In The News

Panel on Role of Government is Hardly Sedate

This article originally appeared in the Skokie Patch

About 100 people listen to the highly charged exchanges during forum at Skokie Public Library.

People call for calm discourse on the issues, but sometimes that is easier said than done. Such was the case Wednesday night when the Illinois Humanities Council brought together a disparate group of speakers to discuss societal issues at the Skokie Public Library.

 The question on the table was whether the sharp rhetoric that fills so much of cable television, radio talk shows and the blogosphere is lessening representative democracy. But the passion heard on the airwaves and computer monitors was also prevalent at the forum.

Conservative radio host Dan Proft, who ran in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year, was explicit in his dismay about the role of government over the past two generations.

“There have been a lot of well-intentioned people with a lot of well-intentioned programs that have not produced at an exorbitant amount of money,” he said.

Proft later added: “You have to be very circumspect in the power you give government.”

The radio host also said certain teachers union officials should be tossed in jail, accusing them of holding students back.

But taking the opposite approach on was labor lawyer and author Tom Geoghegan, who was just as emphatic about GOP policies that he said had hurt the average American worker.

“The Republicans have no idea what is going on,” he said. “Government has a duty to provide full employment,” Geoghegan said.

These pointed remarks were the kinds that moderator Laura Washington was trying to avoid. “I think the most important thing is to have a civil conversation on things we agree on,” she said.

Trying to find a middle ground on what government can achieve was N. Don Wycliff, a teacher at Loyola University and a former editorial page editor at the Chicago Tribune.

“I’m an African-American who was born in an apartheid society who saw the good government can do at the federal level,” Wycliff said. “It’s not as simple as all government or no government. It’s a complicated thing.”

Agreeing with Wycliff was fellow panelist Kathy Ryg, president of Voices for Illinois Children and a past representative in the state House. She said voters and legislators need to work together to figure out what they want from the tax code, noting that ‘it is a balancing act.”

“The key is to get away from the extremes.” Ryg said, explaining that the rhetoric has become nastier on all sides with the downturn in the economy. She said the recession affected people who had not suffered in previous hard times, such as the upper middle class, many of whom live in Skokie.

Ryg cited those factors leading to the formation of the Tea party, as people viewed cutting government spending as the best way to reduce the deficit but wanted programs that help them spared.

“Their values got upended when they got concerned about losing their jobs and their health insurance. That fear causes people to react emotionally,” she said.

The audience of about 100 listened to the panelists and occasionally tried to interact with them, but their opinions were not changed drastically after the discussion.

Before the almost hourlong presentation, audience members were polled on a series of questions such as tax policy, corporate influence in Springfield and the benefits of Social Security. The same questions were asked afterward, with varying changes in the results.

One member of the audience was disappointed in the discussion, but was glad it took place.

“The issues were too big so the debate was a little unfocused,” said Hugh Iglarsh, a writer and editor from Skokie. “It was hard for them to engage with each other directly. But it is a good idea to have the debate.”