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We’re Not ‘Cowards,’ We’re Just Loud—A Commentary by Stephen L. Carter ’79

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on February 25, 2009.

We’re Not ‘Cowards,’ We’re Just Loud
By Stephen L. Carter ’79

JUST weeks before taking the oath of office in 1861, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd in Pittsburgh. The times were fraught. Since Lincoln’s election, several slave-holding states had left the Union. More were threatening to go. But Lincoln told the worried assemblage, “There is really no crisis except an artificial one!”

Actually, Lincoln said much more than that — hundreds upon hundreds of words, calculated to soothe the public’s fear of war. But had his speech been covered the way the news media cover political remarks today, it is likely that most people would have heard only that one line, and Lincoln, the nation’s greatest president, would have been pilloried as an out-of-touch bumpkin.

Writing teachers everywhere tell their students that context is everything. But if the response to Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks last week to Justice Department employees is any guide, teachers everywhere are wrong. The speech was written for Black History Month. Now, a week later, what most people know about the talk is that the attorney general accused his fellow citizens of being, on the matter of race, “a nation of cowards.”

The speech itself was more than 2,300 words. The already infamous phrase occurred about 150 words in. Thus we are left with well over 2,000 unanalyzed words — that is, the context for the phrase. For too many critics, the context of Mr. Holder’s remarks (like the context of former Senator Phil Gramm’s accusation during the election campaign that we are a “nation of whiners”) is quite beside the point.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, Mr. Holder’s language was infelicitous; but presidents and popes now and then regret their choice of words, so attorneys general can hardly hope for immunity from persecution. More important is what the response to the speech says about the current state of political dialogue.

Indeed, the truly intriguing aspect is not what the attorney general had to say about race, but rather what he had to say about the way in which we discuss it. Our national conversation on race, said Mr. Holder, “is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own narrow self-interest.”

There is, plainly, something to this. When we talk about race we do tend to talk in simplistic categories, spending more energy on labeling each other than on reasoning together. Consider the entirely predictable battle lines over The New York Post’s infamous stimulus bill cartoon last week, which featured a chimpanzee. One side says the newspaper was insensitive, the other that the protesters have a double standard and are fanning the flames for the sake of attention. Plenty of sound bites, but nothing that moves us forward.

This difficulty, however, is not limited to race. There are few issues of any importance that are not reduced, in public dialogue, to sloganeering and applause lines. Whether we argue over war or the economy, marriage or religion, abortion or guns, we reduce our ideas to just the right size for the adolescent tantrum of the bumper sticker.

Consider, for example, the Obama administration’s evolving tough line on terrorism. Many critics seem to think that reminding us that President Obama’s policies are similar to President George W. Bush’s is argument enough against them. But guilt by association with an unpopular past president does not tell us whether a particular tactic is right or wrong. Or consider the economic crisis, where one cable television network, on the very evening of the Lehman Brothers collapse last fall, had a program promising to analyze not what had gone wrong but who was at fault.

Democracy, at its best, rests on a foundation of mutual respect among co-equal citizens willing to take the time for serious debate. After all, even on the momentous issues that divide us, there is usually the possibility that the other side has a good argument. Yet if we paint our opponents as monsters, we owe them no obligation to pay attention to what they have to say.

Forty-five years ago, in his classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter warned against this tendency, and worried that it would recur in every era. There is, he suggested, something in the Western psyche that too often makes us retreat to a vision of politics in which there is no complexity. “Since what is at stake,” wrote Hofstadter, “is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”

Complexity is the enemy of such fundamentalism, and, as our public dialogue grows more fundamentalist, complexity fades. If you read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” — and everyone who loves democracy should read it, at least every two or three years — pay attention to the speech by the fire chief, Captain Beatty, explaining why they burned the books. The reason was not national security or political power. It was complexity. Books, says the fire chief, make ideas too difficult. The reader winds up lost, he says, “in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives.” The people demanded the books be burned because they wanted no complicated ideas.

We may not be burning books, exactly, but we are burning argument and ideas, replacing them with applause lines. If we Americans can make our way past the fanfare over the most controversial words in Mr. Holder’s speech, perhaps we can learn from his reminder that democracy needs dialogue more than it needs bumper stickers.

Stephen L. Carter, a novelist and Yale law professor, is writing a book about what democracy needs now.