By Arianna Huffington, The Huffington Post, august 31, 2010 referenceing the address to college freshmen by Rick Levin, President of Yale
He really struck a chord in me when he spoke of the "emerging burden of citizenship," and of responsibilities beyond "self-gratification and personal advancement." He urged the next generation to "raise the level of public discourse." And, lamenting how "oversimplified ideology and appeal to narrow interest groups have triumphed over intelligence and moderation in civic discussion," Levin said that by demanding "serious discussion instead of slogans that mask narrow partisan interests," the new students -- and, by extension, the rest of us -- will be able to "help to make our democracy more effective."
Raising the level of public discourse is a task for all citizens, and that means saying "No" to the reductionism imposed by such social media as Twitter, and the electronicmedia's demand to crush all public discourse into 30-second sound bites, and conversation, for example conversations on MSNBC that are curtainled within three-to-four minutes, even though the quality of the guests merits longer time frames, and the media producers' perceptions of the public's "gnat-like" concentration span dumbs those guests down.
And of course the advertisers, who want to put their money into shows that have "high ratings" means that the whole process of public discourse is really governed by the need for cash...except on National Public Radio, or Public Broadcasting System (TV) in the U.S. and in Canada, the CBC, the public broadcaster. NPR, PBS and CBC are somewhat dependent on dollars from the public, in paid advertising and in donations, and in the case of the CBC government subsidy.
And it is those public broadcast outlets that bear the lion's share of the responsibility for extended discourse. Another "No" the public will have to utter, both individually and collectively, is a loud, resonant "No" to the demand of the internet communication to shorten sentences, and shorten paragraphs, and dumb down the level of the discourse permitted in that ubiquitous medium.
Literacy, the subject many boys in school resist, because it is not "hands on" as they want everything to be, is a subject never more in jeopardy than in today's electronic culture, complete with its own variation on the theme of radiation.
Only a literate public can be a responsible public, because only literate citizens have the insight, and the imagination and the necessary vocabulary to push back against the glib, simplistic and seductive talking points of the political leaders...
Tonight, Obama speaks to the nation, about the end of combat mission in Iraq, and while he must thank and legitimize the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of troops, many of whom gave their lives in this fight, he must also draw a line in the sand about American "preemptive strikes" in the minds and hearts of the whole world, not an easy or simple task.
And his capacity to draw on the examples from history and from literature will serve him well, because those are really the only "wells" from which appropriate water can be drawn for such task, in this case of national and internation leadership...when the whole world is quiverring in our boots about the next shoe to drop.