Tag Archives: politics

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.

Vegetable Medley

In my last entry I described a dish I made this week, Tikka Masala.  It’s an Indian dish with a rich blend of flavors.  As I stirred in the spices to the simmering onions and tomato paste and waved my hand over the pan and towards my nostrils just like I’ve seen chefs do on The Food Network,  I sighed, “Ahhhh”. Already the meal was satisfying.  And later when we ate it, we sighed again and commented on the complexity and the surprises in this exotic dish.

But if I go out to dinner in this tiny Montana town, “The steak (chop, fish, chicken) comes with either a baked potato or “our vegetable medley.”  The vegetable medley is so bland that I can hardly tell you what’s in it.  I think it’s got some zucchini, carrots, and those odd tasteless things with the odd texture, the sugar snap pea.  The spice is butter with a little salt.  Ho hum.

It came to me the other night that the “vegetable medley” is the apt description for the people that inhabit this place.  Having lived in New York City for over fifteen years with its rich blend of peoples, I often long for the sound of foreign accents, strange headgear, and different skin tones.

This is not to say we don’t have our local eccentrics (and by now I’m sure I’m considered one of them with my hats,  horn rimmed glasses, and big scarves).  IMG_0558 - Version 2

There is some satisfaction here in conformity and the sameness of even the vegetables with your entree.  There is comfort in the same Parmesan cream sauce over penne and the cream of mushroom soup. The ideas and the conversation can be much like that bowl of soup or that vegetable medley; a little weather conversation and concern about rain mixed with news of old Sally tripping over a frozen cowpie and breaking her hip while sorting cows.

When I long to talk about the protests in Taksim Square or the NSA spying crimes, I bite my tongue and talk of how to make the perfect Manhattan or why Hendriks gin is better than Bombay sapphire as an alternative to the endless discussions of drought and how the tomatoes are growing.  Instead of talking about Booz Allen Hamilton, I talk just booze.

Fortunately with summer comes the summer tourists.  Every once in awhile somebody slightly more like Tikka Masala than Vegetable Medley comes through the door and we engage in asking questions about each others’ countries and customs.   I savor these conversations like I do a good Chimichurri sauce accompanying my flank steak.

In Montana You Can Make a Difference | Electric City Weblog

In Montana You Can Make a Difference | Electric City Weblog.

This was a very good blog even though I disagreed with some, well OK a lot,  of its perspectives.  Contributors  like Gregg Smith and Dave Budge kept things interesting.  And Rob Natelson  perspective as a constitutional scholar was much appreciated.  He did a lot of work.  They are closing down the blog.   There is a lot of that going around.

As a friend recently said, this is a time for more action and less words, words, words.  But I am grateful to those hardy souls who can take a lot of the noise out there and help  us connect the dots and in so doing connect with each other again without interference from our feudal lords and their lackeys.

News From the Saloon – “I Just Can’t Quit You”

That was a great line in “Brokeback Mountain” spoke by one cowpoke to the other.  And this week I heard it in reference to party politics.  A neighbor came up and informed me that he’d just been to Helena, our state capital.

“The Republicans are plum out of their minds up there, ” he said.   He was referring to the new batch of nonsense that clog up our legislative process every two years although it sounds like the atmosphere is not as bat-crap crazy as last time. Continue reading

Know-It-All Stubborn Mules

muleMichael Lewis has this quote at the beginning of his book “The Big Short”.  Kind of explains the whole financial crisis in a nutshell and the whole political circus going on nationally and all the way down to the local level.

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”  -Leo Tolstoy, 1897

A lot of people have their mind already made up despite having facts placed before them.  I heard this recently from a city council member who doesn’t like “public parks” especially ones who are trying to be “sustainable” because that means they are part of U.N. Agenda 21.  “You’re not going to change my mind.”

You see, that’s the first thing I would ask any candidate or politician.  “Could you change your mind?…without a bribe, that is?