Wednesday, January 24, 2007

COLUMN -- Catcalls And Conversation: Seizing opportunities to amplify principles and re-evaluate positions

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:50 AM |  

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"After reading yet another pro-smoker rant from Craig Westover, I'm beginning to think that he is nothing but a paid spokesman for the tobacco industry … Is that the case, Mr. Westover?" — Letter to the editor

Criticism is part of the game for a columnist, hobby or otherwise. Criticism that flips the switch on an unconsidered point of view or opens up a new line of argument is more than welcome — it is appreciated. Insightful criticism forces one of two things to happen. Each is a good thing.

• One might reject the new line of thinking, but to do so, one must examine his position in light of the new argument. That gives additional credence to one's conviction.

• One might see value in the new insight and consequently modify or even reverse his position. That makes one's new position more rational than his previous stance.

Then there is criticism like the letter to the editor quoted above. The temptation is to simply treat it as an irritant and ignore it. A more productive tack, however, is to regard it as an opportunity to amplify a principle.

For the record: I am not a paid spokesman for anyone. In fact, I'm a nonsmoker who never was a smoker. But neither fact lends moral authority to any argument I make about the wrongheadedness of a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants.

The letter writer fails to grasp that when advocating public policy, principle matters more than personal likes, dislikes or even who pays the bills (or casts the votes). In the case of smoking bans, the principle is that in a free society sometimes one has to support the right of individuals to do things he might personally find annoying, morally reprehensible or even stupid and self-destructive. Smoking may be all three, but that alone doesn't justify trumping private property rights and individual choice.

One can legitimately argue (with evidence) against my conclusion that there is little effective danger from secondhand smoke but not by implying some connection to "Big Tobacco." Even if I were a paid lobbyist, while that might raise questions about facts on which I premise my argument, it doesn't alter the validity or lack of credence in my arguments. Ultimately, a policy must stand on its own merits, regardless of who proposes it or what his ultimate motives might be.

Consider another criticism posted on a local Web site following news reports that Minnesota public schools rank among the best in the nation:

"The bad news keeps rolling in for (Westover)… It must be dismaying to have public school excellence, especially in Minnesota, continually rubbed in (his) pinched, sour face."

Another irritant, but the comment is also another opportunity to illuminate principle.

The writer assumes that supporting one position necessarily means hoping contrasting policies fail. He assumes that supporting parental school choice and education vouchers necessarily means regarding any public school success as a bad thing. Not the case — the argument for more parental choice ultimately stands or falls on its own merits regardless of public education's success or failure.

The writer fails to consider that the more choice a system provides, the more opportunity for positive innovation. Conversely, the more monopolistic a system, the less innovative it becomes. When a monopoly innovates, it runs the all-eggs-in-one-basket risk — a single errant innovation negatively affects every student. In a diverse education system, an individual school failure has limited effect; an individual school success can be readily emulated.

I sincerely hope for the success of public schools, but as a monopoly system, public education is nonetheless a couple of bad decisions away from disaster. Choice mitigates that risk and enhances the opportunity for difference-making innovation.

Fortunately, not all critics resort to the personal.

My column last week critically reviewed Stillwater author Tony Signorelli's book, "A Call to Liberty." Mr. Signorelli, whose book forced me to re-evaluate some of my thinking, wrote in response:

"Your article is precisely the kind of thing I would like to see engendered in more of the political dialogue. … Diversity of opinion, does, in fact, make us stronger, more thoughtful and more creative in finding solutions. …. Never once do I feel personally attacked, demonized or diminished by your piece. The point is that we can actually change the nature of the dialogue … with thoughtful pieces … and less with the bitter letters and other disenfranchising work submitted by so many writers today."

Amen, Mr. Signorelli.