Much of my recent trip to Amherst was spent with old friends -- Milton Cantor and Margaret Taylor, Steve Arons, Esther Terry, Mike Thelwell, Bill Strickland, and many more -- as well as a new friend, Ann Davis, who was my student at Columbia forty-one years ago. It was of course wonderful to see these friends, whom I have known for more than two decades. But even more important to me than the affection I feel for them was the reminder they provided of a style of discourse that has all but disappeared from the public world in America today.
I spend endless hours watching television news stations and surfing the web, reading what is written by commentators and bloggers left, right, and center. The overwhelming impression this leaves on me is of an almost universal vulgarisation of the public discourse. Over the past three decades and more, the tone and content of what is said in the public arena has grown progressively more superficial, more ignorant, and meaner spirited. This is especially true on the right, but it extends across all of that narrow band of the political spectrum that makes an appearance in our public life.
The level of sheer ignorance, whether wilfull or unintentional. is staggering -- ignorance of the simplest facts of American social and economic life, ignorance of history, ignorance of literature and the arts, ignorance of elementary science, ignorance of other nations and cultures. Good-looking men and women with perfect hair and teeth and seemingly air-brushed complexions ask stupid questions with an air of self-confidence and self-satisfaction that takes my breath away. When politicians and others say patently ignorant and stupid things, they are almost never challemged or called to account by the interviewers whose smiling, nodding responses suggest that the politicians are making perfectly good sense. On the rare occasions when Barney Frank, for example, appears and speaks simple good sense, he is treated as a comic curmudgeon.
More distressing even than the ignorance is the acceptance of mean-spirited greed-soaked selfishness, which is taken as the moral norm for a person in public life. What matters is not so much whether these vile expressions are counterpoised against others, but that such ugly utterances are considered acceptable in public speech. There have always been callously selfish and unfeeling bigots, heaven knows. But only recently have the likes of Pat Buchanan been considered appropriate commentators on an ostensibly liberal network like MSNBC.
Spending time with my old friends in Amherst reminded me what conversation used to be like when I was young. I do not think this is simply the familiar nostalgia of the old when confronted with the inevitable passage of time. Too may people to whom I have voiced this distress have agreed with me that a real change for the worse has taken place in America's public life. If I may tie it to old movies [always a reliable barometer of the collective mind], compare the negative presentation of the self-interested fat cats played by Edward Arnold in the old films with the glow of attracvtion surrounding Gordon Gecko, played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street.
What to do, other than fulminate? Well, each of us can do no more than light a candle, while still cursing the darkness that remains beyond its flickering light. Over the next two years, I shall strike a very small blow for a more informed understanding of society and the human psyche by teaching a sequence of courses in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a learning in retirement program at Duke University where I volunteer my time. This coming Fall, I shall teach a course on The Thought of Karl Marx. That will be followed, in each of three subsequent semesters, by courses on the thought of Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim. Perhaps in a small way I can convey the breadth and depth of the insights that earlier generations of social, economic, and psyhcological theorists brought to our understanding of the human condition.
Don't expect any dramatic changes in the world!