Despite my best efforts to get some reading done this morning at Starbucks before work, a peculiar brand of human theater two tables over couldn’t help but distract me. Those accustomed to trying to read in a public place know all too well what I’m talking about, that inescapable allure of social spectacle that can’t be beaten by the written word. On today’s menu was a generous helping of angry old men sprinkled with a dash of distractingly beautiful woman. For the angry old men, it was a debate--and I use the term very loosely--on health care. For the woman it was skin tight jeans, which momentarily stopped the debate. It was the nature of the argument between the old men though that got me thinking about the nature of dialogue in America, specifically the fact that we have none. The tight jeans just got me thinking that occasionally I really appreciate tight jeans.
It’s interesting that so much of the political theater of late has been pointed in the direction of a need for a national dialogue, as in Democrats and Republicans need to have a dialogue concerning the issues of America. Two philosophies in a collision of point/counterpoint, hoping that the end of the road will produce something towards enlightenment. Good luck with all that. If you really think about it, when has America ever been a place of dialogue? The whole country was founded on the Declaration of Independence for God’s sake, not the Suggestion of Independence. America doesn’t search for the answer, America just tells people what it thinks the answer is. It’s no surprise that a televised health care debate does nothing more than highlight a propensity to grandstand and yell at each other, facts be damned. The funny thing is that the old man summit at Starbucks today was like a mimetic creation of C-SPAN’s Healthopalooza last weak, only in golf wear.
The scene was a standard one for Orange County, a group of obnoxious men in their mid-fifties wearing golf shirts and chinos and yelling loudly at each other. Of course, this being Orange County, there was only one poor bastard arguing for the current health care bill (I should probably point out that he was in very Democratic T-shirt and jeans) with a bunch of country club gray hairs yelling at him. One of the points made, and this seemed like a fair one, was that if Obamacare gets passed, there’d be 30 million new people with health insurance, which means you’d have to share your doctor with 30 million people. No seriously, this is almost a direct quote. Apparently there is only one doctor in the contiguous 48, so get in line number 29,878,452, there’s going to be some waitin’ to do. Of course the rest of the argument was peppered with the usual fare, death panels, communism, mandatory abortions and all that. I would have laughed harder at these very loud gentleman had not they sounded exactly like the legislative branch of our government. The simple fact is that we Americans just can’t argue.
I should probably define what I mean by argue here. I’m going with COED definition #2, to give reasons or cite evidence in support of something. Essentially this is point/counterpoint, I make a statement, you use facts and evidence to counter that statement, then I use the same to counter your counter, etc., all the way until the stronger point emerges. This is what philosophers do, which is perhaps why so few in American Universities become philosophy majors anymore. I know, I was one and there were about three of us.
Americans tend to prefer just yelling out there unsupported opinions and move on. There’s a lot less heavy lifting involved this way, intellectually speaking. It should come as no surprise that we are famous for our orators and not so much for our philosophers. The problem is that with so much public debate erupting lately, this lack of philosophical dialogic has really become painfully apparent. I do often wonder though at our polemic inabilities. Why are we so programmed for vitriolic contretemps rather than measured debate? I suppose the fact that our first settlers were a fractured and deeply conservative religious group doesn’t help. Not to mention that, culturally speaking, there are a whole host of American symbols that suggest an aversion to polemics; the stoic cowboy, the blue collar Joe, the self made tycoon. Americans after all prefer James Dean to say, David Niven. Then there is the whole post WWII power grab that essentially instilled in us the idea of the American moral high ground. We just innately know what is right, or so we think. A nice enough delusion until two Americans think different things, then trouble starts brewing, which is what brings us to today.
I suppose in truth it is really a human condition more than just an American one. We naturally think we have the answers and people who disagree are just wrong. We’re also naturally a bit lazy and would prefer not to have to indulge in something so unglamorous as investigation to confirm that we are right. But I do think that American culture is more inclined towards this intellectual laziness than others. A quick glance at the last two hundred years of influential philosophers can confirm that. I know that in a country as large as ours we’ll never agree on things, but it would be nice to know that civility and reason could rule the day. I’m not ready to give up on the pipe dream of unity just yet though, after all, when the woman in tight jeans walked by the old men, the whole table went silent. Hell, if we men can unite under the banner of chauvinism, certainly there must be some hope for us, right?