Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We’re Not ‘Cowards,’ We’re Just Loud

Interesting piece, but the footer describing him is a bit baffling: Stephen L. Carter, a novelist and Yale law professor, is writing a book about what democracy needs now. Huh?

Writing teachers everywhere tell their students that context is everything. But if the response to Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks last week to Justice Department employees is any guide, teachers everywhere are wrong. The speech was written for Black History Month. Now, a week later, what most people know about the talk is that the attorney general accused his fellow citizens of being, on the matter of race, “a nation of cowards.”

AG Eric Holder's remarks were posted on the Justice Department website. The paragraph therein where he makes that statement reads:

Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. But we must do more- and we in this room bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must - and will - lead the nation to the "new birth of freedom" so long ago promised by our greatest President. This is our duty and our solemn obligation.

it is the second paragraph; this remarks total 2,353 words. Mister Carter makes a very valid point: The speech itself was more than 2,300 words. The already infamous phrase occurred about 150 words in. Thus we are left with well over 2,000 unanalyzed words — that is, the context for the phrase. For too many critics, the context of Mr. Holder’s remarks (like the context of former Senator Phil Gramm’s accusation during the election campaign that we are a “nation of whiners”) is quite beside the point.

4 full pages of words are far too long for television and the Internet pundits.

Indeed, the truly intriguing aspect is not what the attorney general had to say about race, but rather what he had to say about the way in which we discuss it. Our national conversation on race, said Mr. Holder, “is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own narrow self-interest.”

Mr. Holder suggests that each February be a month to discuss race. I would suggest that we use February of every year to not only commemorate black history but also to foster a period of dialogue among the races. This is admittedly an artificial device to generate discussion that should come more naturally, but our history is such that we must find ways to force ourselves to confront that which we have become expert at avoiding.

Mr. Carter: Democracy, at its best, rests on a foundation of mutual respect among co-equal citizens willing to take the time for serious debate. After all, even on the momentous issues that divide us, there is usually the possibility that the other side has a good argument. Yet if we paint our opponents as monsters, we owe them no obligation to pay attention to what they have to say.

Serious debate? Attacks, sound bites, divisive partisanship, yahoo talk radio pundits whipping up the masses, insults.

Forty-five years ago, in his classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter warned against this tendency, and worried that it would recur in every era. There is, he suggested, something in the Western psyche that too often makes us retreat to a vision of politics in which there is no complexity. “Since what is at stake,” wrote Hofstadter, “is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”

That nails it: the ideologues refuse to admit that anyone else can get it right. And both the very-partisan right and very-partisanleft don't get Obama.

Complexity is the enemy of such fundamentalism, and, as our public dialogue grows more fundamentalist, complexity fades. If we Americans can make our way past the fanfare over the most controversial words in Mr. Holder’s speech, perhaps we can learn from his reminder that democracy needs dialogue more than it needs bumper stickers.

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