I just stumbled on the text of a commencement speech Pres. Obama gave Saturday at the of Michigan. I’ll confess, I was entranced. Couldn’t find a place to stop. Couldn’t find a small portion that captures the elegance of the whole arc. I’ll force myself to pick a few paragraphs for an excerpt below, but I hope you will read the whole thing and maybe ask someone you know who inhabits the other side of the political spectrum from yourself to do so also, and maybe discuss it afterward.
There’s not much in it that’s controversial (at least to these old eyes). Obama did throw a bit of soft soap into the water on the issue of the “big government” bogeyman. And he dropped a few hints that those “Constitutional conservatives” (please see my slightly snotty previous post) who believe that they are the only true descendants of the founding fathers may be reading history selectively.
But his main suggestion isn’t that righties should move left (not that he would mind) but that ideologues on both sides should cut down on the demonizing, open their minds, listen with more respect to one another’s facts and arguments and, well maybe hum a few bars of kumbaya. I’m not doing it justice. The whole thing was catnip for someone like me who worries too much about the power of confirmation bias. But I’ll just shut up and offer an excerpt plus a link to the whole speech. Excerpt:
“… We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. (Applause.) You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. (Applause.) Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” — (laughter) — that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.
Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth. But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse. And the problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized. Remember, they signed up for it. Michelle always reminds me of that. (Laughter.) The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning — since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a left-wing nut”? (Laughter.)
It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.
So what do we do? As I found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of politics is not easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect. (Applause.) But civility in this age also requires something more than just asking if we can’t just all get along.
Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. And it’s also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner, or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows. And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.
But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.
Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. (Applause.) That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. (Applause.) As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” (Laughter.)
Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. (Applause.) It is essential for our democracy.”
And the full text (it’s worth the time, imho) is here.