Wednesday, May 21, 2014

I'm Certain You Are Wrong

I'm Certain You Are Wrong

This past week I heard some brief remarks by Milton Glaser, the graphics designer who, in 2009, was awarded the National Medal of Arts. You have probably seen Glaser’s work a thousand times over without knowing it; among other things, he designed the “I Love New York” and Boston Brewery logos, and the iconographic image of Bob Dylan for Columbia Records.  When not drawing and designing things, he took time to be a Fulbright scholar and to co-found New York Magazine.  A rich life, still going strong at 85.

Glaser was talking about art.  What it is, and why it’s created, and what it can do for people.  Art, more than anything else, is a point of commonality between human beings.  I had never heard him speak before, so, after returning home, I dug a little deeper, and found an article from ForbesIndia.  Glaser has a world-view that had a particular resonance for me personally. As each week passes, and I write another post for Syncopated Politics, I have been grappling with my own concerns about what it is to be a self-identified moderate Democrat in the age of Obama.  Government, which I think can be part of a modality in delivering a decent life for those willing to participate fully, isn’t working.  It doesn’t matter whose fault it is; all the dysfunction has created a seething mass of angry constituents and poorly executed services.  Glaser’s commonality between human beings is disappearing.

We have a tendency to think about this split as a regional thing-North vs. South, the two coasts vs. the heartland, but it’s not that simple a narrative.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a truly fascinating story about one of the most politically polarized places in the United States—the Milwaukee Metropolitan area. 

In four counties, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Milwaukee, Republican Governor (and possible 2016 Presidential aspirant) Scott Walker has a 91% approval rating among Republicans, and Barack Obama a 93% approval rating among Democrats.  Obama’s approval with the GOP? 8%.  Walker’s with Democrats? 10%

How is that even possible, that people who live in such close proximity to each other could have such intense political differences expressed with such an astounding degree of unanimity?  The author, Craig Gilbert, speaks of “a rising political segregation here, from a fiercely fractured electorate to the loss of competition to almost intractable urban-suburban divisions to the evolution of two parties that attract different kinds of voters, represent different kinds of communities and win different kinds of elections.”

Mr. Gilbert could just have easily been speaking of the country as a whole.  There is no question that we have grown more estranged and nastier in our interactions.  You could see this vividly when the 9/11 Memorial opened in New York.  The comments in on-line forums and opinion columns were predominantly ugly accusations, defiling the memory of guiltless victims. People who profit from an open, filter-less mike deliberately stoke some of this crassness.  But much has just infused itself into the more vocal part of the electorate.  We have made a hobby of disdaining and sometimes even hating each other.   And we have made a virtue of willful ignorance of any fact that doesn’t fit our world-view.  We have become a nation of deniers. 

That has to leave us with a sense of unease and even dread.  You can find some of it echoed in David Brooks’ column in Tuesday’s New York Times.  The events of the past several years have exposed democracy’s structural flaws. Democracies tend to have a tough time with long-range planning. Voters tend to want more government services than they are willing to pay for. The system of checks and balances can slide into paralysis, as more interest groups acquire veto power over legislation.”  Brooks goes on to ask, “Is democracy in long-run decline?”

Brooks’ solution is something I think he first learned at the feet of William F. Buckley: let the elites do it.  He wants Simpson-Bowles knock-offs where well-educated men and women get together (presumably over snifters of brandy) and discuss the great issues of the time and issue proclamations that, presumably, the rest of us respect and support implementation of. 

I’ve allowed myself that bit of snark to demonstrate two points.  The first is that Brooks is betraying a lack of trust in the general electorate that I find troubling, and, perhaps out of an unexpressed despair, he is drawing back from the communitarian conservatism that he has held as an ideal.  In short, he doesn’t really know what else to do. The second point should be obvious.  My snark is a substitute for any type of real solution.  I can tell you far better what the other side is doing wrong than how my side could do it better. 

It takes an artist to get to the point.  Glaser says “And so, we come to what I believe is useful in a kind of discussion like this, where you’re interested in the commonality of human beings: the suspension of belief. What people have to do is to stop believing and begin to observe. And the way I have been expressing that in relationship to art and design, is that attentiveness, in the Buddhist sense, becomes the way by which commonality, the observation of the real, is possible.”

That is a fascinating statement; stop believing and begin to observe.  Find the real.  Implicit in that is a sense that there is an objective truth that can be seen, if we only allow ourselves to see it.  To find commonality of purpose and approach, we have to discard our preconceptions.  “Once we come to life with an existing series of beliefs, the conception of commonality disappears. So, suspend ideology; suspend previous beliefs about what the world is. Attempt to experience it directly, by observation and attentiveness.”

Glaser isn’t talking about groupthink, or some state-imposed set of ideas.  What he is getting at is a sort of mindfulness, a persistent state of alertness and an openness to new information, even when it doesn’t fit into an ideology.  He sees it as an imperative; “I can’t imagine any other way to develop the sense that we are all in the same boat, experiencing the same needs and wants.”

How do we get life to imitate art, to think as if we were all in the same boat and experiencing the same needs?  

It would help if we had leaders who were courageous enough to both believe in, and repeat, Glaser’s words, “A certainty is a closing of the mind.”

May 20, 2014

Michael Liss  (Moderate Moderator)

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