Editorial: How to elevate the debate

Friday, August 04, 2017

From time to time in this space, we lament the state of the national dialogue. There seems to be far more obfuscation than illumination these days, and complex problems are more often than not reduced to the kind of pithy one-liners that play well on social media.

Just yesterday, for example, the Washington Post reported that Donald Trump referred to New Hampshire as a “drug-infested den,” a gross mischaracterization of the state’s opioid epidemic specifically and the problem of substance misuse in general. What Trump said was bad enough, but then a lot of intelligent people spent a good chunk of their day angrily condemning a ridiculous man for making yet another ridiculous statement.

Americans should of course hold Trump accountable for the dumb things he says, but surprise and outrage no longer feel authentic. This is a man of staggering ignorance and muted conscience, which for most people would merely be an unfortunate foundation on which to build character. But when such characteristics guide the behavior of the leader of the most powerful nation in the history of the world, it is beyond chilling.

How, then, can Americans elevate crucial debates when the president himself is hell-bent on reducing them to 140-character bursts of self-stroking misanthropy?

There is no one answer, but you could do worse than start with Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast, a collection of conversations led by Harris about politics, religion, technology, neuroscience, meditation, ethics, and on and on.

We should note that Harris despises Trump, but what makes him unique in that regard is that he genuinely wants to understand the people who adore him. Harris’s many Trump-supporting listeners urged him to converse with a thoughtful person who actually defends the president, namely Dilbert creator Scott Adams, and so Harris invited him on last month. For more than two hours they had what Harris called “a very civil and enjoyable conversation.” There was no winner and there were likely no conversions, but there was illumination.

Harris also recently talked with David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and author of a wonderful book called The Road to Character, which guided the discussion. For those unfamiliar with the book, it is an exploration of the deep values that shaped the far-from-average lives of Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, Frances Perkins and others. Over the course of an hour, Brooks and Harris talk about the concepts of sin and virtue, grace and self-overcoming. They discuss humility and the ethics of honesty, about which Harris says, “One thing I’ve often recommended is the ethic of just not lying, really ever, putting dishonesty on the continuum of violence.”

For two men who have painstakingly explored the foundations of high character, they find themselves largely in agreement on Trump the man.

Harris said: “He strikes me as a distillation of everything that is wrong with the American character. This could be, in large measure, a caricature, but he has brought the caricature to life. If you take our materialism, and our ignorance about the rest of the world, and our satisfaction in our ignorance, our overconfidence, our pretension to greatness even when we’re actually being merely petty, our vanity, our sexism, boorishness, narcissism – these are the antithesis of the kind of project you articulate in (The Road to Character). . . . He is the living embodiment of a kind of American grotesque.”

Rare is the day when Donald Trump fails to offend somebody. Yesterday was New Hampshire’s turn, and who knows who it will be tomorrow – but it almost doesn’t matter. It’s long past time to treat his ignorance as a distraction rather than the main event.

To participate in an elevated debate isn’t to ignore what’s going on in the gutter; it is to recognize the gutter for what it is and avoid getting stuck.