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Editorial: The missing point of criticism

Let’s examine the revered role of criticism in our political dialogue.
First, let’s agree that progress is the universal goal and that we’re not in the business of governing to take society backwards. Second, let’s agree that there are multiple ways to achieve progress and as many ways to define it.
The focus, then, is how constructive criticism plays a role in helping create better decisions and outcomes.
Ideally, constructive criticism moves the discussion forward by pointing out flaws in the matter being discussed and suggesting alternate solutions. Wikipedia adds this nuance: “Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one. The purpose of constructive criticism is to improve the outcome… Constructive criticism must always focus on the work rather than the person. Personality issues must always be avoided.”
This same entry in Wikipedia suggests that good criticism should be:
• timely, brief and succinct, with a clear start and a finish, not endless;
• relevant and to the point, not misplaced;
• clear, specific and precise, not vague;
• well-researched, not based on hear-say or speculative thought;
• sincere and positively intended, not malicious;
• articulate, persuasive and actionable, so that the recipient can both understand the criticism and be motivated to act on the message.
While Wikipedia is not the definitive source of anything, these general points of what constructive criticism is and how it can help provide a reminder of the goal of the critic, and how others can interpret whether a critic is being helpful or, perhaps, seeking publicity for their own cause.
Consider, for example, the recent call by the folks at Campaign For Vermont to dismiss Jonathan Gruber, the outside consultant Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration hired to assess how Vermont’s move to a single payer health care system would impact subsets of the state’s population. Gruber, an MIT professor who is considered a national expert on health care reform, was awarded a $400,000 contract back in July to work six months and deliver his analysis in February.
We all know by now that while Gruber may be a genius on some levels, on matters of discretion he’s dumber than a stone.
He made the news last week because critics of health care reform — on the national level — revived a video of a panel discussion of him making incredibly insensitive remarks a year ago, which were posted on Twitter and spread like wildfire into the national news (see related story on Page 5A.) Lawrence Miller, the chief of Health Care Reform in Vermont, called Gruber’s remarks “appalling and incredibly offensive,” and Gov. Shumlin expressed outrage as well, but neither suggested that his dismissal is a reasonable response for apparent reasons: he’s under contract and one would assume his analysis is critical to how Vermont’s health care reform should proceed. The question at issue here is clear: Should the state really pay him the $400,000 he is obligated to receive, dismiss him and get no analysis in return?
In this case, the critics avoid that question. In fact, their intention is to do nothing more than embarrass the administration and its policies for the purpose of undermining Shumlin’s programs and how he is publicly perceived. The criticism, in fact, is malicious, not persuasive, not well researched, vague as to how the state would replace the expected analysis, and not relevant to moving the discussion of health care reform forward.
It has become a familiar theme for this group. In its beginnings, Campaign For Vermont seemingly had noble aspirations as a grassroots organization that sought to promote a moderate political agenda. Its leader at the time was Bruce Lisman, a successful businessman from Shelburne who aspired to change things outside of the political arena. It was a worthy endeavor and he gained initial support through many enthusiastic Vermonters who appreciated the idea of a bipartisan agenda.
But as things in the political world all too often do, the group became more partisan and its voice more critical in ways that seek to tear down current practices but not provide solutions to make existing practices better.
Lisman turned the leadership of the organization over to others more than a year ago, opted not to pursue a run for governor, and the group has new leadership. But what the group hasn’t done is to define its purpose today and how to advocate for it — not simply work against others.
Personal criticism works to tear down society, not build it. It weakens those in power, while also undermining the public trust in our government and community.
The obvious parallel on the national level is watching how Republican-based organizations, Fox News and rightwing radio stations (among others) have purposefully worked to undermine President Obama’s presidency over these past six years by attacking him personally, while offering no viable alternatives to the policies they are criticizing. Instead, the Republican’s goal, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated publicly from the get-go, has been to frustrate Obama at every juncture and make sure his presidency was a failure. But to what end? To hamstring our economy, reverse social and economic gains, and spread falsehoods about the nation so that the public perspective is widely misinformed?
Criticism done well, on the other hand, can point out weaknesses in the current landscape and suggest viable solutions. That should be the goal.
In finding its way forward, we encourage Campaign For Vermont to focus on efforts that “build” our state, rather than tear it down. On the economy, for instance, the organization has been quick to criticize excessive spending over the past four years, though slower to admit that the state’s higher spending is at least in part due to the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession and rebuilding from the destruction of Tropical Storm Irene, while also adjusting to an economic recovery that has not been as robust as expected. The questions to move forward are more specific: Where do we cut, and to what consequence?
And, yes, such specifics would subject their organization to public criticism and attack. It would require them to suggest where to apply the knife and identify whose ox they would gore. That, fellow Vermonters, is demanding transparency of opposing ideas.
Sadly, the missing element in much of today’s political criticism is the idea that it be “constructive.”
Angelo S. Lynn

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