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Now and Then - Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
Can you believe that?
roger branch

Let’s be clear. I do not dislike attorneys. My daughter is an attorney, as are many friends and former students. I respected and admired Judge William J. Neville, who knew more about law and governance than the professor who taught me political science at the University of Georgia.

However, I am tired beyond words of the barrage of lawyer commercials that turn my evening news hours on television into an ordeal. There was a time when the Bar Association maintained standards of conduct and advertising worthy of a profession. Now, the sky is the limit in cases of real or projected personal injury. The fact that risk is a reality of life from the moment of conception is ignored, even denied.

Perhaps I am a cynic, but like Big Daddy in, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” I detect more than a little avarice in these commercials. It sounds something like this, “If ever in your life something bad happened, call us and we will try to find a way to make you rich for life with a lawsuit.”

Left unsaid is “We hope to get rich, too.” Just compensation is necessary in civil society, but lawsuits are not hunting licenses.

In many commercials there is an evil force, namely insurance companies. They are portrayed as stingy, resisting the obligation to compensate victims of injuries. As I draw near 90 years on this earth with long experience with all sorts of insurance and a fair number of claims, I assert that I have never had any insurance company fail to respond quickly to my problems or pay for all injuries or damages as covered by the policies I purchased. Never.

Some commercials suggest or say outright that making insurance companies pay is a fine source of economic activity because they are rich. One head of a huge law firm says that “they have unlimited resources.” That is not true.

Every time I see it I am reminded of a court case in which my father was a juror. Evidence of culpability was lacking, but one juror wanted to pay the plaintiff because the insurance company had plenty of money. My father educated all in the room to the fact that insurance companies only have assets from premiums paid by policy holders and investments that might or might not yield profits. Significant payouts require increases in costs to policy holders. In short, people pay, not companies.

Another category of commercial in which truth is too often stretched or broken is political ads. Unfortunately, it seems like electioneering never ceases. Power, the capacity to impose one’s will over others — which is the essence of politics — always has seized the souls of people more completely than narcotics. In its quest through the ages, people have distorted, misled and lied. On the international stage, the Big Lie policy of Nazi Germany and Vladimir Putin’s crazy claims about Ukraine used to justify invasion are clear examples.

Television and newer technologies of mass communication have transformed the flow of information from a flow to a flood. This includes misinformation that is so destructive as to undermine the foundations of society.

One of my most important courses in the Grady School of Journalism was one on law and ethics during which we learned that news stories — either print or broadcast — had to be truthful. There were laws and the possibility of lawsuits for libel. The integrity of a profession was at stake. Now there are few constraints on misleading, even lying, and the capacity to do so through electronic media exceeds any hope for control.

Politics in the United States, always partisan by nature, has degenerated into a “rule or ruin” state such that everything focuses on getting and keeping positions in government. Is this driven by the undying lust for power, by growing financial rewards for office holders or by doctrine? Whatever the source, the constant use of managed communication has driven the nation into fiercely divided camps of people, some of whom hate to death others who are nothing like the propaganda portrays.

COVID-19 cast the world into chaos. It is the worst problem faced by this country since World War II. Death and human destruction reached tragic proportions and could return. Health care workers and first responders are exhausted. Governmental and economic activities have been and still are so badly disrupted that essential services lag or fail. In spite of the return of football, full recovery is years away. In the midst of this existential threat to the nation, it has been politics as usual instead of a united battle against a common enemy.

Isn’t it silly to blame a particular president for some side effect of a world crisis? All of them have limited power. Putin’s war radically disrupted the flow of oil, driving up gasoline prices everywhere. When leaders here should be pulling together and with allies against him, why have some created a commercial blaming Biden for gas prices? That’s like blaming Trump for COVID or FDR for rationing during World War II.

Our problems as a nation are too serious for “rule or ruin” politics. Ruin will be the result. And, surely we are a better people and have more character than to embrace false narratives as the facts by which we live. If not, we have lost the moral foundation on which we have stood and will fall.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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