Thursday, April 27, 2006

Politics and Civility

When I was younger I used to enjoy watching the The McLaughlin Group with my father. We enjoyed the debate and the humor and we also enjoyed the obvious friendship among many of the participants, men (and later women) with quite different views on many things. On the show, they'd something go at it hammer and tongs. But you knew that at the end of the day, John McLaughlin, Robert Novak, and Jack Germond might find themselves having a drink together and swapping stories and laughing together.

Where has that gone? Oh, it can still be found, but as I look around I see so much rancor in so many places. And so little civility. Have we really come to a place where there is no reasonable disagreement? Where everyone who fails to acknowledge that I'm right is in bad faith---a liar or worse? Isn't it possible to be well intentioned, honest, honorable and wrong?

In a few minutes I'm going down to dinner with two friends. One is a fellow Christian, though from a very different tradition (he's a devout Quaker) and the other is an atheist. One is a strange amalgam of federalism, Midwestern chauvanism, conservatism, liberalism, and insanity. The other is a fairly orthodox left-libertarian, though sympathetic to current mainstream left-liberalism. And I'm a fairly standard moderate conservative, though colored by Catholicism which moderates the worst excesses of my politics (one really should care for the poor, one way or another; war may sometimes be just but had best be rare as Hell; killing people needlessly is never right, etc.)

And we're all opinionated. So we argue and we'll probably argue at dinner. But we're also all futurists of a sort, share a love of technology and science fiction, and we all, above all, believe that civility, honor, and fair play should hold despite disagreements. We see each other as more than just the sum of our politics.

After all, shouldn't everyone?

About the name

I've always loved the writings of G. K. Chesterton, and I was always struck by one of his phrases in particular:

"There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man."

This has alwasy rung true to me, so when I finally decided to create a blog (mostly to ensure that not all of the good Chestertonian names were taken) I thought of it at once. And then I thought of a great title: The Flag of the World. And promptly forgot about doing anything for weeks.

Then I thought of it all again, and, lo and behold, The Flag of the World was taken (kudos to Timothy Goddard on an excellent title). Ah well, I said, at least it is in use by someone who looks as though he appreciates GKC... Besides, I can still use another title, almost as good: The Eternal Revolution. Well, of course you can see the problem there. (Kudos to the various writers selecting so excellent a title.)

So I looked around at What's Wrong with the World, which has many fine chapter titles, and thought about using that title (What's Wrong with the World). But that sounded really too negative. Certainly many things are wrong with the world, but one shouldn't focus entirely on the nasty things or one risks becoming mean and irritating (like Bill O'Reilly or George Carlin).

So, with that in mind, I considered one of the greatest chapter titles in that book: The Home of Man. No, that one wasn't taken, but it just sounded somewhat presumptious. Is my site really going to be the "Home of Man"? No, probably not. Besides, someone else has the real claim to being the Home of Man (as GKC pointed out).

So, in the end, I settled upon a very strange, but very fitting title: The Universal Stick. Here's what Chesterton had to say about the lowly stick in the chapter of that name in What's Wrong with the World:

"Let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner, or a fire on the hearth. About each of these you will notice one speciality; that not one of them is special. Each of these ancestral things is a universal thing; made to supply many different needs; and while tottering pedants nose about to find the cause and origin of some old custom, the truth is that it had fifty causes or a hundred origins. The knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects. The stick is meant partly to hold a man up, partly to knock a man down; partly to point with like a finger-post, partly to balance with like a balancing pole, partly to trifle with like a cigarette, partly to kill with like a club of a giant; it is a crutch and a cudgel; an elongated finger and an extra leg. The case is the same, of course, with the fire; about which the strangest modern views have arisen. A queer fancy seems to be current that a fire exists to warm people. It exists to warm people, to light their darkness, to raise their spirits, to toast their muffins, to air their rooms, to cook their chestnuts, to tell stories to their children, to make checkered shadows on their walls, to boil their hurried kettles, and to be the red heart of a man's house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die."

So there it is, the reason for this strange and perhaps foolish title. Perhaps I am still presumptious, but I hope that this site may be, like the lowly stick, universal in its scope and intention. I may well fall short of this ideal, but I'll still proclaim the ideal: a man should be open to discussing nearly everything, even if he's an expect only on a few things. Granted, he'll frequently be a fool, but at least he'll be a man, albeit an unpractical one.