Commonwealth Journal

June 29, 2009

We need the strength of others



Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.

— Jimmy Breslin


I don’t think I am as excited as Jimmy Breslin was but some months ago when the Commonwealth Journal began publishing my columns I told the editor that one of my purposes in writing was to try to create some room for conversation about issues that face citizens today. I apprehend that the climate for civil discussion is radioactive at best. The 24-hour news cycle, talk radio and the inclination of the media to create sensationalism has helped foster a type of political discourse that all but eliminates the possibility of compromise and reason.

Quite a number of you have spoken to me when we have met about my writing and I appreciate that quite a lot. It takes a certain amount of vanity to want to see one’s words in print for the world to share. But my purpose of generating conversation has been left largely unmet.

When I started I asked the paper to post an e-mail address in order for people to be able to respond to my articles for better or for worse. I expected to get quite a lot of feedback but that has not happened, much to my surprise and puzzlement.

In my life I find that I have some areas of disagreement with many of my friends but I am delighted to say that we remain friends. I think the reason is that we share so many things in common that we do agree on. I think that is chiefly true for the major part of our citizenry. So the question is why is the political climate so contentious? I think the answer is multi-faceted.

As people we are much more insular than we used to be. Yes, we are always among people but we are usually in an environment that is busy and not devoted to personal interaction. It used to be that people took what opportunities came their way to enjoy each others company. Church, picnics, fish fries, etc. Now we rush home, feed the kids or go to a soccer match and then put the kids to bed in time to catch Leno or Letterman. Next day, same thing. It is not that the pace is so much faster, it is how we budget our discretionary time.

Television has replaced social interaction as a means of entertainment. Without the social interaction we do not develop the kinship with others in our communities. Without those relationships we lose the framework for peaceful discussion. The 24-hour news cycle necessarily seeks a new sensation to lure viewers to drive sponsorships. We become radicalized by the talking heads that tell us daily that another crisis is upon us and another just around the bend.

The necessity for a 10-second sound byte has reduced political discussion to political one-upmanship. This precludes any rational discussion of issues and the rapidity of response conditions us to do the same. We don’t learn that we can disagree on some things and still be perfectly good friends and agree on many others.

Political advisors, who are in many cases social psychologists, tell candidates what they need to say or show to sway the most people. This encourages sound bytes and discourages rational discussion. As a matter of fact, rational discussion is the enemy since it comes from the seat of reason rather than the heat of anxiety. When a candidate wishes to misdirect attention he only has to make an issue out of one of the hot button topics such as abortion or gay rights or immigration. These are all worthy topics for discussion but people have been persuaded to vote based solely on these topics leaving the other worthwhile considerations such as war, torture, poverty and fiscal legislation to go begging. Even as this column is being read there are decisions being made that affect our lives. The voices being heard are not from the people, they are from special interests determined to hold on to market share. Only you can change that. Yes, you can.

I strongly urge citizens and interest groups to encourage venues for public conversation in a civil manner with respect for each person’s opinions and sentiments. Each of us is an important part of this republic and we are needed for its proper function. I encourage people to e-mail, write or call me about my columns. As long as the conversation is respectful and not vulgar I will be glad to entertain it.

Just this past week I have read a couple of editorials and a thoughtful letter from Dr. Weigel about health care. This fight for this right is upon us and we need to be heard.

We live in desperate times. We need the strength of others to sustain us. Pitch in.

That’s my take, what’s yours?