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.


  1. Very good proposition! And much needed nowadays... Reminding us all (and it starts with us) that we need to articulate our points with respect and prudence. I think that the "love of neighbor" starts in every thing we say (which is why I love the prayer of Saint Ephrem) so I completely agree with your proposal. Thank you.
    And I can't wait to see more articles!

  2. Great stuff. Thanks. But one question...

    Probably I'm missing something, but this doesn't seem to make sense. "There is no cause greater than the human person." So, a cause whose purpose is to defend the human person is not greater than the human person?

    And "no one can serve a cause greater than himself." I'd say that believing in no cause greater than oneself is a rough-and-ready definition of nihilism. I doubt that's what you meant.

  3. Michael, thank you for your usual lucidity. I think the next step for this blog is to present a roadmap for "restor[ing] civil discourse," because I for one have no idea how to go about it.

  4. Thanks, Michael! Excellent words to counterbalance the centrifugal forces at work in our culture these days...

  5. Unfortunately, when the press does bother to tell you what a speaker asserted, they only list their conclusions -- never their arguments.

    And as soon as the typical reader finds a position they disagree with, they stop reading and file that politician under the "bad guys" heading. It never occurs to them that maybe a politician with whom they disagree on one issue could have worthwhile things to say about another issue.

    The odd thing is that no one treats their own friends this way. Everyone I know has friends with whom they disagree on certain issues, but whose friendship and wisdom they still value. But when it's a politician or pundit or philosopher or theologian, a single disagreement is often seen as proof that this figure is worthless as a thinker.

    In other words, the media are at fault for feeding us dogfood, but we are at fault for eating it up so readily.

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  8. Fr. Michael,

    To second John's confusion - it seems to me that when we talk colloquially about serving a cause greater than ourselves, we mean that we are doing something for the common good at the expense of immediate personal gratification - even if ultimately we find our lives by losing them.

    A charitable reading of President Bush's remarks would suggest he had in mind the colloquial usage (I might be doing injustice to the depth of our former President's philosophical speculations, but it seems a fair assumption that he was not trying to parse his words that closely).

    Even President Obama's remarks, while a bit more wooly (and I can't believe that the spell checker is dinging me on that word - and no, "wooly" in this context has absolutely no racial connotation referring to the qualities of African-American hair...) still can be understood as (and I imagine, were meant to convey) that there is an underlying drive for the good in American politics, and a willingness to be pragmatic and experimental.

    It seems unfair to demand metaphysical precision in political speech. While I think your larger point stands (though I would note that much of the mainstream media is in deep fiscal distress - obviously a good number of people are less ready to eat the dog food being served to us), I'm much more disturbed by the specific policy prescriptions (or lack thereof) - be they public funding for abortion, bi-partisan (and public) support for extraordinary rendition and a system of incarceration that is inhuman, the generational injustice of the debt that unsustainable public spending is creating, etc.) - that are the stock in trade of politicians across the political spectrum.And which, alas, the American public is also all to ready to lap up...

  9. Thank You for a thoughtful and important commentary. I am very concerned about what I see as the loss of civil discourse and the segmentation of news/analysis markets. By creating niche markets for news programs people can choose to get there news only from sources with which they already are inclined to agree. It appears that at this time in our history the largest markets in the economy prefer highly biased and bombastic commentors feeding them filtered and often simply untrue versions of the important events and issues of the day. This is often supplemented with false accounts of our history adding to the problem. I am aware that historically our press has not always been fair or accurate, and public discourse has not always been civil and reasoned. Yet we have survived. Still I think many have suffered from this divided and adversarialand often irrational conduct of public debate. The restoration of civility is of high importance. To the extent we fail to do so we will see much unnecessary human suffering resulting from our public policy decisions.

  10. The current state of journalism is abysmal. The level of discourse is so shallow in our news and can be among ourselves (somebody recently wrote a book alluding to this shallowness). I have come to the realization that there is little reason for me to have a position about anything or expect anyone else to generate an immediate position based upon something that was read or heard of in the 'news'. Yet, that is exactly what happens. We have reached and impasse in our society because we refuse to have any substantive discussion about anything important. Our politicians have mastered this to the point of the ridiculous. Many of us are frustrated by the state of popular culture, but it is our shallowness that feeds and perpetuates it. Perhaps, we just have too much food and 'stuff' and have reached 'nirvana'. Until we bring back real debate among ourselves and engage all substantive points of view, I really don't see this changing much. We need to get beyond ourselves and engage honestly and openly with the human person. Thanks loads for this blog.

