Problems and Struggles

“So Socrates!” he teased, “you are still saying the same things I heard you say long ago.” Socrates replied: “It is more terrifying than that: not only am I always saying the same things, but also about the same things.”                   Xenophon, Memorabilia, IV.4.6                           (translated by Jonathan Lear) In the plenitude of discouragements that is contemporary history, the one that perhaps stings me the most is my increasing despair about the possibility of persuasion. Who changes their mind anymore? What is the difference between an open society that is intellectually petrified and a closed society? In a democratic society, which governs itself by exchanges and tabulations of opinion, surely the first requirement of meaningful citizenship is receptivity. Thoughtlessness is a betrayal of democracy. Mill said that democracy is “government by discussion.” The purpose of discussion is to test the merit of opinions with the presumption that one may convince others, or become convinced by others, of new views. One of the quintessential experiences of democratic life is to admit that one is wrong. In debates about large principles and large programs, everybody cannot be right, and sometimes not even a little right; and in a liberal order the adjudication of contradictions is accomplished not by guns but by arguments. Or so we like to tell ourselves. But the degrading spectacle of what passes for public debate in America has shaken my hoary faith in the dependability of argument. Is social media a discussion? Is a shriek an argument? Where is the reasoned deliberation that Milton and Madison and Mill regarded as the foundation of a decent polity? They intuited that the road from unreason to indecency is not long, and we are diabolically confirming their intuition. We have made “public reason” into an oxymoron. We are drowning in discursive

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