A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
A friend and I were celebrating his purchase of a home in Saratoga Springs, New York, toasting the occasion at a local establishment when another patron walked in.
“Howie, where ya been? Haven’t seen you in such a long time! Welcome back!” sang out the bartender.
“Hey there, Steph. I’ve moved away. Took my business to Florida to get away from these damn New York State taxes. I’m only back for a short visit.”
He continued to talk while she poured his order. ”It was a shame that I had to let so many people go. But the taxes were killing me.”
I took a good look; he seemed healthy enough.
She empathized, while I eavesdropped. After hearing that his employees were part-time college students, seasonal without benefits, I wanted so badly to comment. But it was a special occasion for my friend, and I had just concluded teaching a well-received writing course. It was a night to bask in the after-glow, not tilt at windmills like I usually do.
I tried to drown out their conversation, but after hearing that his privileged daughter owned two restaurants in Florida, I could be silent no more. Leaning over my companion to get closer to Howie, I intoned, “This is the lowest taxed industrialized nation in the world. Taxes fund important services, like safe bridges and public education. You might pay fewer taxes in Florida, but you also have some of the worst schools and infrastructure in the country.”
The bar fell silent as if preparing for the Shootout at the OK Corral. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my companion gulping down the rest of his bourbon.
I’d gone this far; there was no turning back: “Businesses should take a hard look at CEO salaries before deciding taxes are the problem with their balance sheets.”
“You sound like a liberal.”
That didn’t take long; it never does.
Bystanders braced themselves. One guy nervously asked if we knew that human DNA is found in dogs because people kiss them so much. That bit of trivia cheered and distracted me for a brief moment. Another patron started rambling, seemingly agreeing with both of us as he stared at the television.
Howie unexpectedly broke into a grin. Turning to my companion, he said, “I like her. Really! She’s got the courage of her convictions and isn’t afraid of a challenge. Good for her! We need more of this kind of banter!”
Next he turned to me. “I appreciate that you’re willing to engage with someone you disagree with. The American Revolution started in a tavern. In that spirit, we should hear each other out in public settings. I think you’re dead wrong about taxes – but thank you for caring enough to speak up.”
No one has ever commended me for challenging their beliefs despite my penchant for doing so. Nor have I commended those who have challenged me. Quite the opposite. So I waited for the one-two punch.
It never came; we sat side-by-side at the bar enjoying dinner and making small talk. If a reasoned debate had ensued, we may have been able to move each other closer to the middle. Yet as a nation, we’ve become so polarized, latching onto permanent positions.
Dialectic – the art of trying to uncover the truth through an exchange of logical arguments – is rarely practiced in our Western culture. Yet the democracy of Ancient Greece, where dialectic was modeled and taught by philosophers and rhetoricians such as by Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, thrived because of intellectual and objective challenges to opinions and beliefs. Arguments took place in the public square as a spectator sport for attendees also seeking the truth. (It wasn’t until I returned to graduate school in later life for a vanity degree in rhetoric that I learned that there is no such thing as the absolute truth. But nonetheless…)
Dialectic is the polar opposite of presidential debates today where unfounded accusations fly unabated. Dialectic participants and audiences were willing to change their own views in order to approach the truth because their ultimate goal was to achieve wisdom and knowledge. Today, we derogatorily refer to that as flip-flopping.
Socrates was a flip-flopper. All the great philosophers/thinkers were. For good reason.
The term first came into my political consciousness during John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run, although it has been in use since the late 1800s. I’ve never understood why it’s considered an undesirable trait for candidates or elected officials to change their minds when compelled by new awareness or information. Do we really prefer leaders who dig in their heels, undeterred by evidence to the contrary? (Think Dick Cheney and weapons of mass destruction.) If someone reverses their position on reproductive choice, they are at least open-minded enough to consider the other side. Don’t we want to elect critical thinkers who can listen to reason and do a course correction? (Unless their vote has been bought out by lobbyists or they succumbed to poll numbers or party pressure to fall in line. Until big money is removed from elections, such influences are not to be minimized.)
If we are truly a representative form of government, we should expect our legislators to change their positions as the demographics of their districts change. Kirsten Gillibrand disappointed me when first running for the Congressional seat in my district because she was soft on gun control, representing as she did rural upstate New York. But once she became a United States Senator representing the entire state including large urban areas, she changed her stance. Of course, bearing witness to colleague Gabrielle Giffords taking a bullet to the head at a public event also informed her toughened position.
That’s what we all need to do: Become critical thinkers who can change our opinions or beliefs when faced with facts or a new reality.
As we all know, Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War. A very bad, ill-informed decision that the majority of Congress made. While detractors may continue to accuse her of many other nefarious deeds, I find it inconceivable that she’s still expected to defend that vote even though she has repeatedly admitted it was a mistake. In contrast, the architects of that war have yet to offer a mea culpa for what they unleashed on the world, continuing to hold onto their permanent position.
Even Einstein, arguably an international paragon of reasoning and brain power, regretted recommending the creation of the atom bomb to President Roosevelt, even though at the time he felt justified doing so. He changed his brilliant mind after seeing the result of his decision.
But some candidates and their followers can never be swayed.
At an arts fundraiser a few weeks after my Howie encounter, I was chatting with the mayor of a small town when a stranger strutted up to us, stuck out his chest and declared, “I’m a Donald Trump supporter, and you can’t hurt me!”
How odd! Why would I want to hurt you? I wondered – but would too soon know the answer.
“The Tea Party is growing rapidly in numbers – we’re the fastest growing political party. Get used to it!”
Bystanders slowly slinked away, leaving me alone with this crusader. “I don’t intend to get used to it,” I calmly responded. “I intend to change it.”
With him calling after me, I left the room. But all night long, he taunted me – like bringing me a chocolate and a vanilla cupcake to ask, “Which one would you say is Obama?”
That’s when I understood his introductory salvo. His statements and actions were designed to shut me down, to intimidate me. He thought I might want to retaliate. There was no room for civil discourse, no room for reasoned argument.
His candidate would have been proud of him.
As that ole’ flip-flopper Socrates said more than 300 years BC, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
No wonder he drank hemlock.
We’d all better stop drinking the Kool-Aid.
Copyright 2015 Patricia A. Nugent
Patricia A. Nugent is published in trade journals, literary journals, online journals, and regional publications. She wrote The Stone that Started the Ripple, a dramatization about a modern-day reunion of the suffragists and is the author of the book, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, a compilation of vignettes portraying the stages of caring for and saying goodbye to a loved one.