Recently on a dull Sunday afternoon I tuned in a local talk radio program. Talk radio generally pains me, not so much because of the content as the tone. Tone and content are not fully severable, but talk radio often conveys less a consistent position than diffuse anger, dogmatic certainty, and contempt for those of differing views and ways of living.
Instead of local voices I heard Glenn Beck blasting a school in Texas for grading students solely on the basis of the effort expended. Beck raised relevant objections not only with regard to social standards but also as to students' self-esteem.
He then, however, went on to a broad indictment of U.S. public education as dominated by a squishy sentimentalism. An ill-defined "they" had abandoned all rigorous evaluation. I was left wondering where No Child Left Behind had come from. And what evidence is there that effort grading had become predominant or that effort should not be at least one criterion?
Beck has his Left counterparts. For some on the left, defenders of free-market capitalism are treated simply as "greedy," however much money they have or aspire to. Anger and dismissive contempt know no political boundaries and may be seen as symptoms of deep predicaments that grip all of us. Part of our predicament is difficulty in articulating or defending the exact nature of our situation.
A conference on religion and politics in the spring of 2009 at the New School featuring Templeton Prize winner Charles Taylor and William Connolly, author of "Capitalism and Christianity American Style," helped me clarify my own contestable thoughts on this. (For conference CDs, go to www.socres.org/religiousseculardivide/.)
In addition to consciousness of our own mortality, humans must confront the partial and inevitably finite nature of our knowledge. We carve out our beliefs "through a glass darkly," i.e., with and against a set of constantly shifting instincts, intuitions, and ideas which we can never fully capture.
Yet we must act in this world. The paradoxical need for action combined with the soft and shifting ground on which some action must be based evoke anxiety. Anxiety causes all of us some of the time and some of us all the time to cling to whatever broader goals and understandings we develop as final truths. These truths will live on even if we do not. It also often leads us to see those opposed to our worldviews as utterly stupid, perverse or dangerous.
Some further cement their sense that they are special by viewing themselves as a minority under siege, even if the only threat to their position lies in the disagreement that others (often even only a few) have to that position.
These destructive and exclusionary tendencies seem strongest in a world of rapid change, poverty, hardship and global insecurities.
Older readers of this column might compare William Buckley's intellectually playful "Firing Line" with the bombastic and hostile tone of the "O'Reilly Factor." Politics will never be a songfest. Ideas and passions are not easily
separated. It is hard to advance an idea without some commitment to the argument and without thereby risking anger toward those who don't see our line of thought.
But passions can be reconfigured; fear of death and finitude can be curbed. The hospice and right to die movements have reshaped the experience of death both for the dying and their loved ones. Christianity itself includes currents contrary to the harsh self-righteousness of Revelation, including a stress upon humility and mercy, judging not lest you be judged, heaven and hell as states of mind rather than domains of reward and punishment. Many secular and religious thinkers now celebrate the evolving forms of human and nonhuman existence.
Martin Luther King's passion energized his sacrifices on behalf of civil rights. History's great prophets, including King, strive to enhance in themselves a passion for generosity and inclusivity. Their commitment to democracy and nonviolence is inspired by and enhances an appreciation of the many ways of life and thought humanity can embrace. They acknowledge the shifting and dimly perceived foundations on which their worldview rests and the role that alternative ways of being can play in their own development. They have thereby inspired more generosity and intellectual openness among at least some of their adversaries.
This would be talk radio worthy of the name.