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Politics (still) ain't beanbag: Justin Amash and the case for being brash

Congressman Justin Amash

Congressman Justin Amash

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…”

Noam Chomsky,The Common Good

“I ran for office to stop people like you.

“You owe my family and this community an apology for your disgusting, despicable smear campaign. You had the audacity to try and call me today after running a campaign that was called the nastiest in the country.”

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Grand Rapids, to primary challenger Brian Ellis, after besting him on Tuesday night.

In a campaign season where Congressman Justin Amash’s primary election challenger Brian Ellis claimed that Amash, who is Arab-American, was “Al Qaeda’s best friend,” it was Amash’s victory speech that drew penalty flags for unnecessary roughness.

And the reaction indicates that we shouldn’t listen to a word Baby Boomers, the generation that flunked American politics, have to say about it.

The same people who brought us a 40-year-long culture war have pilloried Amash for being unstatesmanlike and petulant, when the script called for him to smile big for the cameras and feign reconciliation with his opponent.

The reaction to Amash has revealed an older generation that seems to think that what matters in politics is not the stuff negotiated in smoke-free rooms, written in black letters and passed into law, but what is said publicly, with cameras rolling.

Sure, our elected officials in Congress can’t pass a budget, an update to the Civil Rights Act, or immigration reform, but to hear the Boomers tell it, what’s really holding us back is when politicians say mean things to people they just beat and will never have to work with in Congress.

This insistence on fake-nice is telling, coming from the generation that gave us high divorce rates while insisting that everybody smile nice for family photos. It doesn’t matter that Dad left Mom to turn his work wife into his real wife, just that the split-second recorded on film and sent out to grandma and the cousins shows everybody smiling wide. One big, unhappy family.

The reaction to Amash’s speech reminds me of the reaction to Richard Sherman’s braggadocio after deflecting a pass that led to a game-winning interception for teammate Malcolm Smith in this year’s NFC Championship game.

Sherman’s post-game interview with Erin Andrews, which is better viewed than explained, was unsportsmanlike, they said. Some went as far as to call Sherman a thug, which I’m told had nothing at all to do with his tattoos and dreadlocks. (For all the indignities tossed Amash’s way since Tuesday night, shockingly, no one I’ve seen has busted out the t-word. I wonder why.)

Bashing each others’ heads in on the football field, in life-and career-shortening ways? Well, that’s what the job requires. Telling your opponent that he got his head bashed in? Well, that’s just not classy. And we can’t have that.

That’s why Sherman, who is a model citizen off the field, an All Pro on it, and a role model for kids who grew up in tough circumstances like he did, was voted No. 7 on Sports Illustrated’s most-hated athletes list. I wonder why.

We deserve the debates that politicians like Amash can force, such as what level of warrantless wiretapping of its own citizens our government should be able to get away with.

The reactions to Amash and Sherman reveal the extent to which Baby Boomers, the generation that invented the Participation Trophy, insist on mediocrity. Being excellent and telling the world you’re excellent is bad. Being average (or below) but never speaking in a loud voice is OK.

We can heed their sensibilities at our own peril.

Those on the political right who don’t like Amash take issue because he often steps outside that “acceptable opinion” spectrum Chomsky referred to.

If we all understood that the real boogeyman in our closets has a U.S. government security clearance, and isn’t headquartered in Moscow, Tehran or Pyongyang — distractions at best —  we just might start asking questions and scrutinizing the people we send to Washington to protect our interests. We might be less keen to pass bloated defense budgets each year. Maybe our defense budget would only outspend the next 6 countries (combined) rather than the next 8. (Yes. Including China.)

But you can’t say that, or they’ll call you Al Qaeda’s best friend, in the hopes that the people barely listening remember it on Election Day.

Justin Amash can continue speaking his mind and earn the respect of the Millenial generation that’s just starting to buy homes and plant roots and care about Washington politics.

Even those like me, who have no use for Amash’s politics, will appreciate the authenticity behind them  and wish we had a fighter on our side with that same fighting spirit. Amash represents his viewpoint well, and in a transparent fashion, explaining the logic behind each vote on his Facebook page. All politicians should.

Or he can worry about what the 50-and-up crowd thinks — a group that just tried its damndest to take Amash’s seat and couldn’t do it. Amash went out of his way to call out former Congressman, now-lobbyist and Ellis backer Pete Hoekstra for being a “disgrace” and argued that Ellis’s defeat pushed ol’ Pete closer to irrelevance.

It did. But the same is true of Amash’s critics in the media, who can quote chapter and verse of what Amash supposedly did wrong, but would be hard-pressed to point out the politicians who do it right, both in form and function.

Amash can continue on as a vigorous advocate for the constituents who have given him a mandate, or he can join the go-along and get-along crowd that steered America into the rocks. A crowd that can never seem to go-along or get-along well enough to do things that benefit 300 million Americans generally, but is excellent at protecting the narrow interests of Wall Street and the security state.

Fortunately, he seems to have made his decision, and doesn’t seem too interested in getting along.

To extend the Amash-Sherman analogy, if Amash’s rhetoric helps make politics more like sports, in terms of being competitive, interesting and inclusive — rather than boring, remote, and exclusive, the way it is now — that would be great for voters and taxpayers. It would be horrible for politicians whose ideological consistency and effectiveness can only be believed by people who aren’t really paying attention, but know enough to don a red or blue campaign pin when the time comes.

More than Amash’s “unstatesmanlike” demeanor, the idea that it may attract people to politics is what the greyhairs who run this country fear most.

And we can’t have that.