments capability at the bottom of it.)

So, our voices can be heard more loudly and by more people then ever before. The question is are our comments worth hearing?

One thing I've noticed about email, online forums and those instant comments at the end of online news stories is their general orneriness. I think the technology has a lot to do with it. Electronic commentary combines two deadly things: speed and anonymity. It used to be that before you fired off that angry letter to the editor, you had to sit down and write it. Then find an envelope and a stamp. Then address the envelope. Then mail it, sometimes the next day after you'd had a chance to think about it and maybe reconsider. Now it's so simple. Hear or read something you don't like. Get angry. Fire something off. Hit send. And do it all without ever having to identify yourself.

I know how it is. I'm not above it. I often follow the same pattern. The only differences are that I can't be anonymous and I have editors. I rarely just fire something off without having my staff take a look at it. More then one really juicy blog has been spiked by the much smarter people around me. And sometimes I even have the good sense to edit myself, to set aside that spicy and brilliant tirade for a day before I hit send. I almost always come to my senses.

And the other day the President of the United States reinforced that instinct for editing, for a slowing of the public debate so that we might actually catch our breath and be less breathless about everything. It would be a good thing if we all listened to him.

Ok, I'm done. Now I'll hit send.


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