Gathering of the Ghosts – January 22, 2024

It’s Not as Bad as You Think

May 5, 2017

In America, we engage in frivolous rhetoric because we can afford to. That’s not a boast. That’s a failure of character. It’s along these lines: The comedian Chris Rock said, “If a homeless person has a funny sign, he hasn’t been homeless that long. A real homeless person is too hungry to be funny.”

I say a nation that was really hurting for themselves or others wouldn’t spend any time calling the other half names. They’d get serious and do whatever it takes to solve the problem.

The American system depends not on purity of purpose but on the hard work of profound and painful compromise. Without it, in our system, nothing gets done.

But if you have nothing at stake personally, whether it’s hunger or healthcare or something else, you can afford to make outrageous statements and refuse compromise because, win or lose, everybody at the table is going home to a warm bed and hot meal. Do you want to talk football or immigration? To many Americans, they’re both just games to be played, sides to be chosen, victories to be won or lost – where the preservation of self-righteousness is more important than outcome.

* * *

How did a nation that fought World Wars I and II descend to this point? Most Americans under the age of 35 have now been taught by our alleged betters that if someone disagrees with them on certain issues, they are free to dismiss that person as evil. They do not have to engage. Dismissing or even destroying that person professionally or personally is just as good – and not only acceptable, but admirable.

Yet on nearly every issue, your opponent is at worst under-informed or petulant or greedy. Rarely is he evil. I’ve met a lot of people in American politics from left to right and I don’t know anybody who gets up in the morning and says I wonder who I can hurt today?

Yet this is exactly how we characterize our opponents, because it gives us a feeling of moral superiority, and gets us out of the hard – and moral – work of compromise, understanding, and persuasion.

Here’s the exact rhetorical formula: If you oppose my means, then you oppose my ends. 

Forgetting, of course, that they are not my ends, but our common ends.

In my country, if you opposed Obamacare, it was said you opposed poor people getting healthcare at all. That’s silly. But right now, it works. You don’t have to understand your own position, much less that of the other guy. You just have to feel – I’m good, you’re bad – and if you can gain a consensus for that, you win. On and on it goes:

If you favor vigorous regulation, you hate business.

If you’re dubious of climate change, you don’t care about the environment.

If you favor diplomacy over military pressure, you’re soft on terror.

If you support limits on immigration, you’re a bigot.

Thus you get the rise of a candidate like Donald Trump who says to one side, you’re not bad people, they’re the bad people. Or a candidate like Hillary Clinton, who says to the other side, they’re deplorables, and we’re alone on the side of goodness and light.

In terms of policy, Clinton and Trump are very different people, but, in terms of rhetoric, they are exactly the same.

* * *

So where is the good news? The history of the world has mostly been about the strong exploiting everyone else. I’m going to find somebody weaker than I am, and I’m going to take their stuff. And now… that has been turned upside down.

Arguments these days aren’t between doing bad or doing good, they’re about whether some particular good is good enough. And if it’s not good enough for one side or the other, it gets labeled “bad.” Which it is not.

Perhaps we’d have more constructive rhetoric if we stopped to appreciate what we’ve achieved as a species.

I quote the comedian Louis CK: I complain that it takes me five hours to fly from Washington to the West Coast. Really? That used to take 30 years. You’d leave with a few people you know and arrive with a whole different group of people.

That cell phone in your pocket that you play games on while you’re in line for coffee? A century ago it would have made a king tremble.

Not only is life easier and more interesting, it’s safer, there is far less human suffering, and we live longer.

So when I see American rhetoric swirling around the drain, I’m disappointed at the shortsightedness… and the hyperbole… and the ignorance. But I see nasty rhetoric, not a nasty world. There is suffering, but we agree that we all should help end it. Yet when we disagree on the means, debate gives way to the gleeful pursuit of personal destruction.

Think about it hard. We are, in the most important sense, on the same good side. But we have to choose to remember that, and work the American system no matter how frustrating it might be. You may find your opponents a sad mystery, but they feel the same way about you. Get to know ‘em for a change. Turns out that the first one to give up on the other side is the one who really loses. 

This is a condensed version of the keynote speech he delivered at Magdalen College at Oxford for a speechwriting seminar in March. 


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