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Conversation Stopper

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 4/2/08


Just so we're straight on this: all that Barack Obama actually said in his speech in Philadelphia a few weeks ago was that "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.'' He didn't call for a national conversation or a national dialogue on race, or for that matter for a national discussion, debate, confabulation or powwow.

Still, Obama didn't have to say the words for others to hear them. The Los Angeles Times praised him for "redefin[ing] our national conversation about race and politics," while the Philadelphia Inquirer asked, "Who better to lead a national conversation on the subject?" And Obama's conservative critics heard the same message, though they were more skeptical about the enterprise. In his New York Times column, William Kristol wrote "The last thing we need now is a heated national conversation about race. . . Let's not, and say we did."

But these days, it's natural to assume that any subject worth thinking about deserves to have a national conversation all its own. Hillary Clinton kicked off her campaign by announcing she was starting a national conversation about how to get the country back on track. Newt Gingrich has called for a national conversation on aging and Condoleezza Rice has called for one on trade. And other people have issued appeals for national conversations about climate change, youth sports coaching, the future of classical music, marijuana laws, health care, and personalized learning.

Time was that when you said that Joe Dimaggio's hitting streak was a topic of national conversation, you merely meant that it people were talking about it in bars and offices from Maine to California. It was only about thirty years ago that people started to talk about a national conversation as a single coordinated chinwag.

The phrase is meant to conjure up that famous Norman Rockwell painting of a New England town meeting, where ordinary citizens gather as equals to hash over the affairs of the day. Back in the 1930's, George Gallup claimed that polling and the modern media had recreated those meetings on a national scale -- as he put it, "the nation is literally in one great room." Of course when you get that many people talking in one room, it's hard to tell if everybody is paying attention.

But by the time "national conversation" entered the language in the 1970's, the simulated public forum had become the model for a clutch of new media genres. In the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter staged the first ersatz town meeting, the format that later found its Pavarotti in Bill Clinton. As it happens, that was also when Phil Donahue was pioneering tabloid talk TV and Larry King launched the first national radio call-in show.

There was something reassuring about the idea of everybody participating in a vast extended conversation, particularly for a country trying to get past the angry divisions of Vietnam and the sixties. As the alternative therapies of the era were teaching us, no conflict was so rancorous that it couldn't be dispelled by open conversation, so long as people were honest about expressing their real feelings.

We probably shouldn't be calling these discussions conversations at all. A genuine conversation has no purpose -- it's about the pleasures of merely circulating. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott said that an ideal conversation "has no determined course, we do not ask what it is ‘for,’ and we do not judge its excellence by its conclusion; it has no conclusion." It's always a little disconcerting when someone calls for a conversation about a specific topic. "We have to have a little conversation about all those calls to Toledo." On the face of things, it sounds like a request for an open exchange of views, but you sense that most of the script has already been written. 

But nowadays I keep hearing conversation used for exchanges that are entirely purposeful, particularly when they're designed to give people the impression that they're coming of their own free will to a conclusion that has acutally been determined in advance. You get this a lot from consultants who earn a tough living by coming up with sentences like "We aim to lead the strategic conversation around value alignment." Not to be a stickler about it, but any discussion you can describe as strategic probably doesn't count as a conversation. The preposition itself gives the game away: around is the new about. "It's time for a new national conversation around health care." That isn't how we talk about our everyday chitchat: "We were just having a conversation around our favorite seafood joints."

And when you hear people call for a national conversation you always know how they expect it to turn out. Every so often a foundation or the National Endowment for the Humanities will take the idea at face value and bring groups of citizens together in church basements or PBS stations for a heart-to-heart about race or American identity, but that rarely makes much of a ripple unless somebody gets on their case for it. And in any case, just calling for a national conversation usually makes the point all by itself. Both of the Clintons understand this, and so does Newt Gingrich. And William Bennett has called for half-a-dozen national conversations over the course of his career without ever feeling that he had to pretend to be a good listener.

Actually, what's usually most informative in all this is the debate about whether to have those conversations in the first place. If you really want to know what Americans think about race, punch "national conversation" and "Obama" into Google News or one of the blog search engines. You'll get an earful, and the subject being race, the tone often falls short of what you'd call conversational. If we ever got to the point where we could really conduct a national conversation about race, we probably wouldn't need to.

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.