How American Discourse Goes Awry

by Alan Gibson, guest writer

Newsweek magazine recently clouted me across the snout with a stark observation: “How utterly we fail at discussing culture in American.”

 OK, that hurt. I discuss American culture all the time. For example, my observation that Newsweek’s new format is about as exciting as the owner’s manual for a tractor. But let’s say Newsweek’s stark observation is true. Here are four suggestions as to how the American discourse can go awry:

 1. We shout at one another. There is a perception, abetted by tele-pundits, that the loudest voice wins the argument. The dignity of a completed thought is rarely permitted in televised debate. When asked if he’d please stop interrupting his guests, Bill O’Reilly said “No. My job is to conduct a spirited discussion.”

 2. We argue to advance an agenda rather than to learn. Good arguing is not a contest but a cooperation in pursuit of truth. And conversation is the search for essence. How are you, we entreat one another, sometimes actually wanting to know. To talk at leisure with a good person is to discover all manner of fine things.

 3. We opt for ideological consistency when the point is truth. Beauty resides – and danger lurks – all along the political spectrum. To loiter intellectually at either of the antipodes is to substitute formula for thought process. James Carville and Mary Matalin, the media couple, are engaging not when they recite talking points but when they transcend them, illustrating that competing ideologies can not only coexist but leaven one another.

 4. We don’t understand subtext, i.e., the mood and spirit of our behavior. Happiness is not the story of our lives but the mood. Carville and Matalin superficially are antagonists, but subtextually they are in love, which is why they don’t strangle one another. A fine meal in a glum atmosphere satisfies less than a celebratory can of pork and beans. If a churl instead of a charmer had first flown the Atlantic, it would have been merely an event. But Lindbergh’s aircraft was The Spirit of St. Louis, happily invoking the supernal subtext.

So, anyway, I’m going to go on discussing culture in American, however imperfectly. I hope you’ll join me, because when you and I shoot the breeze in a coffeehouse, we’re not just discussing America, we are defining it. Attempting to solve the problems of the world is not a pastime. It is our own nobility, saluting the wind.

Alan moderates a weekly events discussion group and writes a regular column,The Essential Bad Attitude, for the Jasper (Georgia) Pickens County Progress.
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