I was impressed by the colloquy between David Brooks and E.J Dionne yesterday on NPR. Usually their job is to squabble, albeit in a slightly tonier way than is typical of most other paired media pundits. Brooks in particular strove this time to hit a higher mark of reflection, in the moment of opportunity for a New Civility in our public discourse he thinks the Tucson aftermath affords:
…the most important thing [is] acknowledging your own weakness. I need E.J. because I don’t have 100 percent of the truth. I may have 60 percent, he may have 40, but, you know… we need each other to balance each other out and we need the conversation. Without that conversation, we really have nothing. And so that’s why we need civility because individually each of us are weak.
Dionne then cited the theologian/philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, from (improbably enough) Wright City, Missouri, just down the road from my own boyhood home. “We must see the error in our own truth and the truth in our opponent’s error.”
Brooks had earlier quoted Niebuhr in his Times column:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. … Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.
It’s a fine sentiment, if overstated. (Surely there are many worthwhile things each of us can hope to achieve in our brief time on Earth.) It reminds me of John Dewey’s statement about the continuous human community.
[Interesting, btw, to see Brooks invoking a theologian/philosopher. In the current New Yorker (“Social Animal,” Jan. 17) he writes: “Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.” But maybe his point is that the present generation is lacking in wise theologian/philosophers?]
The very next line from Niebuhr, not quoted by the pundits, deserves equal time. It’s from The Irony of American History, which one of my Intellectual History profs had us Mizzou undergrads read back in the ’70s.
The irony of America’s quest for happiness lies in the fact that she succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life “comfortable,” only finally to run into larger incongruities of human destiny by the same achievements by which it escaped the smaller ones.
We have a higher destiny on Earth. Niebuhr and Dewey disagreed about whether we have one higher still, but never mind. The point to ponder here is that we’ve got to be kinder and more receptive to one another. We’ve got to have a civil conversation about how to do it.