On a recent PBS newshour, there was an interview of a representative of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a representative of an organization providing food to the poor. The moderator was asking about a recent cut in food stamps. The Heritage foundation rep confidently declared that it was really no big deal because it represented only a fraction of one percent of the assistance available to the poor. The food bank rep stared in disbelief. Poor families, she replied, would, because of this cut, be unable to feed their children for the better part of a week. Millions of children, she said, would go hungry because of this cut.
This exchange perfectly illustrates the disconnect in the arguments between right and left in the United States. They are two trains passing in the night, neither one asking the same question, neither one answering the other’s concerns. The food bank rep was addressing the question how we can, as we must, make sure that every American has enough food to eat. The Heritage Foundation rep was asking the question how we resolve the issue of the government’s massive debt.
It is very easy for me as a liberal to mock the Heritage Foundtion rep as a heartless beast (he was a big fat white male, which makes it even easier). How, I might say, could one be so heartless to try to solve our debt on the backs of starving children while insisting on letting the rich continue to get richer? It is just as easy, however, for a Heritage fan to mock the seeming humane generosity of the left by arguing that we cannot continue to spend money we don’t have because if we do then we will all end up starving.
These are examples of what I call arational speech, that is, speech grounded not in reason but in rhetoric, propoganda. We keep talking past each other, and our response to the speech of the other side, rather than reason, becomes argument from force. That way lies the insanity of violence. If you don’t believe it, look up the two-part history of the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile that was recently run on Turner Classic Movies.
The one thing that both sides seem to agree on is that we are headed for disaster. The right says that disaster will lie in national bankruptcy. The left says that disaster will lie in the destruction of the middles class and the impoverishment of the least advantaged among us. Both are correct, but each for the wrong reason. The real disaster lies in creating a rift between two factions in the United States that, as a matter of policy, refuse to address each other’s concerns in a rational fashion. Why do they refuse? Pick your own reason. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, without rational discourse, the factions will have no other recourse than violence. And we are far closer to that than anyone might think.