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Channeling Bill Buckley

Posted by Jim Johnson on
Jim Johnson

What do the following have in common?

  1. The Koch Brothers
  2. Benghazi
  3. Ferguson, Missouri
  4. Islam
  5. George Zimmerman
  6. Fox News
  7. Michelle Obama
  8. The Affordable Care Act
  9. The Second Ammendment
  10. Pro-choice 

Despite the obvious (three are people, two are geographic locations, three are the law of the land, one is a corporation and one is the second largest religion in the world), what do these enumerated ten have in common? The answer is simple -- they all have the instant ability to polarize and divide us. 

Unless you have recently emerged from a coma, you most likely have a strong opinion on all ten and on a moments notice can distinguish your opinion on each from opposing "wrong" opinions.  Such is the nature of the world we now live in.

This is not merely a polarized nation, but instead a polarized world. Never before have more people had access to more information and the opportunity to communicate with ease... and simultaneously I would submit to you, never have people been more polarized, isolated and perhaps alone.

Our world in 2014 provides us with seemingly infinite opportunities for homophily (the tendency to affiliate and bond with those who possess similar preferences) and consequently, the concomitant tendency to distinguish others who are not like us, isolate them and demonize them.

Depending on your ideological preference, you can watch Fox News, or MSNBC. You can listen to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity for nine hours each day without changing your radio station.

Whether through our use of the Internet, our smartphone/tablet, cable television station or social media, we can insulate and isolate ourselves, surrounding our persona in a virtual womb of intellectual comfort... a womb which will not nourish growth however, but rather enhance the familiar world we find so comforting. 

In those venues we can venture into the realm of controversy without personal risk. We can comfortably watch our favorite advocate eviscerate some hapless tool representing the "other" side... 

Rachael Maddow destroys Sarah Palin, not face to face, but rather by arguing against selected sound bites and video.

Ann Coulter attacks President Obama, not in person, but through the misleading formula of arguing against statements he has made, all too often unartfully redacted.  

There is safety in selective, detached isolation. But intellectual growth does not often occur in the presence of comfort. 

To grow intellectually we must leave that which we find comfortable and explore unfamiliar people, places and thoughts. Only then can we position ourselves to know the strengths of our own convictions and gain insights into alternatives presented by opposing points of view.

Along the way, in the past few years, I would submit, we have lost the art of enlightened civil discourse. We have forgotten the eloquent beauty of reflective verbal exchanges. The style once exercised weekly by William F. Buckley on Firing Line.

I never agreed with a single political position Buckley espoused or an article he wrote (with perhaps the exception of one on sailing), but I watched and read him faithfully. I grew as a result of his making me feel uncomfortable with his precise erudition (and along the way I learned the proper use of the word "salubrious").

So what is the difference between the approach of Ann Coulter and the late William F. Buckley? Both were highly educated and conservative. The answer is simple -- Coulter seeks to take advantage of our homophilic nature and divide us; Buckley sought to expose the weakness in opposing points of view and educate us. 

Sometime find the YouTube video clips of arguments between Buckley and Noam Chomsky or even the more vitriolic exchange between Buckley and Gore Vidal at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. The discourse is sharp, witty, and eloquent. 

One cannot watch the one hour program with Chomsky and not gain insight into the positions of both men. Buckley never harbored the thought that he would convert Chomsky nor visa versa. One comedic threat aside, Buckley attacked the opposing point of view, not the personal vehicle which brought it to him.

Ann Coulter seeks to shock and divide. She is the storm trooper for her homophilous audience and presents her arguments from behind the safety of the host's kill switch, the call screener, and the seven-second delay. Exposure to her rants leaves one not feeling enriched but rather feeling the need for a long, hot shower.

By contrast, tonight marks the start of another season of Currently Speaking.

Currently Speaking is an absolute regional institution and treasure. It is a gift we should more fully utilize and value. It is far different than the scripted, formulaic, repetitive clones we find literally by the dozens on endless cable television channels, radio talk shows, and web sites limited only in number by the ability to create another .com domain.

Currently Speaking is a live program (rare these days) with real potential for viewer participation. In this simple electronic town hall format we can challenge one another and take issue with opposing points of view.

Once each week on Tuesday evenings we have the opportunity to spend an hour hopefully not scoring points by sharpening our differences but by sharing opposing points of view.

Let’s strive to identify new sources of information and draw upon the factors which mutually interest us rather than the shallow surface issues which divide us. Let us agree to educate one another not alienate.  I can aggressively attack your point of view without attacking you personally. Such is the domain of reasoned civil discourse. 

Amid the cacophony of divisive forces clamoring for our time and attention, let’s resolve to meet here once each week and explore the diversity which makes us rich. If done correctly, we can find ourselves at 9:00 pm each Tuesday evening, longing for another hour and not a long, hot shower.


Jim Johnson is an adjunct professor of political science at Northwood University.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.

About

Currently Speaking host Andy Rapp

Veteran journalist Andy Rapp has been hosting Currently Speaking since 1999.

Each week, he's joined live in the studio by journalists, academics, and experts. Along with viewers at home, they tackle the local, national, and global issues that matter most.