Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
John F. Kennedy spoke those words in his 1962 Yale commencement address. They are very much on my mind in preparing to go forward with this year's blog posts. What he said then could be broadly applied — to any of us and any year — but they seem especially appropriate to our time. Admit it or not, for all our technologically enabled modernity we so often and readily revert to past clichés. In the current polarized environment we routinely subject facts and almost anything we encounter to our prefabricated set of interpretations. And perhaps all too often — and that applies to this and other forms of punditry — we do enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
In a world synthetically and simplistically painted in blacks and whites, it's easy to succumb to jumping on the bandwagon, to claiming as Johnny Nash's 1972 lyric would have it, "I can see clearly now". And what we can see so clearly is that my truth is the truth. Avoiding the discomfort of thought, includes considering that those taking a different road may do so for good reason, aren't prima fascia misguided or malevolent. This is not to suggest in any way that we shouldn't have convictions or should refrain of expressing them clearly and forcefully. It's only that we should tread with some measure of humility. We shouldn't see self-doubt or sometimes not towing the party line as a sign of weakness or, as we often do, automatically dismiss others out of hand. As the new pop star Francis might put it: who, after all, are we to judge others? And don't get me wrong. I plead guilty to all these things — knowing from where I speak.
In his 1961 inaugural address Kennedy proclaimed: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate". His admonition came against the backdrop of the Cold War, a time when fear both existed and was widely promoted to prevent us from even considering the other side. In our time it isn't so much a matter of fear. Rather we seem to have lost our confidence to engage, to "negotiate", with those of different views. More to the point here, we who write or speak with an underlying point of view, in my case progressive liberalism, seem more concerned with a kind of orthodox purity than in having the facts, taking them into account, and reaching a fair conclusion. We jump to opinion rather than being troubled with discomforting thought. Anything that puts our cherished cliché in doubt is verboten.
Our world and indeed life itself is far from black and white. It presents itself in complex Technicolor. So even what seems so simple and clear is far more nuanced than we make it out to be. Let's, for example, take the Tea Party. I find nothing in common with their rightist ideology and believe they have had a very negative impact on the Congress and elsewhere closer to home. But the Tea Party represents an authentic and widespread anger in the land, a sense that our government has not served us well. In that they have something profoundly in common with the Occupy movement. Both feel their way of life, the rules of their game, slipping away. For the largely white Protestant Teas, a dramatic shift in demographics means they can no longer expect to be in absolute control, to have things the clichéd way of their forebears. For the largely middleclass Occupiers, they see economic inequity translating into being cut off from their promised American dream, the one upon which their forebears could count. You all know the details of each side's concerns. The point here is that, while their core philosophy and solutions may be diametrically different, there is a commonly held rejection of the "status quo" (including government policy) in what motivates them. Of course, given their opposing ideologies, neither group would admit to this. Perhaps for strategic reasons they can't, but we self-proclaimed pundits — which is what we bloggers are — shouldn't refrain from pointing it out. We shouldn't fear to negotiate the complexities. We work without editors and that gives us a special responsibility to temper both our clichés and opinion, however strongly held, with the discomfort of thought.
A second example of the complex and nuanced is Edward Snowden. The title of my June 8, 2013 post posed a rhetorical question, "Traitor of Hero". Seeing it so clearly then, I responded without hesitation, "Hero: no contest". What followed that writing was a saga that gave me some pause, specifically whether my "hero, no question" had been perhaps premature. Snowden had violated his employment agreement and the trust of those who gave him access to classified materials. His post-revelation travel odyssey ultimately took him to Russian, hardly the bastion of free speech or a country that doesn't engage actively in invasive spying on their own citizens and other countries. To say the least, there seems something contradictory, even hypocritical, in his choices. I don't find Snowden very likable. But that isn't the point or even relevant. While I prefer the "Whistle-Blower" characterization in the recent NY Times editorial over "hero", I haven't changed my mind. The case is complex but I agree totally with their conclusion. He should be allowed "a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home". Whistleblowers all have nuanced stories, sometimes ego-serving ones, but our democracy depends on them.
Equally so, putting my views out there in cyberspace is an expression of democracy. But, in my view, with it comes an obligation: to engage as much in the discomfort of thought as in opinion. We may come down on one side or the other — the Teas have a rightest philosophy and agenda, Snowden is a whistle blower — but we should not lock ourselves into the cliché’s of our forebears or for that matter of our own ideological clan. Can I meet that test in 2014 and beyond? I hope so and will surely try. I am depending on you not to let me stray from that path.