Sunday, June 05, 2005

I'd like to persuade you, but I'll settle for sneering 

My friend and occasional reader Dr. Burt Dubow sent me a copy of Matt Miller's column in Saturday's NYT. I appreciated that Miller was persuaded to the case for war in Iraq by Ken Pollack's book, only to find later on that the book's premise -- that Iraq had W.M.D.s -- has since been falsified. So persuasion wasn't dead for him then. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth the trouble to try to persuade.

There are two sets of issues here. One, there's the possibility that to win elections, it is easier to mobilize your own base and "drive up the negatives" of the opponent. Persuasion in the since Miller uses -- trying to reach people who traditionally haven't supported you -- is costly. This is the problem I run into with with the church of which I am a leader: We don't seek to peel off Lutherans from other congregations but try to reach those who have never heard the Word or have turned their backs on it. Seeking new members, "expanding the Kingdom", is very difficult stuff. It's noteworthy that Howard Dean currently is spending a lot of effort speaking to his own base, trying to solicit donations, while Ken Mehlman, his Republican counterpart, is showing up at a lot of Latino and African-American groups.

Second, I would agree with Miller if what he meant by the article is that the art of persuasion is dead. Reason is passe; critical thinking is confused with being critical of power or the establishment. Guys like Bill Maher (liberal) or Penn Gillette (libertarian) are considered real thinkers, when they're just guys satirizing the establishment, and frankly neither are quite clever. What is dying is both the art of the persuasive essay and the ability of our public to understand them. Both are signs of decay of higher education, a decay I feel increasingly powerless to stop. And they're harming the good things someone like a Matt Miller or a Michael Kinsley, or a William Buckley or a Victor Davis Hanson, can do to create a public dialogue on serious issues.

And yes, I suppose you could argue -- anticipating where you might go here -- that the first set of issues are causing some of that decay. Maybe, but I think something more fundamental than that is going on. If I knew what it was, I might write a book, but who'd read it?