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State of the Debate
George Pyle
George Pyle has been a newspaper writer in Kansas, Utah, Upstate New York, and now Utah again, for more than 30 years - most of it as an editorial writer and columnist. Now on his second tour of duty on The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board, he has also done a stretch as a talk radio host, published a book on the ongoing flaws of U.S.agricultural policy and, in 1998, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. His most active bookmarks are Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens and Tina Brown. And he still thinks the Internet can be used for intelligent conversation and uplifting ideas.

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This weekend's column: The fevered minds of Utah legislators ...

Above: Explaining the Utah Legislature.

When people get into a harsh disagreement, it is not uncommon for one or both of them to think that the other one is stupid. If it is a really harsh disagreement, they might even say so out loud.

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After all, the only possible explanation for the fact that you refuse to agree with me is that your puny little brain gets in the way.

But the other day some very superficial reporting (the only kind of science reporting most of us ever see - though this might help) came out about a new study on how the human brain works. So now we can think that people who don’t agree with us are not dumb. They are mentally ill.

Well, that’s a way to make political debate more civil, isn’t it?

Research done on people who suffer from clinical depression, using MRIs to watch their mental innards, shows that such folks are not people whose brains aren’t working. They are people whose brains won’t shut up.

A well-functioning brain, looked at with such tools, shows that certain areas are active when its owner is doing certain things: singing, smelling, remembering a childhood event, etc., etc.

But brains belonging to people who suffer from depression, according to these pictures, are ablaze all at once. We’re talking real clinical depression here, not just feeling a little blue because of the weather or the last Jazz game.

It’s called hyperconnectivity and, even though it would be hard to call someone whose brain is firing on all cylinders at once unintelligent, it’s apparently still bad.

Which brings to mind the brains of the Utah Legislature. Their hyperconnected selves are working on bills to:

Gut all public school sex education programs, even though there’s serious statistical evidence that what we’ve got is already too little, too late.

Force students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, more often and in more places, for no reason other than that the Legislature has the power to command such foolishness.

• Stage a little Fort Sumter by demanding that the federal government turn over millions of acres of federal land in the state, even though the state can’t take care of the land it has and only wants more so it can sell it for tar sand flimflams.

• Put some ridiculous constitutional limits on state spending, even though Utah’s budget process is among the skin-flintiest you will ever see.

• Stand between local elected officials and the people who elected them by arrogantly blocking city measures on billboards, vehicle engine idling and the display of firearms.

A savvy politician in another state, one who was well adjusted enough to know what to worry about and what not to, once explained to me that most members of most legislatures don’t run for office, take all that time away from their families and businesses, just to sit there and do nothing. Even when doing nothing would be good.

So they come up with all kinds of silly, useless, disruptive and damaging bits of legislation — called "message bills" in these parts — just to justify their existence.

Usually, it is liberals who are accused of refusing to sit still and accept the status quo. My short experience watching the New York Legislature, though, was a view of a totally deadlocked process, where little — good or bad — got done.

And in Utah it is the so-called conservative brains that have been turned all the way up to 11 on a scale of 10.

Maybe we’d be better off if they really were just as stupid as we used to say they were.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is smart enough to do this job, and dumb enough to think anyone cares. Email: gpyle@sltrib.com. Twitter: @debatestate.



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