Life experience is a great teacher, and my parents' generation,
born in the 1920's, did their "graduate work" surviving a depression and a world war. Politics for them was not a mere spectator
sport. When Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow spoke on TV , it wasn't so much what they said but the understanding behind
the words that reminded people that the nation's business was yours and mine- a reminder that we were all active participants
in the collective decisions of our society.
Since that time, the agenda setting power of mass media has become concentrated
into fewer hands. College campuses, once forums for vigorous debate, are often repressive intellectual environments dedicated
to political indoctrination. Somewhere along the line, we started losing the ability and sometimes even the desire to talk
to one another. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the level of our political discourse
Look at the titles of some
of today's political bestsellers. Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. Help,Mom- There Are Libeals Under My Bed. Al Franken is
a Big Fat Phoney.Ann Coulter's How to Talk to a Liberal if you Must.( I guess nowadays you're not supposed to even talk to
people you don't agree with!) They sound like cranky pre-schoolers before naptime: He hit me! She called me stupid! He took
my ball! She hit me first! It's really embarrassing.
These ringmasters of mass consensus preach to the choir, all
day every day. They act as hired guns- with research staffs to dig up facts and anecdotal evidence to support one of two pre-rationalized
belief systems called liberalism and conservatism. The search for the truth of a given point of view is subordinated to the
drive for ideological conformity and reinforcement of consensus belief systems. Michael Moore preaches to his choir. Ann Coulter
and Rushbo preach to theirs. No thoughtful or spontaneous dialogue comes about, just a lot of poisoning of the wells of public
discourse. The result is that they ultimately push the envelope of frustration and contempt further along towards a potentially
Just listen to Savage Nation, for example, throw his nightly tantrums. Or Howie Carr's innuendoes
denigrating immigrants. Or Rushbo's "do-as I say" conservatism. Or Michael Moore's cheap shots and loaded questions. Does
anybody really believe that they can learn something new listening to these clowns? The playwright, George Bernard Shaw said,
"The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
An elevated political discourse has
become rare in today's dumbed-down America. Maybe we have forgotten what it feels like. Or that it even exists. How would
people even recognize it anymore if they saw it? A few past examples come to mind. Norman Thomas was a pacifist and socialist
in the 40's and 50's, but his eloquence won him the respect of many conservatives. Barry Goldwater Sr. was an open-minded
conservative who won the minds of many liberals. Unlike today's mass media stars, these ruggedly individualistic men were
consistent, not with pre-rationalized belief systems, but with their own reflections and observations of the world; consequently,
they built bridges, not burned them.
In the more recent past , two examples of enlightened dialogue come to mind,
both WRKO talkmasters: the late David Brudnoy and Gene Burns. ( Burns is still on the air at KGO-AM, San Fransisco) You could
actually learn something listening to these guys. Brudnoy, reasonable, open-minded and articulate didn't vilify or patronize
those who disagreed with him, but instead engaged them in a thoughtful exchange of ideas. He stimulated creative thought and
made people reevaluate their positions. The iconoclastic Burns exemplified the forgotten art of eloquence and logical analysis.
Again there were no ad-hominem attacks because of listener's beliefs. But Gene would lose patience with people who couldn't
or wouldn't support their ideas with a rational line of reasoning. Listening to either of these men was like being in a college
classroom with a great teacher.
The founding fathers remembered the paradigm of old Europe, and in their codifying
the first amendment, they recognized the importance of public debate. There's no guarantee that America will go on forever.
In fact, every empire that has ever existed has experienced a rise and fall. If we ever lose this country, it won't be by
terrorism; the Axis powers found out in World War 2 that intimidation only strengthens this country's resolve. Instead, the
true enemy will be our own angry silence, burning frustration, a polarization- a collective negative emotional energy sustained
because it will have become impossible for people to speak with one another, and the public dialogue upon which is laid the
cornerstone of democracy will have been irreparably suppressed. Let us remember that democracy is often sloppy, and that it
is damned hard work- if it is real democracy.