Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A modest proposal

Two days ago in the San Francisco Chronicle there appeared an article entitled "Stanislaus visit shows Palin's political power." Next to the article was a photograph of Ms. Palin at a lectern with the caption, "Sarah Palin speaks at the CSU Stanislaus foundation's 50th anniversary event." The article was altogether unremarkable, save for the fact that absolutely nothing was reported of what Ms. Palin said apart from one ad hominem remark directed at gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown. Instead, the author speculated upon the influence that Ms. Palin might have on the coming election.

If our democracy is in jeopardy, and I believe it is, one reason for it consists in the fact that the media are so hell-bent (I use the term advisedly) on speculating about the political impact of various personalities and opinions that we are rarely, if ever, told what the personalities actually say, or what opinions they actually hold. The little that is reported of a speech is used to shore up political speculation. This is not reporting. It is gossip.

I cannot fathom how I can possibly know whether or not I agree with Ms. Palin if I have not the foggiest notion of what she said. Nor can I make any sort of judgment as to her political impact if I am not told what she holds, in her own words. In fact, I know very little of what Ms. Palin (or any other politician) has said, and have only second or third-hand knowledge of what she holds. Moreover, I am certain that the vast majority of the American electorate are equally in the dark --of necessity, because what a public figure actually says is invariably so incompletely reported.

As a consequence, ad hominem posturing substitutes for real political conversation. Very occasionally, it can be memorably clever --recall Winston Churchill's characterization of Clement Attlee as "a sheep in sheep's clothing." More often, it is mind-numbingly banal (I refer the reader to the Chronicle article).

I would like, therefore, to make a modest proposal: that we insist upon civil conversation concerning what our public figures actually say, and refuse judgment based upon hearsay, or, what amounts to the same thing, partisan politics.

So, for example, anyone, no matter how staunchly Republican, ought to take issue with a remark of President George W. Bush in his Memorial Day speech (May 26, 2008): "In a world where freedom is constantly under attack and in a world where our security is challenged, the joys of liberty are often purchased by the sacrifices of those who serve a cause greater than themselves." There is no cause greater than the human person; no one can serve a cause greater than himself. What the President said is not true.

Or, similarly, a remark of President Obama ought to give pause to even the most convinced Democrat: "[W]hat has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny--our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet know precisely how we're going to get there." How can we "shape a destiny" if we are "unsure exactly what it looks like," or "how we're going to get there?"

Certainly, anyone who speaks a great deal in public is bound eventually to say things that do not bear up upon close scrutiny, and likely the fairest assessment of either statement would be to conclude that some presidential speech writers are overpaid. Yet it is neither disrespectful nor disloyal to take seriously what someone says. On the contrary, to disregard what someone says, to refuse to take it seriously, is both deeply disrespectful and disloyal. It is very likely the case that these statements were made precisely because no one in the entourage of either president took his speech sufficiently seriously to challenge it. They were likely too busy assessing the potential "impact" of his remarks.

I would like to further propose the manner in which we might insist upon taking seriously what people say:

First, we should insist that we have access to the full text of what has been said, and that, in formulating our own judgment, we stick to it. To make judgments on the basis of hearsay is scurrilous, and altogether beneath us. If the paid media (newspapers, television, radio) do not oblige us, then we should simply cease to support them.

Second, we must presume that people mean what they say, and that it is an act of respect to hold them to their words. There is no mystic middle step between a word and its meaning. If I doubt whether I have understood what has been said, then I should say so, and seek clarification.

Third (and this is very much an element of the Dominican tradition of debate) we must treat others respectfully. We do this by assuming that the other --even and especially if he or she is a political opponent-- is good willed. To refuse to listen attentively to another and to weigh closely what he or she has to say is an act of bigotry that precludes all possibility of political discourse. Freedom of speech is not the "right" to betray the democratic process by ridiculing or caricaturing one's opponents. Rather, it is the right to propose one's own ideas for serious consideration and to respond, respectfully, to the ideas that others propose. Much of the yellow journalism propagated in the media under the banner of free speech is, in truth, an assault against it.

Fourth, we critique ideas, not persons, and we do this with the hope (the confident expectation) that by this means both ourselves and our opponents will see farther than we did in the beginning. St. Thomas Aquinas (one of the very few true democrats in history) insisted both that we must consult with others to determine what is the best policy and that there ought to be some disagreement concerning the means of achieving what we seek. This, he maintained, was due to the fact that no one person, no matter how intelligent or wise, will be able to grasp all of the possible ramifications of a particular action. Moreover, if we disagree with someone's conclusions, then it is all the more important that we have taken his or her argument seriously. Otherwise, we will have no means of responding. Nor will we have availed ourselves of the opportunity to clarify and advance our own thought on the matter.

I am convinced that the first priority in addressing the "culture wars" is to restore civil discourse and, with it, the possibility for civil disagreement. And the first means toward that end will be to respect others both by expressing ourselves carefully and by our thoughtful and respectful attention to what they have to say.