Dialogue: How to Discuss an Issue
One of my retirement activities is conversation. I love talking with people, but not so much small talk as big talk. I like to discuss things that really matter. For decades I have sought out people not likely to agree with me for such discussions. I do a lot of this online as emails, but my favorite way is in person.
A few years ago I started an email conversation with Tony, a political conservative. We had both had letters-to-the-editor published locally and we got in touch by email to discuss our very different views. A little later a local psychologist got a letter published suggesting civil discussion across ideological and party lines. Tony and I got in touch with him and the three of us met every few weeks in Larry’s office. Over time each of us told friends about our little group and it grew. Eventually it grew to an email list of about twenty people who range from the left all the way to the Tea Party. We now call our group The Curmudgeons.
The email correspondence is overwhelming but I try to engage in it as best as I can. The in-person meetings are now monthly and these follow a format that allows everyone to be heard. There is a main speaker and then everyone in the room gets an opportunity to ask questions or express an opinion. We try to find speakers among ourselves but have started bringing in people. Our most recent meeting, at which there were 16 people in attendance, had a professional commercial lobbyist as speaker.
I came to this idea of conversations among different kinds of people from my own life experience. At age fourteen I was part of a group which probably consisted entirely of what we would now call nerds. We met once a month and brought in a speaker or film for discussion. On TV in Chicago we had a truly remarkable talk show, “At Random” with Irv Kupcinet. This unrehearsed one-camera program started after the late movie on Saturday night and lasted for about two hours. I wish I could find a recording of one of these programs but I think none exist. I did find a brief clip on YouTube with just the introduction of the guests which included Walter Winchell, Walter Cronkheit, and Edward R. Murrow. I guess the subject was going to be news media. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NP_bJJYuP9U
There are also historical models for this group. Benjamin Franklin presided over such a group for about forty years, until he got too busy with the Revolution. He called his group Junto and its members included people of various opinions. Mark Twain also had such a group who met over cigars and scotch for decades. Before then, there were the coffee houses of Europe where men (I think it was mostly men) would discuss the affairs of the day over cups of joe. Madame de Stael held salons in Paris and other places where the great men of her day met to discuss and argue. Then, of course, there was the salon of Gertrude Stein early in the 20th century.
The Curmudgeons seeks to keep alive a wonderful and venerable tradition of polite conversation of hot issues.
How do we do this? We are not allowed to attack each other personally and we are encouraged to argue our own opinions and beliefs while respecting those of others. I have a favorite teaching about dialogue from Hasidic tradition. It says that in order to dialogue we must be true to ourselves. I learned this from my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who quotes it in the name of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (sources are important). Here goes (you ought to read this out loud and probably more than once in order to understand it).
If I am I because you are you
You are you because I am I
I am not I and You are not you.
If I am I because I am I
You are you because you are you
I am I
You are you.
[And we can talk]
“History is bunk,” said Henry Ford. This was the man who wrote “The International Jew,” which asserted that Jews were out to subvert and debase western civilization. Of course he would say history is bunk because no reputable historian would support his bigoted theory.
What passes for history in our schools is boring and unenlightening, which is why most students say they do not like history classes. For them history is a chronology of kings and wars and only those of a few nations. The facts of history are carefully selected so as not to offend the Texas Board of Education and its like.
On “Jeopardy!” the two subjects that contestants are worst on are history and geography. Americans are singularly ignorant about what goes on in the world. Much of what passes for history is really indoctrination. Questions are not encouraged and neither is thinking in those classes. If you haven’t already, you should read “Lie My Teacher Told Me” by James W. Loewen. Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of The United States.”
A recent popular distortion of history comes from gun advocates. The NRA and its supporters maintain that Americans should possess military arms in case our government turns totalitarian. They cite Hitler’s Germany, the USSR, China, and Cambodia as examples of people who could have overthrown tyrannies if they had enough guns in private hands. This ignores the violent, armed civil wars that preceded these regimes (except the Third Reich which came to power through political process). They spout the laughable idea that if the Jews of Germany had arms they could have prevented the Holocaust. This is an intentional distortion of history suited to a political purpose. It is an example of why it is vital for us to learn history.
Recently I watched Oliver Stone’s Showtime series “Untold History of The United States.” Nothing in that series, so far as I could tell, is untrue, but I do not think it represents the whole picture. Nonetheless almost all of what we see there is unknown to most people. During our lifetime our country has been guilty of some terrible things. These grow out of the idea of exceptionalism and the idea that the United States is a global power.
Exceptionalism is the belief that one’s nation is somehow above judgment no matter what it does. This is the “house on a hill” vision so basic to our vision of our nation turned into a nightmare. As Abraham Lncoln noted we should not be saying “God is on our side,” (which is the essence of exceptionalism), but we should be worrying about whether we are on God’s side.
