Point of View

Heaps of hyperbole drowning honest political discourse

July 21, 2013 

I recently had the misfortune of reviewing the General Assembly debates on our new abortion bills. I don’t recommend the reading.

Apparently the consideration of Shariah law, in the Senate, and motorcycle safety, in the House, triggered energetic concern over expansive reproductive rights. Anxious to keep pace with Rick Perry’s troopers in Texas, both houses approved a list of measures whose only common theme was making it tougher for women to secure abortions.

In a general sense, that’s unsurprising. We’re engaged in a breathless competition to produce the most extreme government in America. No doubt we’re gaining ground. By the end of next year’s short session, we should have, at long last, become the cultural and political capital of the confederacy.

What did surprise me, though, was the warm solicitude expressed for the health and medical well-being of women seeking to terminate pregnancies. Folks who had previously offered only rebuke and condemnation to those choosing abortion apparently discovered a new and heartfelt embrace of safe haven for the exercise of reproductive rights.

Either by mandate, or by delegation to administrators, the bills would require abortion clinics to meet various standards demanded for ambulatory surgical centers. The moves would massively increase the cost of operating such facilities, without medical purpose. Widened hallways, entrance awnings, sophisticated ventilation systems, surgical sinks, varied kinds of paint, drywall and the like may not be easily linked to patient health. But the new rules will manage to close a lot of already-scarce abortion facilities.

Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) explained, with only modest embarrassment, “Everyone in here is interested in protecting patient safety and women’s health care … that’s our primary concern.”

Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) assured “this whole bill is about making (abortion) safer for women.” Her colleague, Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Burke), confirmed the provision “is about safety” first to last: “If we require burdensome regulations on orthopedic offices and they can compete in the marketplace, abortion providers can, too.”

The recording was replayed in the House. Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer (R-Mecklenburg) explained, “The state has an important interest in promoting the health and safety of women who receive an abortion.” Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R-Mecklenburg) upped the ante: “We’re not going to wait until women die in abortion clinics before we raise standards.” Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mt. Airy) dismissed the widely shared skepticism. “Don’t tell me it’s not about health and safety – that’s exactly what it’s about. ... I’m sorry if you don’t believe it, but that’s the truth.”

I’m not unalterably opposed to exaggeration. You can’t believe Samuel Clemens is the greatest American writer without a healthy affection for hyperbole. And, God knows, politicians of all stripes imbibe.

But the idea that it’s OK in political discourse to say things that are patently and irrefutably untrue and simply repeat them over and over, like an impenetrable mantra, is taking unworthy hold in North Carolina. For a crew that so overtly carries religion on its sleeve, the practice comes perilously close to bearing false witness.

Contrary to all ascertainable research, our legislative leaders explain, stringent new voter identification requirements are essential to ensure the integrity of our system. Sen. Buck Newton (R-Wilson), in response to studies showing thousands will be effectively disenfranchised, said tougher rules are “not about suppressing the vote, they’re about making sure our elections are legal and valid.” Berger added, oddly, that requiring voters to show a photo ID will “boost confidence and increase participation at the polls.” Close your eyes and repeat: “Increase participation at the polls.”

Taking away already-allocated unemployment compensation, Rep. Julia Howard (R-Davie) declared, will actually help beleaguered families unceremoniously kicked off the roles. If the $300-400 weekly benefit is eliminated, they’ll “take a job and get back in the market.”

Never mind that we have the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country and more than three unemployed for every job opening. Take it on faith. Howard did.

Sen. Bob Rucho similarly concluded the state’s 1.7 million poor people would fare better under potent benefit cuts and increased sales taxes. Things aren’t going well now. Why not try taxing them more? Say what?

Deliberative democracy assumes at least a modest commitment to open discourse. I’m not sure it can work if even the speechmaker doesn’t believe what he’s saying.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor

at UNC’s School of Law.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service