    Now, do I digress??
    I too, was curious about the comment "there is no cause greater than oneself". A number of years ago I was working with someone who referred to the bible as "poison"(I assumed it to be a reaction to an overbearing, minister father in the heartland). We had an interesting discussion about sacrifice and World War II vets (I can't remember why, but probably because I brought this up for some reason in our discussion). He did not think that these soldiers had sacrificed anything because they were fighting for something to benefit themselves and really had no choice but to fight given the then current state of affairs. I concluded that to defeat Nazism was merely self serving. I didn't agree, but I found the discussion quite fascinating, but too brief. Somehow, I think the 'cause' as described here has something to do with the discussion I had with my colleague. I would love to hear more about the "cause no greater than oneself" and the context of this statement. Also, in a very brief reading of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, one might not necessarily consider the 'cause' above as being nihilistic. But, I don't really know what I am talking about either. Would it be more nihilistic to have no cause and no sacrifice?

  11. I too, was curious about the comment "there is no cause greater than oneself".


  12. "Many of us are frustrated by the state of popular culture, but it is our shallowness that feeds and perpetuates it. "

    Fr, with all due respect, your excellent post assumes a degree of lucidity on the part of the American public that I have no reason to assume exists anymore. Furthermore, I can say the same about my fellow Catholics because, if it were not for us Catholics, the current POTUS would not have been elected. This is not rant against him, however, put simply to make the point that a man who voted FOUR times in favor of killing kids after they are born would not now be in charge if Catholics in this country had voted according to the teachings of our Church.

    The Election of '08 is evidence that, Catholics at least, are, for the most part, not interested in really learning about the facts of what a candidate really stands for (based on his voting record) but only in soundbytes. Until we get our own house in order, I don't see how we can expect the SF Chronicle to publish any other type of article than that to which you allude.

  13. Fr. Michael wrote:

    “There is no cause greater than the human person; no one can serve a cause greater than himself.”

    This statement ignores the fact that the good of many can outweigh the good of the individual. Indeed, there are many ways in which we all are called to sacrifice our own good for the sake of the common good. As it stands, the criticism of Pres. Bush’s statement is inaccurate and misleading.

  14. There are plenty of Catholic priests that listen, think and come to their own conclusions about various political, social and religious issues and speak them in the public forum expecting reasoned discourse. The Berrigans, Frank Drinan, Roy Bourgeios, Hans Kung, Peter Kennedy in South Brisbane, Australia, to name a few. They have all been disappointed. I admire and respect them all, as well as a bunch of those aging, liberal, social justicing nuns currently passing from the scene and being visitated by the Pope, so I guess you kind of know where I stand in the spectrum of things.

    If what you have to say is simply a rehash of what the closeted, self loathing, pseudo celibate leaders of your gang espouse, why bother? Don't you think that they say what they have to say well enough, often enough and loud enough, from a high enough pulpit, for everyone interested to have a pretty good idea of what it is they're trying to get across?

    If you have something interesting to add, good but I'm afraid you'll soon find yourself out of a job and bunking in with Roy, Hans or Peter. If you do, you'll probably have at least one admirer, me.

    I'm not going to judge before I hear some more. Good luck and God be with you. Generally, when a new Catholic blog opens, within a month, comments are either closed or heavily moderated, those moderated being labeled hateful anti Catholic bigots. Even the Catholic ones are informed that they aren't really Catholic. I wonder who gets to decide that?

  15. If I were to sacrifice myself, it would be for something that I consider 'good' whether it be 'common' or otherwise. Perhaps as we attempt, as individuals, to institute civility in our civic discussion, should we think of the 'common' good as our ultimate goal? Isn't that the meaning of being a Christian? Love, anyone? I think someone did this once, for all. Just a thought.

  16. "There is no cause greater than the human person; no one can serve a cause greater than himself."

    I don't understand this statement. Isn't the love of God greater than the human person? Isn't God himself greater than the human person? He is the first cause of every thing, isn't he? Isn't he a cause worth sacrificing oneself for?

    I've read some interesting posts and comments on this blog, but I haven't seen any replies by the author. I hope he weighs in on these comments.