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The more attention an issue gets, the less it really matters

January 13, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

I'm trying to find symbolism in the fact that Washington County's one great issue going into the 2008 legislative session is a light bulb.

True, Allegheny Energy may have set the environmental movement back 10 years by trying to force energy efficient light bulbs down people's lamps, and lawmakers Kevin Kelly and Chris Shank are correct to see that this kind of subterfuge doesn't happen again.

Still, it's hardly universal health care, or anything.

On the state level, the big issue appears to be a preoccupation with running State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick out of town on a rail.

Nancy Grasmick hasn't done anything to me lately that I am aware of, so I have trouble getting fired up about this one as well. But it will be big news in Baltimore, no doubt.

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You never know, but this session is already shaping up as a Big Headline, Little Substance affair. Rule of thumb anymore, the greater the fuss, the less it matters. Think Britney, Paris and Whatshername - the dead one, rest her soul.

This session will treat us to emotional, sound-and-fury issues such as the death penalty, same-sex marriage, Nancygate and immigration.

To the degree that I care about any of these issues at all, I ask myself this. If I were to "get my way" on each and every one of these matters in the General Assembly this session, would my life change one smidgen?

Negative. Even immigration, which is deserving of some serious policy thought, is more of a national issue. And sitting in my Washington County home, I feel about as much threat from a Mexican as I do from Nancy Grasmick.

These issues have a way of dying out on their own, with time. Remember flag burning? The Equal Rights Amendment? The Ten Commandments? Remember that phase we went through in the early '90s when every last candidate for office was asked whether he or she had smoked marijuana?

For better or worse, these issues all fizzled, and the nation has managed to worry along without any resolution. Even abortion hasn't dominated the political landscape as it once did. Not that it won't be back. The death penalty has shown us that in politics too, retro can be fashionable.

Except back in the tough-on-crime, mandatory sentencing, three-strikes-and-you're-out '90s, we were arguing that the death penalty should be used more often. Today, it's whether we should have it at all.

Fifty years from now, there will be no death penalty in the United States, no one will raise an eyebrow at same-sex marriage and on-demand abortions will be on their way out as well. This isn't a political view, this is just an assessment of the slow, lurching progress of civilization.

Little more than 100 years ago, any pundit who predicted that children would no longer be working in factories, women would have the right to vote and blacks and whites would be using the same bathroom would have been laughed out of the newsroom.

But civilization does advance. Caught up in the moment and in the day's headlines it might not seem like it, but it does. Sure there are setbacks - a brief dalliance with the Middle Ages on the subject of torture, for example, but the overall trend through the decades is the advancement of humanity. It can be delayed; it cannot be stopped.

It is good to keep in mind that the only folks who benefit - really benefit - from these emotional issues are the politicians themselves.

Did any sober lawmaker ever think that America was about to succumb to an epidemic of flag burnings? Of course not. But many sober lawmakers saw this as an opportunity to advance their own careers by forcing opponents to go on record as voting on the "wrong" side of the issue.

It should be obvious that neither the president nor any member of Congress opposes health care for children. Yet that is how they are portrayed for voting the "wrong" way.

Beyond this, if a problem is easy to understand, it probably isn't a problem. If both sides can be captured in a slogan or a television sound bite, it likely isn't worth your time. Yet that's what we gravitate to - the easily understood issue. Fifteen years ago, the General Assembly rewrote health care law. It's impact was tremendous, but no one tried to understand it because it was too hard. It couldn't be summed up in a 20-second news clip.

So we default to the black and white stuff (in our own personal view, anyway) that does not require of us the pain of thought.

But in reality, we don't need politicians to tell us what is black and white or right or wrong. History, the true "decider" will tell us that, in time. We may not like it or agree with it, but there's not a lot we can do.

Personally, I don't like the NFL Network hijacking our free-for-view football games. But I know I'm on the wrong side of sports history and that if I want to continue to watch, I'll have to get over it and pay up.

Passion over any issue is not a bad thing, if that's what lights your candle. There is no dishonor in fighting the good fight. But in the end it's foolish to let your own personal happiness live or die by same-sex marriage, the death penalty or Nancy Grasmick.

Don't give the politicians that satisfaction; it only encourages them.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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