The Clues are in the Conversation

A few months ago on a website an Australian called the U.S. a “mediocre country”.  There are a lot of USAians who would take an exception to that.  In fact, most presidents wax eloquent about how  the U.S. is the only indispensable nation. Of course, that would make all other countries dispensable.  And most countries would take an exception to that.

I often say when speaking to Europeans that the U.S. is an unsophisticated country and not all that smart although most USAians think they are super smart.   It’s kind of like being sophomores in the history of the world.  We think we know everything.  But prime examples of being not so smart is that the U.S. doesn’t have some kind of universal health care system or a decent pension system.  It also has stopped making practical stuff and thinks that gambling is the answer to almost everything.

One big reason for this lack of sophistication and smarts is that we don’t engage in dialogue except on rare Websites that have civil discourse or at a town meeting.  A lot of USAians talk amongst people who they agree with rather than at “a town meeting” or cafe or watering hole where one must look neighbors in the face and try to make a point and to try to see their point.  The French, on the other hand,  have their cafe society. They do their duty as citizens by talking “politics”. (“Politics” is a discussion, not a shouting match, of the way we wish to live our lives and what we enjoy and what gives our lives meaning.  It has little to do with our politicians who seem to not have a clue or simply not care what the polis is or wants.). The French leave work and go out to a cafe and argue about life and art. They engage in conversation and often use dialectics in search of clues to the mysteries of life. Or at least that’s the way it used to be.  When I was in grad school at the University of Michigan, after play rehearsal we would go to a bar, order pitchers of beer and discuss how we would save the world through art.  When I did Off-Off Broadway theater in New York City, we would adjourn to an Irish pub around the corner from the theater and argue about the choices our characters should make.  We loved to look at all the angles and the contradictions.

But somewhere along the line those personal confrontations became fewer and fewer and didn’t seem to translate into our public lives as citizens.  Historian Christopher Lasch in his book “Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” has a chapter called “The Lost Art of Argument”.  In it he writes that “what Democracy requires is vigorous public debate, not information.  Yes, we do need information, but information that is “generated only be debate.”  So he kind of takes the “information revolution” and turns it on its head.  Information in and of itself is worthless without being debated.  “Information , usually seen as the pre-condition of debate is better understood as a by-product.”

And how do we gather these clues to the mysteries of life?  By asking questions.  We try to have what Suzuki calls “the beginner’s mind that is not a closed mind.”  We take our ideas and subject them to somebody else’s arguments.  If we passionately engage with an eagerness to learn, we may instead of changing somebody else’s mind find that we have changed our mind.  So we  must listen carefully and be willing to challenge our own beliefs and to say “Maybe what I believe may be wrong.”  How exciting and far less dull than passively taking in information from some newspaper or from some pundit.

Lasch gives a shout out to the social historian Ray Oldenburg’s “The Great Good Place” and with Oldenburg mourns the passing of the local watering hole, the cafe, the hair salon, the soda fountain steps and other places between work and home where conversations used to flourish.  These were places like the soda fountain steps  where kids listened to their fathers debate a local policy with vigor and good-hearted disagreement.  Those places where professions mingled as equals are hard to find in the suburbs, but they still exist in small towns and big cities.  I was lucky to spend the last twenty years in a small town where wisdom came from caring for cows and not from a book.  It came from stories and tall tales told with gusto like the one about a cowboy being out lost in the cold with only two dogs for a Three Dog Night.

Democracy dies if we hide in cul de sacs furtively taking anxiety meds as we peer out of the drawn blinds or retreat to cocktail parties where everybody is of the same class and tows the same party line.    So I suggest this year that you get out and find a Cheers bar in your neighborhood and strike up a conversation with somebody who may see things differently  than you do.  If you don’t have one of those, then go to the nearest town that has one and adopt it as your own.  And for heaven’s sake don’t get your information from a newspaper.  You can get your questions there though.  But also think about this. There may be no answers anyway, only clues.

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