Election 2008 and the discourse of transformation

10 years ago

Whether John McCain or Barack Obama wins the Presidency next Tuesday, two things will be clear. First, the United States' electorate will be faced with recovering from a campaign that has left us emotionally overwrought, and in many instances, deeply scarred. The second is that somehow, more of us have to start really listening to each other across lines of difference if the next President is going to be able to effectively govern.

That really concerns me, because I've spent a fair amount of my life thinking about how to keep people engaged in public dialogue. It's a commitment I feel viscerally partially because of my own background, which I've explained to some degree in a previous BlogHer post. But it's a commitment I feel most deeply because I've learned that we pay a price when we stay in our own echo chambers, content to accept caricatures of those with whom we disagree.

Let me explain myself with a bit more of my autobiography.

At Princeton, I was profoundly affected by my work with Prof. Manfred Halpern, a politics professor whose study of Iran during the 1950s led him to develop a theory of transformation as it occurs in individuals, communities, and nations in history. (I am grateful to Tony Ercolano for his concise summary of Manfred's theory, which isn't easily described.) According to Halpern, there are eight fundamental relationships in the world, and each reflects a stage in the process of seeking a kind of personal and social equilibrium. Daily Princetonian writer Jessica Lautin brilliantly observed in a 2001 article that, "Politics, according to Halpern, was not an official contest for power, but rather an attempt at change through positive relationships." Through Manfred (as he preferred his students to call him), I also came to understand that nations are bound and propelled by shared myths, and that social progress requires the questioning, shattering and recasting of our "sacred" stories.

In this election, we are confronted with a transformative moment. Whether that transformation is positive depends, in part, on whether we can find a civil way to recast our central political myths. It's not just about the fact that come January, at least one of the occupants our our top political offices will not be a white male. It's the fact that our economic and energy crises have made us acutely aware of our vulnerability and interdependence in ways we've never had to confront before.

But back to Manfred.

In the spring of 1977, Manfred guided me through my own personal and political transformation during an independent study that required me to revisit a community in which I had worked two summers before. The South Philadelphia community of Tasker-Grays Ferry has been a racial cauldron for decades. Grays Ferry had once been the site of a mill, and the workers there had formed an Irish ethnic enclave that remained politically strong even as the mill closed and the jobs moved downtown. In the years after World War II, a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood had grown up beside it, with all of the animosities that come when people who don't have much feel compelled to defend themselves from people who have even less.

During the summer I worked there, I met lots of hardworking people of all races, along with some drug dealers, hustlers and other shady characters. I also had to deal with incidents of real or threatened violence. I was warned that a gang of Irish kids might attack the trackless trolley I rode to work and beat up people who weren't white. I heard regular stories about violence that poor blacks committed against each other, often over some petty matter.

I interviewed a man who said he had been beaten by a white mob because he was riding his bicycle in a white neighborhood at night, while police officers watched from a nearby cruiser. I saw the stitches in his head where medical personnel picked out bits of broken glass. When I had to walk through that neighborhood, I made sure that I was dressed up and carrying a briefcase -- I wanted to look as if I was operating in some official capacity, and that someone powerful would care if I was harmed. I remember people coming to their doors and watching as I walked down the street. I imagined that they wanted to be sure that I kept moving. I never had a chance to talk to them to learn what they were really thinking.

Working with Manfred, I began to understand the cycles of investment and disinvestment that had created the neighborhood's shaky economic base. I got a more specific understanding of how ward politics and gerrymandering had given Grays Ferry a powerful seat in the City Council, at the expense of Tasker. I rethought my understanding of why many of the Tasker residents saw the police as just another gang. Manfred helped me understand how history, politics and culture had combined to turn a struggling neighborhood into a perpetual battleground.

What would have happened, I kept wondering, if the people of Tasker and Grays Ferry had fought the drug dealers and crooked cops in their neighborhood together, instead of separately? What would have happened if they had jointly focused on the pols who focused economic development on Center City at the expense of the neighborhoods?

I would have another chance to ask that question a few years later, on the occasion of Ronald Reagan's first election to the White House. That night, on a reporting assignment at Princeton, New Jersey's Republican headquarters, I was verbally assaulted by a Reagan supporter after he had quizzed me on my upbringing and education. I had resisted his questions about my opinion of the newly-elected President, insisting that I was there to learn about their views, not to press my own. After accusing me of a "cop-out," he suddenly reared back and started yelling,

"YOU PEOPLE!!! You think you can come in here, with your tailored suit and your articulate speech and your Ivy League degree, and you think we are gonna share the farm with you!!!!!”

