Talking to ourselves
As dumbness has been defined downward in American public life during the last two decades, one of the most important and frequently overlooked culprits is the public’s increasing reluctance to give a fair hearing -- or any hearing at all -- to opposing points of view.
A few years ago, I delivered a lecture at Eastern Kentucky University on the history of American secularism, and was pleased, in the heart of the Bible Belt, to have attracted an audience of about 150. The response inside the hall was enthusiastic because everyone there, with the exception of a few bored students whose professors had made attendance a requirement, agreed with me before I opened my mouth.
Around the corner, hundreds more students were packing an auditorium to hear a speaker sponsored by the Campus Crusade for Christ, a conservative organization that “counter-programs” secular lectures at many colleges. The star of the evening was a self-described recovering pedophile who claimed to have overcome his proclivities by being “born again.” (And yes, it is a blow to the ego to find oneself less of a draw than a penitent pedophile.)
It is safe to say that almost no one who attended either lecture on the Kentucky campus that night was exposed to a new or disturbing idea. Indeed, virtually everywhere I speak, 95% of the audience shares my political and cultural views -- and serious conservatives report exactly the same experience on the lecture circuit.
Whether watching television news, consulting political blogs or (more rarely) reading books, Americans today have become a people in search of validation for opinions that they already hold. This absence of curiosity about other points of view is the essence of anti-intellectualism and represents a major departure from the nation’s best cultural traditions.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, Americans jammed lecture halls to hear Robert Green Ingersoll, known as “the Great Agnostic,” attack organized religion and question the existence of God. They did so not because they necessarily agreed with him but because they wanted to make up their own minds about what he had to say and see for themselves whether the devil really had horns.
Similarly, when Thomas Henry Huxley, the British naturalist who popularized Darwin’s theory of evolution, came to the U.S. in 1876, he spoke to standing-room-only audiences, even though many of his listeners were genuinely shocked by his views.
This spirit of inquiry, which demands firsthand evidence and does not trivialize opposing points of view, is essential to a society’s intellectual and political health.
Richard Hofstadter, in his classic 1963 work, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” argued that among “the major virtues of liberal society in the past was that it made possible such a variety of styles of intellectual life -- one can find men notable for being passionate and rebellious, for being elegant and sumptuous, or spare and astringent, clever and complex, patient and wise, and some equipped mainly to observe and endure. ... It is possible, of course, that the avenues of choice are being closed and that the culture of the future will be dominated by single-minded men of one persuasion or another. It is possible; but insofar as the weight of one’s will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that it not be so.”
Hofstadter was of course using the word “liberal” with a small “l,” in the sense that the term had been used in the past -- as a synonym for open-mindedness and concern for liberty of thought instead of as the right-wing political epithet it has become during the last 25 years.
When I recently spoke about the militant parochialism of American intellectual life on a radio talk show, a caller responded by telling me that there was nothing new about Americans preferring to bask in the reflected glow of their own opinions. Talk radio and political blogs, in his view, are merely the modern equivalent of friends -- and haven’t we always chosen friends who agree with us?
Well, no. Tell it to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who certainly had many, often bitter disagreements about politics and whose correspondence nevertheless leaps off the page as an example of the illumination to be derived from exchanges of ideas between friends who respect each other even though they do not always share the same opinions.
“You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other,” Adams wrote Jefferson in 1815.
It is doubtful that today’s politicians will spend much time trying to explain themselves to one another even after they leave office. They are, after all, creatures of a culture in which it is acceptable, on the Senate floor, for Vice President Dick Cheney to tell Vermont’s Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy to “go [obscene verb] yourself”
There is a direct connection between the debasement of political discourse and the public’s tendency to tune out any voice that is not an echo. “Swift boating” can succeed in politics only because of the correct assumption that huge numbers of Americans lack the broad knowledge that would enable them to spot blatantly unfair attacks. If Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, we will surely hear, from the slimier corners of the blogosphere, a renewal of the lie that he is a Muslim. John McCain got the same treatment from George W. Bush supporters in the 2000 campaign, when the rumor that his adopted child from Bangladesh was really his own illegitimate African American baby cost him votes in the Republican primary in South Carolina. Voters of any political persuasion who watch only cable news shows or consult only blogs that support their preconceptions are patsies for these kinds of lies.
Ironically, the unprecedented array of choices, on hundreds of cable channels and the Web, have contributed to the decline of common knowledge and the denigration of fairness by both the right and the left. No one but a news junkie has the time or the inclination to spend the entire day consulting diverse news sources on the Web, and the temptation to seek out commentary that fits neatly into one’s worldview -- whether that means the Huffington Post or the Drudge Report -- is hard to resist.
Genuine fairness does not mean the kind of bogus objectivity that always locates truth equidistant from two points, but it does demand that divergent views be understood and taken into account in approaching public issues. In re-reading Hofstadter several years ago, I was struck by the fairness of his scholarship, a serious, old-fashioned attempt to engage the arguments of his opponents and to acknowledge evidence that ran counter to his own biases. I had not noticed that when I read the book for the first time in the 1960s because fairness was, to a considerable degree, taken for granted in those days as an ideal for aspiring young scholars and writers.
A vast public laziness feeds the media’s predilection today to distill news through polemicists of one stripe or another and to condense complex information into meaningless sound bites. On April 8, for example, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq, testified before the Senate in hearings that lasted into the early evening. Although the hearings were on cable during the day, the networks offered no special programming in the evening, and newscasts were content with sound bites of McCain, Obama and Hillary Clinton questioning the general. Dueling presidential candidates were the whole story.
Absent from most news reports was testimony concerning the administration’s ongoing efforts to forge agreements with various Iraqi factions without submitting the terms to Congress for ratification -- a development with constitutional implications as potentially serious as the Watergate affair. No matter. Anyone who wanted to hear Petraeus bashed or applauded could turn to his or her preferred political cable show or click on a blog to find an unchallenging interpretation of the day’s events.
The tepid interest in the substance of Petraeus’ testimony on the part of the public and much of the media contrasts sharply with the response to the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. All 319 hours of the first round of the hearings were televised, and 85% of Americans tuned in to at least some of the proceedings live.
I remember those weeks as a period when everyday preoccupations faded into the background and we found time, as a people, to perform our civic duty. An ongoing war may lack the drama of Watergate, but it is doubtful that anything short of another terrorist attack on our soil would convince today’s public that it ought to read the transcript of a lengthy congressional hearing or pay attention, for more than five minutes, to live news as it unfolds.
It is past time for Americans to stop attributing the polarization of our public life to the media, the demon entity “Washington” or “the elites.” As long as we continue to avoid the hard work of scrutinizing public affairs without the filter of polemical shouting heads, we have no one to blame for the governing class and its policies but ourselves.
Like Hofstadter, I yearn to live in a society that values fair-mindedness. But it will take nothing less than a revolutionary public recommitment to the pursuit of fairness, knowledge and memory to halt, much less reverse, the trend toward an ignorant single-mindedness that threatens the future of democracy itself.