Saturday, June 04, 2005


Ponder This Matt Miller Column

Is Persuasion Dead? - New York Times: "Is persuasion dead? And if so, does it matter?
The significance of this query goes beyond the feelings of futility I'll suffer if it turns out I've wasted my life on work that is useless. This is bigger than one writer's insecurities. Is it possible in America today to convince anyone of anything he doesn't already believe? If so, are there enough places where this mingling of minds occurs to sustain a democracy?
The signs are not good. Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling 'talking points.' Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let's face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win, be it power, ratings, celebrity or even cash.
By contrast, marshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art. Honoring what's right in the other side's argument seems a superfluous thing that can only cause trouble, like an appendix. Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts."

It is not normal for me to want to read a Matt Miller column, much less enjoy it, but this is a powerful and important set of questions. It seems to me that the real problem lies in the desire to have opinions, strong ones, on things that we could not possibly know enough about to have reasoned passion on. Take Social Security, for example. I admit that personal accounts make a great deal of sense in theory, and root this argument on, often passionately. The reality is, though, that I do not have the government or market numbers to back up the passion I feel for it. What makes me different, in this respect, is that I am keenly aware of what I do not know. That hole in in the foundation for my gut will keep me from marching in favor of it in the local town square. It is also what allows me to hear what the opponents say and give their line of argument credence. I still often think that they are wrong, but I can listen, ponder, and make myself somewhat open to what they have to say. If I was ignorant to my own ignorance and just blocked out any other line of thinking, persuasion, for me, would be impossible. There are plenty of people like that. I don't suggest that the press or the Administration treat people like idiots, but doing the research to allow for real thought on the matters would be more helpful than writing about the politics of the topics at hand. I admit, I like the political discussion, but the public needs to know something of which they passionately speak.
I still think that we need the vocal extremes of both sides to get the conversations started, but a healthy population of moderates are necessary too. Its not that people shouldn't get passionate either. It is just that people should know their own intellectual limits, at least so much as to have reasoned conversation with those that disagree. So, while I agree, in theory, with personal accounts, I can have discussions about what its true effect or even slippery slope might be. Matt is asking for, without realizing it, a larger quatity of moderates. Be careful what you wish for.

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