Brainstorm is a blog on Ideas and Culture that I find really thought provoking. In his February 12, 2012, entry, Todd Gitlin asks, “Is it Possible for Americans to have an Honest Discussion About Government?” My cynicism has not yet eclipsed my hopefulness and so my answer is, “Yes, it is possible. Si, se puede!” But how and what do we gain/lose by engaging in honest debate?
Gitlin’s entry is a contemplation on a New York Times article on critics of government safety nets who also depend on these daily. So, various commentators have been “brainstorming” (great blog name BTW) about this. As indicated in the NYT article, people who firmly believe the government is too involved in the lives of the people are also loathe to admit their own dependence on government subsidies. When the hard truth is brought to light and an admission seems unavoidable, said recipients lament the fact and indicate they’d rather do without the assistance. Good, good but not productive.
I was fascinated in reading this because the emotional and psychological work required to recast reality seems substantial. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s must read essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” which deals with omissions of race in literature but these things are transferable, so bear with me… So, what work goes into denying the reality of receiving subsidies and what trickery is involved in simultaneously rejecting the notion of subsidies being necessary to conduct normal daily affairs (the NYT article sites allowing after school sports activities for children and paying for necessary medical operations). The article gave no answers but shed light on the issue… good, good.
In order to have an honest discussion about government we’d need to deal with the uncomfortable truths of our reality forthrightly. We’d need to, as a nation, look at hardship head on, meet it in the eye, and call it what it is in order to deal with it meaningfully. We’d have to own up to the blues, honestly. So, instead of repeating favorite feel-good political soundbites and calls for “smaller government, lower taxes” and requests to “privatize healthcare, social security, education” etc., we’d have to ask, “Why is it that I can work full-time and still not be able to pay for after school sports for my children?” or “How is it that I have worked 30+ years and can’t afford to have the operation my wife needs” or “Why can’t I afford for my child to go to a ‘good’ school?” — All variations on the theme, “My baby done left me, oh what am I going to do?”In The Omni Americans Albert Murray reminds his readers that the blues ballad, “almost always [relates] a story of frustration [but] could hardly be described as a device for avoiding the unpleasant facts… on the contrary, it is a very specific and highly effective vehicle… [for] acknowledg[ing] the essentially tenuous nature of all human existence.” (Murray, 57) Honest answers to hard questions are necessary in order to move political conversations from soundbite to real life. In this case, we need to illuminate the relationship between the private sector and government.
Gitlin notes, “We can legitimately debate which taxes are fairer, and which expenditures most necessary and just, but as long as up-by-the-bootstraps ideology runs rampant, realistic debate is crippled by dishonesty. Unacknowledged dependency on the whole social network—not just on government—makes for delusions about how easy it would be to dispense with the safety net.” Significantly, these delusions keep progress at bay.
One way to begin having an honest discussion about government is to move thoughtful conversation from the classroom into the living room via the airwaves. Why? Because educators are trained to dig beneath the surface of ideas and excavate the hidden treasures and because so many people get their “news” and political ideas from TV and radio. Those trained in subject-specific research are experts who have committed their professional lives to knowing a subject deeply. When we engage them in conversations and allow their voices to integrate the mainstream media and infiltrate households, we pollinate the populace with ideas, the seeds of critical thinking — this is a bold new move.
I am excited about Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show which airs on Saturdays and Sundays beginning February 18, 2012, but not just because she’s smart as all get-out, poised and balanced in her approach but because she represents a move to elevate political discussion. Harris-Perry will not avoid the hard truths of our reality, she will delve in with a brain trained to think critically and to engage. She will extract the nuggets of gold that will enrich us all. She says, “Part of the way I end up here is, I think the ivory tower has a ton of brilliant information that doesn’t show up for ordinary people.” Chris Hayes, who also has a show on MSNBC talks about time. He says, “Sometimes it has taken five minutes… to get past the talking points that are familiar to any cable news viewer. But we have the luxury of time.” Yes, thinking takes time and delivers the opposite of soundbites and 30 second news clips. Harris-Perry’s show airs a full two hours for two days in a row. Cynical me says this must be tied to some profit margin but intellectual me thinks this is the right thing to do. Thoughtful conversation takes time. Harris-Perry and Hayes are part of a movement to reinvest in the power of intellect and an acknowledgment — by the market no less — that thinking takes time and has long-term benefits.
The NYT article on Harris-Perry poses the question, “Is this a sign of the rise of the academic on TV? Though cable news is still stereotyped by some as a 24-7 screaming match, there are now pockets of intellectual stimulation that did not exist a decade ago.” — the rise of academics on TV will cause a rise in the level of political discourse. Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC notes, “Today, our audience thrives on being smart.” Finally, the market has demanded more intelligent TV.
This leads me to the idea of job creation. Why? Because the market seems to finally be acknowledging what educators have always known — thinking is valuable. Harris-Perry and the like are not trained in math or science and according to the soundbite scenarios, “we need more math and science” in order to be competitive — perhaps. However, it seems to me that a better educated and more thoughtful public trained to think critically in all areas, increases national competitiveness long-term. Imagine the US nimble and flexible enough to change with changing global demands because its entire population was prepared to contribute thoughtful, informed options or responses to whatever obstacle we faced. Perhaps the US can become a nation of thought leaders who collaborate with thought leaders in every region of the world to coordinate efforts to combat any number of global ills, including: climate change, poverty, healthcare, etc. Imagine the industries associated with this growth in thought leadership.
By engaging honest debate we stand to lose the comforts of delusion and these are many. We would have to take responsibility for our contributions to the fracturing our systems of governance, healthcare, education, etc., painfully engage the unknown and have the courage to create something new. We would gain integrity and be offended that the current negative political campaigns and mudslinging avoid engaging hard questions and supply only soundbite answers instead. We would gain an engaged and better informed populace invested in creating new systems rather than simply and unimaginatively destroying what we have. We would move towards solutions and not run from the hardship of our many problems. We need the blues, honestly.