By Erin Glanville
Tom Perkinsí Letter & Civil DiscourseUploaded: Feb 5, 2014
Local venture capitalist Tom Perkins' letter to The Wall Street Journal two weeks ago, in which he compared the growing hostility towards the wealthy to the plight of Jews under fascist Nazi Germany, has generated a lot of controversy. I think he had a valid concern about attacking people personally for their economic status. Unfortunately, his choice of analogy is what made the headlines, and his ultimate message got lost in the ensuing noise.
The title of my blog is Civil Civics. That is not an accident. When first working with The Almanac editors to nail down the scope of what this online "column" would be about, I came up with the name because I wanted to remind myself, as much as readers, that public debate is healthiest when it has an air of mutual respect and fairness. On any given topic, you may not agree with me, but I hope you will keep an open mind. I know I am far from perfect. I admit that I have a snarky side that may rear its head in, say, a certain "bullet train" article. But even when dealing with subjects involving elected officials or City employees, I try to address the issue, not the person, as much as possible. Whether or not I'm successful is up to you.
The trouble with using certain labels or analogies is that it stops conversation dead in its tracks. When you use an analogy to the holocaust or to the Nazi party, emotions ratchet up and understanding and dialogue cease. To me, it also dampens the true horror of genocide from that chapter of history.
It happens on both sides of the political spectrum. I recently had a conversation with someone who is a leader in his local Tea Party movement. I was curious about the issue of "name calling" vs. dialogue. He recounted a recent story in which he was at his local gym, and overheard another man speaking very loudly about how "racist" the Tea Party was. This Tea Party member approached the man and, very politely, introduced himself and explained that he had helped to organize the local chapter. He offered to talk to the man about some of his concerns about smaller government and fiscal conservatism. The other man wanted no part of it, but instead shouted to the other gym goers nearby: "hey everyone, can you believe this racist wants to talk to me?"
What a missed opportunity for conversation and understanding. Here you had someone actually involved in putting together a local political group who wanted to explain his policy opinions, and the other party couldn't get past name calling. (Again, I know it happens in the reverse with terms like "communist" and "socialist".) You don't have to agree, but listen. Or don't engage but don't name call. If you read the above sentence about what the Tea Party member stated about his beliefs and scoffed, have you ever talked to someone involved with that political movement? I always find it fascinating to go directly to the source because my pre-conceived notions based on the "noise" are so often off track. I'm usually pretty humbled.
I don't know for certain what was in Mr. Perkins' heart, but I believe he is truly concerned that there is a growing trend of vilification of successful people. I think there is truth in that statement, and vilification of any group of peoplerich or poor, male or female, blue or orange, is wrong. Mr. Perkins obviously feels personally passionate about it, and I can infer from his reference to Danielle Steel, who he was married to from 1998 to 2002, that he is aware of the emotional toll that personal attacks have. I respect him for wanting to stand up for someone close to hima loved one he has watched be personally-- and publicly -- attacked. Having money doesn't protect your heart from that.