PORTLAND, ORE. — A quick note to Sen. John McCain: Good to hear you talking about reducing our national dependence on foreign oil, but don't let this subject get bogged down in a gusher of name-calling.
The statement that caught my attention spilled out during a recent TV interview when Senator McCain said, "We better understand the vulnerabilities that our economy, and our very lives, have when we're dependent on Iranian mullahs and wackos in Venezuela."
Hey, I'm no Pollyanna. The vocabulary of denigration is a part of America's political tradition. It gets ugly and disturbing, but it's the bed we've made and slept in during the past 200 years. However, there needs to be a boundary somewhere for this kind of verbal brawling, and to me that line runs along the perimeter of the United States. Rip me if you want, and maybe I'll rip you back, but let's keep it inside the border.
The danger posed by name-calling in the international arena is that it puts the speaker on a slippery slope toward cultural stereotyping. I think I can say with absolute certainty that our relations with Mexico would be enormously complicated if members of Congress and the Bush administration reverted to old-time slang and started referring to illegal immigration issues as the "wetback" problem.
Sometimes people think that using terms of derision will have a stimulating effect on their listeners and exhort them to overcome difficult obstacles. McCain warning us against being vulnerable to wackos is sort of like a football coach at halftime saying, "Why are you guys letting those wimps push you around like scared puppies?"
The problem with this tactic is that it often substitutes rhetoric in place of facts and creates a false picture of reality. The other team may actually be pretty good. And regardless of how anyone feels about the policies and goals of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or the leaders of Iran, they aren't the ones who created our massive dependence on foreign oil. We did that on our own.
There are lots of difficult diplomatic situations facing this country in the future. While Iraq dominates the headlines, North Korea looms in the wings. And yes, Kim Jong Il has a peculiar hairstyle, but that's a topic best handled by Jay Leno and the late-night comedy crowd.
Americans used to laugh when we read communist-bloc propaganda that branded the US as a giant pack of "running dog imperialists." It's a useless form of communication, like calling some of our European allies "surrender monkeys" when they didn't support the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
So now that McCain has opened the door to a wider discussion of our petroleum consumption, I'm looking forward to hearing lots of ideas from other elected officials on how to make ourselves less reliant on foreign sources. But let's keep the discussion focused on potential solutions. High level name-calling won't help. It's just another form of wasted energy.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.