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Like most Americans, I know it's my patriotic duty not to engage in rational debate. I know how crucial it is to stake out a clear position, then demonize the opposition. Here's a couple tips: If a fact doesn't jibe with your opinion, say, "That's old news…bring me something new!" Or if you feel yourself getting swayed, say, "Wait, that sounds suspiciously like the opinion of so-and-so, a person I hate."
I recall with deep embarrassment the last time someone changed my mind. I was at some mountain retreat where we were told to discuss things in an open and honest way; you know, express our opinion, then learn from others. What can I say? I fell prey to this seductive premise, and sure enough, come three a.m., high on coffee and sugary snacks, I let myself be drawn into debate over the issue of…well, never mind…something to do with religion or civil rights or a new world order. Anyway, there in the lounge, with the outside landscape lost in darkness, a woman suddenly turned to me and said with a little smile, "You don't really believe what you're saying, do you?"
A searing light cut through my skull, and I heard myself say: "No, you're right. You have changed my mind."
Can you imagine the shame of that moment? The horror? I know I can never seek higher office as long as this woman still lives. I mean, what if she came forward and told that story publicly?
Since then, same as most Americans, I prefer to fire opinions from a safe distance, like mortar rounds. The Internet has made this wonderfully easy. For example, my friend Stuart and I used to have roaring conversations about oil and Bush and Iraq, but we sensibly moved our debate to email, where we simply forward lengthy one-sided tracts at each other, like ships shooting bright cannonades across a stormy sea. "Take this article from the National Review, you lubber!" "Here's a Thomas Friedman across your bow."
Now and then, I'm fool enough to acknowledge a hit. I say, "Your man does have a point." But it only shows weakness, and next day, I take three times as many incoming rounds.
Still, as we head toward the 4th of July, I admit I have been daydreaming about "rational debate." It sounds like some charming old song or classic play performed in togas or powdered wigs. I think "Hey, weren't the Founding Fathers into something like that? Didn't they think Reason was a creature born only from the intercourse of excellent minds? And if you believe in Reason, don't you have to accept at least the theoretical possibility that you might, someday, shift your opinion? Wasn't that part of, maybe, the whole concept? Didn't Jefferson himself say: "He who knows best knows how little he knows?"
Then I recall that "Reason" is no longer an abstract concept, but a Libertarian magazine with its headquarters just down the hall from my L.A. office. Often I pass staffers in the lobby, where I see them walk proud and upright, like people who have learned how to ask all the right questions but always come up with the same answer. For example, despite the soaring price of gas, they recently had an article explaining how public transportation is a waste of money. And I thought, "Damn, but these Reason folks know how to hold on to their faith!"
It inspired me to re-straighten my own spine. And I swear that this Friday, as I stand with a few choice friends in my backyard and watch fireworks explode across the wide American sky, I will try to forget Jefferson, along with any debilitating nostalgia for passé intellectual fashions or 18th century clothing. I will recall that Americans have progressed. That we have earned the unalienable right to ignore the opinion of others, to reject doubt and speculation and G-d forbid...rational debate.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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