HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 20, 2007
From Liberty Street

Exhaustion

John Turner


We need to face the truth that there is such a thing as burnout. And I fear we're approaching it with respect to political debate and political posturing in the United States now. Over the next fifteen months all the presidential candidates are going to keep on saying the same things they're saying now, and all the pundits are going to keep ridiculing certain of the candidates and extolling others. The main journalistic effort will be devoted to announcing who's pulling ahead and who's falling behind. But there will be little analysis of the quality of the candidate's policies and no attempt to relate the value of a policy to the success of a campaign.

All this, by wearing me down, has forced me to reconsider the worth of vigorous argument in political affairs. And such a reconsideration constitutes a dramatic turnaround for me. I have been, for most of my life, a faithful believer in the worth of reasoned discussion. I have been convinced that, over time, the better argument will win out. But now my faith is beginning to waver.

In order for reason to prevail there has to be a form of good will among people who argue. If an opponent makes an effective point, it has to be acknowledged and incorporated in the subsequent conversation. Through that process of fairness and humility, the stronger arguments come more and more to the fore and eventually become established as the nearest approximation of truth available to us.

Without that good will, there is no process and consequently no movement in the argument. I can't find that element of good will in the political discussions proceeding in America right now. We are stuck, flailing against immovable walls and dissipating our energies to no avail. I can't see how we're going to get unstuck.

Perhaps the most viscous glue holding us down is the dogma that all good Americans want the same things for their country, and anyone who doesn't want those things must be insane. This is clearly, itself, an insane argument and yet it continues to be proposed as though no alternative can be imagined.

I have said -- more times than I like to remember -- that I don't want to live in the sort of country most Republicans would construct if they could have their way. My argument with them is not over method, it is over substance. If we could simply admit to one another that we have different aims, then at least we would be on a footing to begin discussing, rationally, how we can manage, collectively, the clash of those aims. Compromise might become possible. A settlement might be reached without either hatred or violence. None of us would like it, but, still, it might be the best arrangement possible under current conditions.

We can't reach that settlement as long as we keep pronouncing there's a right way and a wrong way. That's nonsense. There's simply your way and my way, and neither of them is the "American" way because Americans are divided about the right way to go, the right way to live, the right way to believe.

As for myself, I don't have any right ways. I know the sort of society I would like to inhabit, and I want simply to support what I want and to win as many people to my side as possible while finding ways to live alongside people who definitely do not want what I want. I make no claim that God is on my side, or that I'm on God's side.

It has been possible in history to work out arrangements whereby different aims can be accommodated. The Constitution of the United States is one such arrangement. Though it is not perfect, and certainly did not descend from God, it has been serviceable.

Working out arrangements whereby we can live with people who have different desires than we do can be energizing. In the process, we might find more common ground than we now suppose exists.  Shouting, I'm right and you're wrong, though it may temporarily charge people up, is not, over the long run, energizing. It's exhausting. Eventually it simply leaves us feeling empty.

That's how we feel now, because we've been shouting too much. I wish I knew how to escape the emptiness, because until we do our public affairs are are going to be extremely tiring. I dread to think how weary we'll all be a year from this November.


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