The specter of town-hall meetings – full of people yelling and screaming – often of "facts" that not only are completely wrong, but also bizarre, and then becoming 15 minute stars as guests of local new stations or TV hosts like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, really is nothing new. The only difference is the coverage that it now gets.
Back in the 1990’s I served 8 years as a council member and then council president of a mid-sized (by Alabama standards, 25,000 people) municipality. I presided over numerous public hearings over those years. It never failed to amaze me how people would stand up and passionately decry whatever it is they were against. The amazing thing to me was that this passion often was rivaled only by the ignorance displayed by the protester. I referred to this phenomenon as "vehement ignorance."
By ignorance, I do not mean stupidity – I do mean that there are real facts involved and that the people who protested the loudest often were the ones who simply did not know the facts. For example, if a proposed rezoning allowed for 4 single family homes an acre and the protester is complaining that the rezoning will allow a 20 unit apartment/per acre, that simply is display of ignorance of the underlying facts.
I noticed this question in a recent Birmingham News article see http://blog.al.com/businessnews/2009/08/opponents_of_mccalla_rail_proj.html where a protester of a proposed railroad project asks the developer to guaranty that a truck driver won’t snatch up her child in school. This is the same kind of nonsense that recently has been on display in the on-going health care town-halls.
The fact of the matter is that reasonable people can disagree and debate the merits or lack thereof of health-care reform, proposed railroad developments, and run of the mill municipal rezonings of land use. However, when all the media covers are the people who make things up and scream them, regardless of the fact that the "facts" being screamed about are made up or ask questions like the one posed above, which has nothing to do with the merits of the proposal, then the public gets a very distorted view of the "debate" and of what the subject matter of the debate really is.