Although his attack never went beyond several minutes of ranting and raving, it was a terrifying encounter, especially when the other people in the room stood around us in a circle. (I wrote about the incident in more detail here.)

In Halpern's terminology, the people I encountered were in a state of deformation. Ercolano explains that when confronted with a situation that violates our sense of safety and position:

[T]he individual can enter into dialogue with the new story or retreat to the first myth. A retreat is often accompanied by intense passion (deformation). In deformation people will violate themselves and others in an effort to maintain control. This retreat (arrest) is the path of the fundamentalist or the demagogue, and leaves them with two options: either absolute control or total anarchy.

That incident was a wake-up call for me. The man at Princeton Republican headquarters looked at me with a hostility that I recognized from the faces of the people who tracked my movements through their neighborhood. I suspected that he voiced a fear they also held -- that my progress, probably unearned, was happening at their expense. I realized that I couldn't afford to go through life without some tools for working with people who had spent their lives learning to be afraid of me. And conversely, I knew that despite their fear and hostility, those white folks needed me. I had to "enter into dialog with the new story."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson put the case plainly in his 1988 address to the Democratic National Convention:

Conservatives and progressives, when you fight for what you believe, right wing, left wing, hawk, dove, you are right from your point of view, but your point of view is not enough.

But don't despair. Be as wise as my grandmamma. Pull the patches and the pieces together, bound by a common thread. When we form a great quilt of unity and common ground, we'll have the power to bring about health care and housing and jobs and education and hope to our Nation.

We, the people, can win.

I come to BlogHer to move past my own echo chamber. This is a place that I have come to value because it's a place where so many are willing to push past their own comfort zones to listen, to question, and sometimes even to reconsider our assumptions. I have grown protective of this space, because I believe preserving space for this kind of discussion is essential to preserving civil society.

The next president is likely to face a grim economic and security situation that will be challenging for a good portion of his first term. Social cohesion is likely to be tested as well. We can't afford to hide from each other, to scapegoat, or to demonize. That is why I've generally focused on trying to understand what others are saying, rather than pushing my own opinion.

But we have to do more. BlogHer CE Jill Miller Zimon raised important issues in her recent post about the need for comity in our political speech. Zimon argues that we should have a sensitivity standard in speech:

The desire to win does not justify the pursuit of acts and words that we would never sanction our kids to do. And, ultimately, if you can't win without calling someone names, then you don't deserve to win in the first place.

Fair enough, but I think there's something even more important. We bloggers are rapidly replacing a large portion of what used to be known as the Fourth Estate. Increasingly, we are a source of news, not just opinion. For the sake of our civil society, we have to combat the troubling shift in recent years to a journalism of assertion, instead of a journalism of verification. The folks at the Projects for Excellence in Journalism who coined that phrase talked about its anti-democratic effects in their 2006 book, Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media:

We will argue that in the new Mixed Media Culture the classic function of journalism to sort out a true and reliable account of the day's events is being undermined. It is being displaced by the continuous news cycle, the growing power of sources over reporters, varying standards of journalism, and a fascination with inexpensive, polarizing argument. The press is also increasingly fixated on finding the "big story" that will temporarily reassemble the now-fragmented mass audience. Yet these same characteristics are only serving to deepen the disconnection with citizens, diminish the press's ability to serve as a cohesive cultural force, and weaken the public's tether to a true account of the news. The long-term implications for the role the Founders saw as most important for the press -- that of being a forum for public debate and as such a catalyst for problem solving -- is being eroded.

I still believe in journalism as the pursuit of truth, and I hold blogging to the same standard. David Mindich, author of Just the Facts: How "Objectivity" came to define American journalism, who told me in a 2006 interview:

[W]hen we claim objectivity we, first of all, have to know what it means and know its limitations. On the other hand, we must try to be fair. We must try to be accurate. A lot of critics of objectivity kind of just dismiss it and say “well, it’s possible journalists really can never get it to fact” and I think that that’s probably too dismissive approach because we need information that we can agree on is true and the only way, in fact, that we can hold leadership accountable and know what’s going on in society is if we have journalists who take their job very seriously and present us with a pretty good account of what is going on.

We have a great opportunity here at BlogHer to demonstate that sustained civil discourse is possible. Let's not waste it.

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