Notes and Perspectives from Away: Talking Points

By Tom Lamia

IT’S ICE FISHING SEASON: Patrick is pictured above digging his Shiner Trap from the author’s frozen pond in Maine. Photo by Tom Lamia.

It’s been cold here in Maine, with overnight temperatures below zero. The pond behind my house has developed a thick layer of ice. It is ice fishing season, a time for true Mainers to get out of the house and enjoy food, drink, and good stories with friends while sitting in a shelter skidded onto lake ice. To make the experience credible and verifiable, fish must be caught. For that, bait is needed, preferably live bait.

‘Shiners’ are the live bait of choice. They can be farmed in small ponds and harvested in traps inserted through a hole chiseled in the pond ice. Forty years ago, we gave permission to an old friend, Raymond, to stock our pond with shiners. That friend is now deceased but his grandson, Patrick, continues to trap the shiners.

A few days ago, a stranger came to the door, introduced himself as Mark, and said he was Raymond’s grandson. “Would it be all right with you,” Mark asked, “if I put my trap in the pond?” Well, Mark being another of Raymond’s grandsons was enough for me. It seemed only fair to agree.

I only realized 20 minutes later, when Patrick came to the door, that I should have pressed Mark for more detail. It turns out that Patrick is Raymond’s only grandson. Mark, he said, was ‘from away’ and no relation at all. I can’t blame myself entirely for having been taken in. In following politics, we’ve all gotten used to information that is just a little slippery and off-center.

Political talk has lost its bearings. The voters, seeking to understand the issues, must do so through a veil of ‘talking points’ crafted by party leaders and passed on to office holders and candidates. By the time it gets to the voter, the message has been diluted and disinfected. An Occam’s Razor effect has prevailed—a reduction of the message to its simplest form.

At every level of politics, these talking points are used to avoid the embarrassment of inconsistent views among party members, and ensure that the least skillful advocates have something to say, however superficial or imprecise. Whatever the context—media questions, town halls, debates, talk shows, editorial sit-downs—talking points are massaged and made to fit the moment.

Talking points work because message discipline in the often wild swings of campaigns works. Without it, the media air would be full of individual opinions, nuanced analyses, and justifications. For the voter, this would be welcome substance, but for the party, it portends message chaos.

The maintenance of our democracy is receding into a struggle to flesh out what our elected representatives really think. Talking points have won out, not because they get at the truth, but because they are good for party discipline and get legislative majorities elected.

Because they are simple, talking points are also by necessity general. Gaps are filled by imprecise, vague, often inaccurate stuff to stay within the talking points. The bullshit, white lies, and calculated omissions that result are considered acceptable as justified by the pursuit of a noble cause.

Of course, in the shiner story, Mark was stretching the truth in a way familiar to me from my long-ago residency in Nigeria, where ‘my brother’ means someone in your extended family or tribe. In Maine, the concept of extended family includes all who are not ‘from away.’ Being ‘from away’ means one was not born, raised, and in continuous residence in a relevant geographic area. Mark is from away because he lives in Bremen, the next town over.

Yesterday, I saw Mark again. I mentioned the grandfather story and Patrick’s response. Mark was taken aback and seemed a little confused. “I meant like a grandson.” If he were not from away, that would be an acceptable response.

In politics, truth stretching may be similar. The opposition is outside the tribe, so a little manipulation is acceptable. We, the voters, need to set things right by demanding truth, depth, civility, and relevance from those who would govern us. We are neither from away nor outside the tribe.

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