Many years ago, in my misspent youth, I read an article in the Sunday paper, written by a Nun, that developed the notion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. I have always thought that was an interesting notion and it may have been (in a small way) the reason I decided to pursue a PhD in philosophy. At the very least, I didn’t want my mind to atrophy and I thought philosophy was the sort of subject that could keep my mind alive well into my dotage: questions that don’t have answers! Well, here I am.
But, with the exception of a few bright people who post blogs and comment from time to time about the issues, I appear to be surrounded by small minds discussing people. I am speaking of the elections, of course, in which ideas are scarce if present at all and events seem to have been ignored as well — unless they reveal a scandal about the parties involved. This election is all about people and the ad hominem fallacy abounds. I speak of that logical fallacy that redirects attention to the character of the person advancing an argument rather than dealing with the argument itself. One of the candidates, who will not be mentioned, glories in attacking not only his opponent but anyone who walks, rolls, or crawls and has the gall to disagree with him. I cannot remember any candidate in my lifetime who seems to enjoy attacking persons as does this man. And he has a great many followers who seem to enjoy it as well.
Politics has always been a bit dirty even from the get-go. And the ad hominem attack on the speaker has always been there in some form or other. But this election takes the cake and wins hands-down: it seems to have achieved a new low. We are scraping through the bottom of the barrel!
When one reflects back on the days when the Constitution was being considered for adoption the country (very small at the time, of course) was abuzz about the balance between states and nation; there was considerable fear of giving up the power that resided in the small relatively homogeneous states to a nation of people who disagree with one another about many of the important issues of the day. Where have those ideas gone? Where is that passion for thought on a large scale, a scale beyond the self? Why can’t people discuss issues with those whose opinion differs from their own? Why do we have to cast aspersions against those who disagree with us rather than listen to what they have to say?
When the Federalist Papers were written by three men of genius they were published in all the major newspapers of New York state and everyone worried whether by adopting the concept of a united country they would be giving up much of the power they had amassed as one of the most prosperous states in the colonies. Everyone who could read — and many who could not — discussed the ideas and thought about the issues involved. It is sobering to realize that those people were willing to think outside the box, to imagine a united country and the positive force it could be in the world. They saw beyond themselves and the present moment and made determinations based on the question of what would be best in the long run.
When this country celebrated its bicentennial in 1976 Henry Steele Commager, the great American historian, was asked what single thing differentiated the folks in this country when the Constitution was written and discussed from the people of America two hundred years later he answered quickly: in those days they thought about the future, about their children and their grandchildren. We no longer think about those things because we are fixated on ourselves at the present moment. That was in 1976. How much worse has it become in the interim? One can only wonder.
In any event, the answer to this question is revealed to some degree by the present lack of discussion in the political arena about the ideas that are so important to the future of this country. Instead we hear about every mistake (real or imagined) one or the other candidate has made in his or her lifetime (or what mistakes their significant other might have made). And it’s not just the candidates, either. The media glories in gossip and citizens who are about to go the voting booth are immersed in talk about the personalities and character (or lack of character) of those who are running for political office. “I hate him,” or “I can’t stand her.”
We should be talking about qualifications, not personalities. We are lost in blather about people and have lost sight of the issues that confront us all and which will determine the course of this country for the next generation at least. Our minds have shrunk: they are small indeed.