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Warthen: Brave new world of political discourse

ONCE, NOT so long ago, serious people decried the reduction and trivialization of political ideas to the level of a bumper sticker. Some days, I long for the coherence, the relevance, the completeness of bumper stickers.

Let’s knit together a few of the unraveled threads that have frayed my mind in the past week, shall we?

Thread One: A Colorado congressman who takes pride in his technological savvy claimed partial “credit” for the demise of a newspaper, saying, “Who killed the Rocky Mountain News? We’re all part of it, for better or worse, and I argue it’s mostly for the better.... The media is dead and long live the new media.”

Thread Two: Last week, I started working out again. I can’t read when I’m on the elliptical trainer because I bounce up and down too much, so I turn on the television. This gives me an extended exposure to 24/7 TV “news” and its peculiar obsessions, which I normally avoid like a pox. I hear far more than I want to about Rush Limbaugh, who wants the country’s leadership to fail, just to prove an ideological point. The president’s chief of staff dubs this contemptible entertainer the leader of the president’s opposition. Even more absurdly, the actual chief of the opposition party spends breath denying it — and then apologizes for doing so. See why I avoid this stuff?

Thread Three: Two of the most partisan Democrats in the S.C. Senate, John Land and Brad Hutto, introduce a mock resolution to apologize to Rush on behalf of South Carolina so that our state doesn’t “miss out on the fad that is sweeping the nation — to openly grovel before the out-spoken radio host.” The Republican majority spends little time dismissing the gag, but any time thus spent by anyone was time not spent figuring out how to keep essential state services going in this fiscal crisis.

Thread Four: At midday Thursday I post on my blog a few thoughts about the just-announced candidacy of U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett for governor, and invite readers to share what they think of the Upstate Republican. As of mid-afternoon Friday, there were nine comments on the subject, and three of them were from me. By the same time, there were 66 comments about the Rush Limbaugh flap.

Thread Five: A colleague brings to my attention a new Web site called SCTweets, where you can read spontaneous “Twitter” messages from such S.C. politicians as Anton Gunn, David Thomas, Bob Inglis, Nathan Ballentine and Thad Viers, with a number of S.C. bloggers thrown in. It’s the brainchild of S.C. Rep. Dan Hamilton and self-described GOP “political operative” Wesley Donehue (which would explain why Rep. Gunn is the only Democrat on the list I just cited). They see it as “a creative way to showcase SC’s tech-savvy elected officials.” It sounds like a neat idea, but when you go there and look at it... well, here’s a sample:

bobinglis Want a window into our campaign themes? Check out my recent letter at Join us if you can!

annephutto had a great lunch

AntonJGunn Having lunch with the Mayor of Elgin.

mattheusmei Prepare to have your mind blownaway #sctweets, simply amazing!!!

RobGodfrey Beautiful day in Columbia. #sctweets

thadviers just had lunch with little Joe at Jimmy Johns.

Perhaps this will be useful to someone, and I applaud Messrs. Hamilton and Donehue for the effort. But so far I haven’t figured out what Twitter adds to modern life that we didn’t already have with e-mail and blogs and text-messaging and, well, the 24/7 TV “news.” Remember how I complained in a recent column about how disorienting and unhelpful I find Facebook to be? Well, this was worse. I felt like I was trying to get nutrition from a bowl of Lucky Charms mixed with Cracker Jack topped with Pop Rocks, stirred with a Slim Jim.

Thread Six: Being reminded of Facebook, I checked my home page, and found that a friend I worked with a quarter-century ago was exhorting me to:

* Grab the book nearest you. Right now.

* Turn to page 56.

* Find the fifth sentence.

* Post that sentence along with these instructions in a note to your wall.

I followed his instructions. The book nearest to my laptop was the literally dog-eared (chewed by a dog that died three decades ago) paperback Byline: Ernest Hemingway. Here’s the fifth sentence on page 56:

“He smiled like a school girl, shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands to his face in a mock gesture of shame.”

Not much without context, but you know what? I got more out of that than I got out of that Twitter page. At least I formed a clear, coherent picture of something.

I just remembered that I said I would knit these threads together. OK, here goes:

It occurs to me that Twitter and Facebook are the bright new world that the Colorado congressman who claims credit for killing The Rocky Mountain News extolled. In this world, political discourse consists of partisans prattling about talk show hosts and elected officials casting spontaneous sentence fragments into the dusty, arid public square.

I was going to write a column for today about Congressman Barrett’s candidacy for governor. As I mentioned a couple of weeks back when I wrote about Sen. Vincent Sheheen entering the race, I’m trying to get an early start on writing as much as possible about that critical decision coming up in 2010, in the hope that if we think about it and talk about it enough, we the people can make a better decision than we have the past few elections.

But I got distracted.

I’ll get with Rep. Barrett soon; I promise. And I’ll try to write about it in complete sentences, for those of you who have not yet adjusted.

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