Remember the old saying to the effect that one shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite company? Last night, I think I observed a slightly different version, to wit: people with wildly different political orientations can be perfectly pleasant to each other if they avoid discussing specific policies.
I realize this isn’t exactly practical as a prescription for civic argumentation, but hey–it’s a start.
Last night, an undergraduate class at SPEA–under the direction of Professor John Clark–presented a community discussion on the topic “Distrust in Government.” The students did all the work–conceived the program, invited the participants, found the venue and promoted the event. They did a great job, and despite the really awful weather, the Lilly Auditorium at IUPUI’s library was approximately two-thirds full.
The first panel was particularly interesting: it included a representative of the local Tea Party, a long-time chair of the Indiana Libertarian party, and a member (she declined to be identified as a “representative”) of the Indiana Occupy Wall Street movement. All three were pleasant, civil to the others, and in agreement that government is broken. The Tea Party representative began by assuring the audience that “we’re nicer than people think.” He quoted the Founding Fathers and portions of the Constitution (much as Biblical literalists quote the Bible, without dwelling on questions about how those texts should apply in a complex contemporary society), and urged the students to become involved. Hard to argue with that.
The Libertarian was easily the best speaker and clearly the most nuanced thinker of the three. He was funny and he was also realistic about the prospects that face third parties.
The woman from OWS seemed bright, but exhibited what has widely been seen as a central weakness of the movement–when an audience member asked her what it is that the OWS movement is trying to achieve, she responded that different members want different things, and she explicitly rejected the idea of what she termed “hierarchy” and what some of us might call organization.
What all of the panelists expressed, in one way or another, was frustration–with politics, with the role of money in politics, with the fecklessness or overreaching of government, or both.
It was an entirely civil discussion, because it focused upon a theme all three could endorse–we need to fix our government so that we can trust it again. Had the question been “how should we fix it?” my guess is that the civility would have been harder to sustain. But it was a start.
Kudos to Dr. Clark and his students. We need more venues for such discussions–even for more heated ones.