The view that we are a global power is overextending our resources. We have a military presence in 160 countries. We never leave anywhere once we are there. We spend more on the military than the next 26 nations combined and that is just the Pentagon’s government. “Defense” budgets are found in the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, Interior, and elsewhere. In the span of human history empires fail when they overreach. Decline and fall comes just as an empire reaches its greatest extent.
Oliver Stone needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but he has a lot of importance to teach us about who we are and what America has become. I recommend also his “Power of Nightmares,” which gives a parallel history of the Neo-Conservative movement and Muslim fundamentalism.
As usual my advice is to be skeptical, even of what I write.
The following is an op-ed piece I wrote a couple of years ago. My local paper would not publish it, but I think my readers might enjoy it. The footnote links were included because the newspaper editor insisted on them. Some of them might be of interest.
Do Not Fear Islam
On September 11 this year my college classmate Laurie walked the ten minutes from her loft to Ground Zero to witness the demonstrations going on that day. She writes, “I spent more time in the anti-Park51 crowd than the pro- side because I wanted to talk to people, try to educate and to find out why they thought what they did so strongly as to come to NY to demonstrate. I got the feeling that many of them are extremely misinformed and many are unfortunately genuinely very scared because of all that they do not know and the misinformation they’ve been fed, and of course plain old fashioned fear of people not like themselves,…” A recent Pew poll shows that people who know Muslims are less likely to fear and hate Muslims. Since Islam is a minority religion in this country (population percentage is estimated at one to two percent) most Americans have never met a Muslim let alone have any personal or work relationship with one. More than half of Americans say they know little or nothing about Islam.
In my bachelor days I had a landlord who believed that the Jews were in cahoots with the Chinese to take over the world and destroy Western civilization. He was a Bosnian and the first Muslim I ever knew socially. Not that he was a very religious Muslim. He liked a drink from time to time. Once he lent me a book by Henry Ford called “The International Jew.” This was the source of my landlord’s information. Ford bought a newspaper (The Dearborn Independent) expressly to serve as a medium for his anti-Semitic writing. Every Ford dealership in America gave away booklets from these writings and Ford sponsored the weekly radio “sermons” of Father Coughlin also attacking the supposed Jewish subversion of America. He had about a third of the national radio audience and was the Glenn Beck of his day combining paranoid politics and religion. Among American supporters of Hitler in the 1930s were American hero Charles Lindbergh and Readers’ Digest Magazine. Even after World War II, when the extent of the horrors committed by the Nazis was known, there were politicians in this country who tried to block visas for Jewish refugees on the grounds they might be subversives. To this day you can find these same anti-Jewish rants all over the Internet.
When I read, see, or hear the Islamic faith accused of trying to take over the world or “Islamicize” America I see the same ugly forces at work. We’ve been here before. The ravings of extremists in the early 20th century led to the Holocaust. I shudder to think what the current anti-Islamic rants might lead to. This is so especially because the fear and hatred of Muslims is being actively promoted by politicians and media stars for their own purposes. Let me be clear: I see Islamophobia as a bigotry that relies on the ignorance of most Americans about Islam and the people whose faith is Islam.
Who are America’s Muslims? As with all large groups of people there are all kinds: religious and secular, liberal and conservative, smart and not-so-smart, open-minded and prejudiced, law-abiding and not. Public opinion polls show that the vast majority of Muslims here want to fit in and be accepted.  They are seeking ways to practice their religion as a minority. Islam teaches a moral life and its social values are the same as those of any religious tradition, by which I mean they teach the Golden Rule. Do they have a vision of all of humanity being Muslim? Some do, but then some Christians want to see every human soul within their faith. Both have a history of bloodshed in pursuit of such goals. The Koran is essentially a book of sermons preaching morality and kindness. Some pick out verses that have ugly implications, but the same could be done with our Bible. Some Muslim fundamentalists take verses from the Koran out of their contexts to give them violent applications. Some Jews and Christians have done the same with the Bible. Contrary to the common impression terrorism is against what Islam teaches about war and many authorities around the world have said so without reservation. The question is why those decrees have received virtually no acknowledgement in American news media.
America’s Muslims are facing the same kinds of prejudice that immigrants have faced throughout American history. The American Muslims I have known personally hope that they will, in the end, be accepted as a normal, accepted part of the American people. Our great national tradition of pluralism which makes us a beacon of hope to the whole world requires no less.
 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/lindbergh/sfeature/fallen.html and http://rationalrevolution.net/war/american_supporters_of_the_europ.htm (note that Prescott Bush, father of George H W and grandfather of George W, was among Hitler’s admirers)
 http://pewresearch.org/assets/pdf/muslim-americans.pdf and http://www.muslimindex.org/index.html the latter reference is to a site that deals with a variety of issues and both of these sites are excellent resources for your writers.
[The following was posted to a friend with whom I have been discussing gun issues for years. He recently sent me some informative material from NRA and this is my response. I’d like to hear from others reading this blog, especially those who oppose gun control.)