Cable-News Panels With House Dissidents Are No Longer Enough

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Joseph Epstein headlined “Where’s Socrates When You Need Him?”:

Dialogue in its traditional meaning referred to people with divergent viewpoints coming together in hope of discovering a different, more complex and perhaps higher truth. The most famous practitioner was Plato, whose Socratic dialogues were a search for truth or, at least in the intellectually modest pose of Socrates, an acknowledgment of what we really don’t know. Four hundred years later, Plutarch often availed himself of dialogue. The most recent philosopher to use the form was George Santayana in his 1925 book “Dialogues in Limbo.”

A rough notion of dialogue was taken up by newspapers in 1973, when the liberal New York Times hired William Safire, a conservative former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, as a regular columnist. Taking things a step further, The Wall Street Journal published the opinions of Alexander Cockburn, a radical leftist, in the 1980s. Implicit in both hires was the ideal of dialogue, or the need to hear from all sides for the truth to emerge. In both cases, it is less than clear that it did, but let that pass.

The ideal of dialogue, or perhaps of false dialogue, is carried on today on the various panels assembled by cable-news channels. On any three- or four-person Fox News panel, at least one panelist is likely to be a self-acknowledged Democrat, liberal or progressive; on any CNN or MSNBC panel one participant is likely to be a Republican or conservative. Fox has what one might call its house liberals; CNN and MSNBC its house conservatives. This is meant to give the impression of fairness, of every side getting its say. But, again, it’s less than certain that this really works.

As most people watch either Fox or CNN and MSNBC exclusively, viewers aren’t likely to attend carefully to these channels’ house dissidents. They are, after all, tuned in chiefly to find confirmation of political opinions formed long ago, not to hear an opposing view.

These days most people have their political opinions locked in, with no wish to change their views. Besides, as Jonathan Swift had it, you can’t reason a person out of something he wasn’t reasoned into. Most of our political views were formed either in consonance with those of our parents, or in dissonant disagreement with them. Many vote their ethnicity or religion. When I was growing up, I never heard of a Jewish Republican. Others vote along with their friendship group or social class.

Dialogue differs importantly from debate. In debate one seeks to win by defeating the other side. In dialogue, if successfully done, everyone comes out a winner. That requires goodwill on the part of all involved, which means a determination to advance knowledge on thorny or difficult subjects.

There is no shortage of such subjects in America. Here, quickly, are three: If Donald Trump and Joe Biden are the best presidential candidates our two political parties can provide, doesn’t it suggest the moral bankruptcy of these parties, and, if so, what is to be done about it? Has higher education lost its prestige and, if so, how might it be regained? With more than a million Americans, most of them young, claiming gender dysphoria and transgendering themselves, has therapeutic culture gone too far and can anything be done to reverse it?

Without great strain, one can think of other issues, problems and questions best treated not by taking sides but through dialogue.

The country is so divided, it’s a fair question to ask whether we can even have a serious dialogue today. I, for one, should much like to read or hear a dialogue on how best to end this dreary division and bring the country back to a decent unity. Further squabbles, arguments, debates and presumably balanced panels are unlikely to do the job. The time, surely, has come for dialogue.

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of “The Novel, Who Needs It?”

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