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Lions Roar : January 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 59 KINGWELL: This is something that I’ve discussed in my own work, and I think it’s very important to be clear on this point. There is often a confusion between civility, which is the virtue of citizens engaged in dialogue, and politeness, which is the social carapace of manners and particular ways of talking which may well be wedded to power structures. Genuine civility is about openness and the commitment to risk in order to preserve or cre- ate something bigger. Politeness is often used as a smokescreen or as hypocrisy. So if we can make this distinction—it’s not easy but it can be made—then we don’t face this problem you’re alluding to, which is that we think we’ve done something good if we get rid of all constraint, but all we might be doing is raising the volume. DVORKIN: In the 1950’s, cer- tain kinds of elites controlled the debate and now, fifty years later, other elites are control- ling the debate. My observa- tion is that in the fifties the elites were represented by a kind of Walter Lippman approach to journalism and foreign policy discourse, and by the kind of New England Republicans who believed that it was a good thing to help poor people. There was a belief in bipartisanship, and that was where the smoke-filled back rooms worked. They believed that there was a need for con- sensus politics and that various elements within a society had to have their concerns addressed—not to the extent that they wanted perhaps, but it did create a kind of a big tent philosophy. That quality of civic dialogue has disappeared over the last forty years and has been replaced with a much more sharp- edged, robust, vulgar, if you will, kind of debate that is encap- sulated not by Walter Lippman but by Rush Limbaugh. And that’s the shock that those of us who may have a secret sympa- thy for the old elites find so difficult to deal with. Ms. Schroeder, do you feel we have lost a sense of bipartisanship and mutual respect that was present when you began your career in Congress? S C H R O E D E R : Oh, certainly. People will say, “Well, you didn’t have such strong issues then,” and I always say, “Excuse me? Impeachment of Richard Nixon? Vietnam War? I believe those were fairly strong issues.” Yet there was an understood agreement that you could debate each other like mad all day long on an issue, you could be on opposite sides, but you were still part of a brotherhood or sisterhood where you could be civil to each other. That’s eroded now. All of a sudden it has changed into good guys versus bad guys, and if you are even seen talking on the floor to somebody who doesn’t vote the party line, you’re in real trouble. An important part of this is the effect of reapportionment. Most of the seats in the House of Representatives are totally safe, which means that most representatives only worry about some- body in the extreme of their party taking them on in a primary. So they tend to vote more extremely than they would if they had to reach out and be concerned about a general election and not a primary election. I don’t think that’s been factored enough into how the political rhetoric has changed. It has changed it in a big way. It pays to be honor- ing the more extreme, and the more extreme see that as their biggest leverage. So people become more and more polarized. Having assessed the current state of discourse and some of the reasons we got here, how do we improve it? ROSENBERG: The kind of communication that I think is most powerful in political discourse is dialogue, not just people expressing an opinion and hearing others. It’s in dialogue where I think the real changes and real learning take place. What I would like to see is more room created in the total structure for sincere dia- logue, where people have the power, by getting together with each other, to bring about the kind of changes they would like to see. As I see it, our nation is not a democracy. It’s an oligarchy, controlled by a few people. The last thing they want is dialogue. They want people to be able to express opinions, but there’s not really anywhere those opinions go, which would happen if we had true dialogue. How can face-to-face discourse have impact in a country of 250 million people? „ page 93