Rudeness plagues America.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans, according to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, consider people more rude than 20 or 30 years ago. Over the last 20 years, according to two prominent Democratic strategists, Americans engaged in a kind of "great sorting-out" -- staking out hard, well-defined, even intolerant, ideological political camps.
Now it all makes sense -- only one side seems a tad more intolerant than the other.
Take last Friday. After work, I drove to a local watering hole for my customary vodka and cran. A couple of anti-war Democrats and I began talking politics. While I disagreed with their positions, they made sensible, if unpersuasive, arguments. You know the drill: Bush built a case for war on bad intelligence; the cultural complexity of Iraq makes America's "imposition" of a democracy unlikely; the Iraq War now serves as a breeding ground for terrorists; other enemies like Iran and North Korea pose even greater threats to America; etc. But then another man, eavesdropping, decided to join in. Within five seconds, he called the president "an idiot." I let it go. Moments later, however, he changed it to "moron." All right, enough.
"Sir, you don't know me, and I don't know you. You barged into a conversation, not a wrestling match. He gave his view," I said, pointing to another man, "and gave reasons. Calling the president 'an idiot' is not a reason. It is childish and shows your lack of ability to make a sensible argument."
He said, "Well, I'm entitled to my opinion."
"That's not an opinion. It's an attack. And in any case, you're not entitled to have me listen to it. So I suggest you move on and enlighten somebody else."
He glared, but walked away.
Now on to the next day, Saturday. A friend, a decorated Vietnam vet, celebrated his 60th birthday with about 50 festive partygoers. I sat at a table of eight, and someone said something about the president's recent defense of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, calling the battle for her confirmation "uphill." To this, the 60-something woman sitting next to me, with whom, up until this point, I had exchanged pleasantries, suddenly blurted, "Well, I'm from Seattle, and we hate Bush up there -- "
I let it go.
" -- and the thing that we hate the most about Bush is that he claims people shouldn't pay taxes."
All right, enough.
"Excuse me," I said, "can you tell me when the president said, 'People shouldn't pay taxes'?"
"He says it all the time," she replied.
"So then it should be fairly easy for you to tell me when, or perhaps where, he said it."
"Well, it's in his budget."
"Do you mean the most recently passed budget," I asked, "the one that calls for spending something like two-and-a-half trillion dollars?"
"If the budget calls for that much in spending, where do you suppose the government gets the money?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well, you say the president says 'people ought not pay taxes.' If people don't pay taxes, how does the government get the two-and-a-half trillion?"
"Oh," she said, "I see what you're saying. Let me clarify. Bush says, 'Rich people should not pay taxes.'"
"Oh, really? And when did he say that?"
"Well, he implies it -- he's always seeking to cut taxes on the rich."
"Well," I responded, "as a member of the so-called rich, I welcome you to take a look at my 1040. I pay a substantial amount in taxes. And if there's some program or provision that allows 'the rich' to avoid taxes, perhaps I should consider firing my accountant." At this, the others at the table laughed, but not, of course, my debating opponent.
"Well, it's obvious," she said. "We see things differently."
"We most certainly do, and I think it's pretty much fruitless for us to continue the conversation. But, if you don't mind, I have a brief question for you."
"OK," she said.
"Of the top 1 percent of taxpayers, what percentage do they pay of federal income tax revenues?"
"What do you mean?"
"Assume this is a pie," I said, cupping my hands in a circle. "The top 1 percent contributes what size slice -- by percentage -- of that pie?"
"Oh, I see," she said. "Virtually nothing."
"Maybe 1 percent, maybe 2 percent."
Later, during the party, several people told her that I hosted a nationally syndicated radio show, and informed her of my "conservative" politics.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to anger you."
"No, I wasn't angry. I was disappointed that someone could go through the world so incredibly ill-informed."
She walked away.
For the record, since my table companion doesn't know or doesn't care, the top 1 percent -- the taxpayers with an adjusted gross income (AGI) over $295,495 -- paid, for 2003, 34.27 percent of federal income tax revenues. The top 10 percent (with an AGI over $94,891) paid 65.84 percent, the top half (AGI over $29,019) paid 96.54 percent. The bottom half? They paid 3.46 percent.
People should know this. Even if you live in Seattle.