The Situationist

The Situation of Public-Political Discourse

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 27, 2008

Image by mharrsch - FlickrYesterday, Hillary Clinton challenged Barack Obama to a debate with no moderators, in the spirit of Lincoln-Douglas.

This month’s Harper’s contains an eloquent essay (based on a lecture) by Marilynne Robinson, which among other things suggests that such an event–were the Lincoln-Douglas exchange truly the model–would not be well received.

* * *

[T]he old dream of integrating the highest levels of thought and learning into a life of humane labor in which everyone has a part, the ideal of equality without condescension, this is what we have lost. Every aspect of contemporary life assumes a lowest common denominator that is very low indeed. What politician would be so bold as to refine a point, confess to an ambivalence, allude to literature or history? We have been at great pains to winnow thoughtful language out of public life, so perhaps we would all have to get used to the sound of it again. We would have to persuade the press not to bullyrag any utterance hat seems to them too complex for the common mind. One of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was held on the lawn of Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, one of the oldest and most important of the abolitionist schools. Thousands of people stood in the open air to hear a very lengthy, unamplified debate. Lincoln’s own few months of education might not have been unusual in that crowd. But no one now would dare speak to any crowd as substantively and respectfully as he spoke to them, and no one now would expect that patient attention they gave to Douglas and to him. Lincoln was well prepared by his own history to know that intelligence, eloquence, intuition, and sensitivity could emerge despite obstacles, and that they could be quietly present where no one might expect them.

. . . . We praise democracy most of the time, but we practice it as if we had accepted every argument against it, as if we believed it must depress the level of culture and of public life.

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