Monday, August 13, 2007

The Bus As Civic Space

I believe that Americans don't talk enough to one another. We don't discuss politics with people we disagree with, we don't mingle with people beyond our rather narrow habitual territories, we don't explore enough of the cities that we live in. We live in secluded villages of the mind, only rarely stumbling into the haunts of our neighbors. And this is okay. Faced with the overwhelming hubub of modern life, we can do no better than to fracture the civic mirror and pick and choose what picture we look at. But it would be nice to have a shared civic space in the American city - and I don't mean 'space' in the English major way here, no; I mean a real-life physical space. We have television, sure, but we only watch television - few of us actually contribute to it.

But wow, my belief in communicating with people who disagree with me sure got tested this morning. My seat-mate on the bus was reading a book, and I thought I would be nice and friendly and ask her what it was. She was a little hesitant, and actually turned the cover a bit away from me so I couldn't peer over and read the title. After a moment of two of squirming, she asked:

"Are you a liberal?"

Rather than saying yes, or that I was a progressive, or that I have a set of complicated political views that I don't feel can be summed up in a label like 'liberal' or 'conservative' I just said "I don't know." Which surprised my seat-mate, an overweight blond woman who was slurping gas-station coffee.

The book turned out to be Bill O'Reily's Culture Warrior. When she told me this I tensed for a fight, but told myself - well, okay, I should actually listen to her to see if I learn anything. She told me that O'Reily was the only person who really was brave enough to take on the real issues. And that Fox News was the only news station that had the courage enough to deal with unpopular subject. I was sitting there, thinking of all the funny things I could say to her, thinking of how sad it was that she had taken a drink of the Fox News Kool-Aid, and thinking that it is exactly this sort of ignorance that is the problem with America these days.

I told her that I thought O'Reily a great bully, and that he was leading to an era of divisiveness in America, which led to a lack of people who disagreed with one another - like me and her - from talking to each other. But I don't need to tell you what I said. You already know all the wonderful arguments I leveled against her.

But here's the thing: when I left the bus we both remained unconvinced. I had her promise that she would watch some Keith Olberman, and I promised I would track down a Bill O'Reily book and give it a chance. But the point of this - the insight I came away with - is that it's incredibly hard to talk with someone if they're working from a different set of assumptions farmed from a different universe of information. And that's the huge problem with Fox News in particular, that in its hectoring blaring echo-chamber of 9-11 doom, it distorts not only national discourse - but people's entire universe of understanding - so much that it becomes increasingly impossible to talk across that chasm.

But as soon as I write this, I think: so what? Is there really all that big a gap right now between Americans? Are we at a special juncture in our nation's history at which we are seeing a sundering of the national discourse, or did we ever have a monolithic discourse to begin with? Am I just teary-eyed and nostalgic for a myth, a myth of America where two people on the bus can talk to each other?

The trouble with Fox News isn't just that the most popular television news network in America spreads sensationalist propaganda when it doesn't make outright lies - but it's that by misinforming people to so great a degree, it makes it so that meaningful argument in which both sides can change their mind incredibly difficult, if not in some instances impossible. If, when she thinks of liberals, she thinks about latte-swilling Ragnorocks of bothersomeness, and I think of happy caring people, swilling lattes, there is little common ground for debate left. And that's a serious problem, a moral problem, one that will impress itself upon this country in the coming years.

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