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Is Democratic Debate Any Longer Possible?

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Message Federico Moramarco
Call me naà ve, but I ve always believed that debating and discussing our differences over political matters is the very essence of democracy. But when you think of how ideas are "debated today, it s easy to conclude that most of us really don t want to exchange ideas thoughtfully, but instead want have our own ideas reinforced. I don t exempt myself from this process.

Let me give you examples of two close friendships I lost that were shattered over a difference of opinion about political issues. One occurred just after the trauma of 9/11 and the other just last week when I wrote an Op Ed on this site about health care. In both cases these were not casual friendships, but rather people I had known for many years, and have a great deal in common with.Â

The 9/11 issue involved a falling out with a truly beloved friend with whom I regularly went hiking, talked literature and politics with, and essentially shared many political views. Larry* is more "radical than I am on a number of issues, namely animal rights (he s a strict vegetarian and I m not) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he, although Jewish, regards solely as Israel s doing and is adamant about. So I usually avoided conversations on these two matters. On other things we were both basically liberal Democrats from New York, born just two weeks apart in Brooklyn, both university professors, and both poets and literary critics. In short, we had a great deal in common.Â

The incident that destroyed our friendship was George W. Bush s decision to attack Afghanistan in retaliation for the Taliban s harboring of Osama Bin Laden.  Several weeks after 9/11, as the decision to invade was getting closer because the Taliban refused to take any action to turn them over, or provide information about Bin Laden we were having a telephone conversation. Larry asked what I thought about Bush s impending decision to retaliate against the Taliban. I said I have always abhorred the use of force to solve problems, but in this case the President had to do something because the country was attacked and it s a President s first responsibility to defend America. I deeply disliked Bush and every thing he stood for, but like many Americans, I was stunned by the 9/11 attack and knew that ANY President would have to take some action. So I said I supported Bush on this one issue. Larry went apoplectic. "So you condone the bombing of innocent people? he said, "I thought so, and hung up.Â

I was speechless. We didn t speak to or see one another for three years after that, and when I finally did run into him at a poetry reading in San Diego, we could hardly look at one another. Though we ve occasionally made half-hearted attempts to mend the friendship, it has not yet healed, and I doubt it will ever be the same.

As to the other friendship, which just got throttled last week, the circumstances were quite different. And hopefully the consequences will not be so long-term. Shelley is also a long time friend (over 20 years now) although we have always been political adversaries. She is what I would call an "independent Republican: that is basically conservative, but with a mind of her own on issues that matter to her. For example, she supports gay marriage; she has a close cousin who has been in a loving lesbian relationship for a great many years, so she has first hand experience of seeing a same sex relationship that works very well.  On most other issues, however, her views are quite a bit to the right of mine. It s for this reason, and because I believe in the ideal of debating and discussing issues on which we differ, I generally send her Op Eds and other things I write, almost all from a strongly liberal perspective.  Usually we re able to joke about our differences and agree to disagree.

Last week, however, when I sent her the piece I published on this site called "Simplifying the Health Care Debate, along with a note saying if you don t agree with this viewpoint, feel free to delete it, she responded with a three word note: "Consider it deleted.  Then, a few minutes later I got another email from her, this time five words, saying "Stop sending me this stuff.  Both stung me, because they seemed so final and close-minded about an issue that we all, as Americans, need to talk with one another about. But then again, I guess from her point of view, my views are final and close-minded. That is, I don t believe anything much will really change in our for-profit health care system unless and until we pass a single payer plan that puts patients ahead of profits and covers all Americans from birth to death. I purposely sent the piece to Shelley, because most of the time, when I talk about this issue, I m merely preaching to the choir. But I knew Shelley felt strongly about keeping health care in private hands, so I hoped she would at least engage with me on the issue, as she has on so many others. Even though we rarely alter one another s beliefs, our exchanges, whether in person or by email, have usually been friendly, and occasionally insightful. But this time the chasm seems too deep and wide to bridge, and further discussion of this issue between us is unlikely.

My inability to resolve or even engage in a civil debate with either Larry or Shelley about the issues involved gives me little hope that politicians with fundamental disagreements can ever any longer reach a "democratic bi-partisan consensus.  If friends can t argue intelligently and without aborting friendships, what hope is there for this nation of strangers we seem to live in today? Strike "strangers, insert instead "enemies. If you don t think so, just check the comments section after any controversial blog or Op Ed, or tune in any daytime talk show where callers and hosts alike routinely refer to the "other side as buffoons, idiots, incompetents, racists, fascists, traitors, and pea-brained imbeciles. This is the tenor of democratic discourse in the 21st century. It s been Coulterized and Limbaughed.

Recently, during the Sotomayor hearings a lot was said about empathy, which the Right in this country seems to think is a terrible concept, or a code word, as one senator put it, for subjectivity. Actually it s just the opposite. It means distancing yourself from your subjective viewpoints and trying to see and understand the world as someone quite different from you does, whether you agree with that viewpoint or not. (Amazing how virtues like empathy, tolerance, humility, passion, and flexibility have been turned into vices by one or another political standard.) Empathy is an essential ingredient in a working democracy, but of course we no longer really have one.Â

Shortly after the 9/11 incident with Larry, I wrote a poem about the idea, and it remains one of my favorites. It seems appropriate to end this piece with it:

           One Hundred and Eighty Degrees


Have you ever considered the possibility

that everything you believe is wrong,

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Federico Moramarco is Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University where he taught English and Creative Writing for many years. He is the founding Editor of Poetry International, and his books include "The Poetry of Men's Lives," "Men of Our (more...)
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