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Listen for the Truth

Here’s a paradox of the internet revolution and the rise of net-based activism: As more and more citizens outgrow 20th-Century media-induced passivity and political consumerism, as it becomes easier to speak out, it becomes harder to listen.

This political hearing impairment is not just an unintended consequence of the return of citizens’ voices to the public sphere, which is, of course, a good thing. Listening has long been the enemy of mainstream political media. Television’s chattering class talks loud and fast in the hope that we can’t listen, that their oh-so-urgent cries of today will make us forget what was said yesterday.

That’s a pundit imperative, since what was said yesterday was, in most cases, wrong. Inanity follows inanity, sometimes infected with partisan bias, sometimes surrounded by so much conventional rhetorical wrapping paper and so many verbal packing peanuts that there’s no room for actual gifts of language or insight.

Today, it’s a struggle to pull a word out edgewise.

We seem to start from the anxious premise that the theater is already on fire, that one finds one’s way to the exit by shouting directions to everyone else.

Within the general cacophony, wisdom is thought to emerge from the statistically weighted accumulations of millions of Americans on the telephone with anonymous pollsters. Then, mouthy pundits publicly analyze their private answers and compare them with the answers of their neighbors to a different set of anonymous pollsters.

The noise, as they say, is deafening. Pollsters, like pundits, are intrusive. They don’t listen to what’s in our hearts, they provoke artificial responses by putting the audience in one artificial state or another and then measuring which way their probes force our minds to move.

A possible saving grace of netroots activism is that it is not intrusive. It asks of participants that they contribute their own insights as they digest the insights of others. But this is a mad, mad, world, and sometimes in the scramble to be heard we forget to listen.

This modest essay could be taken as a performative instance of the very thing it cautions against, as just another the-exit’s-over-there, alarmist holler. So I won’t go on too long.

In the run up to the presidential election, the cheering and jeering felt good. It built enthusiasm and interest, and, at its best, began to open American minds and bend the nation a little to the left. A metaphor from sport holds here. Crowd noise influenced the play-calling and the game itself.

There was a multiplicity of expert opinion, too, from the grassroots upwards, and that’s already been a powerful, positive influence on the body politic.

Post-election, I’m a little overwhelmed by the racket. Surely, public discussion and tea leaf reading regarding would-be, could-be, or already named nominees to Barack Obama’s cabinet are important, even critical, to our collective future.

Still, I wonder if our assertiveness inhibits our ability to pause and think. We must be assertive listeners, too.

America has always been a nation of talkers. It’s wilderness seemed primed for the echoes of our voices. By gum, weren’t all us Promised Land homesteaders given 40 acres, a mule, and a First Amendment so we could sing whatever we pleased while we work?

The once-again vibrant public sphere, energized by the voices of newly empowered Americans, might just save democracy. It’s not that I want people to shut up. It’s that I fear we’re so busy talking that we’re not listening as well as we should.

Europeans and Asians have long recognized the insecurity and anxiety that fuel Americans’ jabber and jive. Maybe it’s that we remain intimidated by the always undiscovered country a true democracy could open before us.

We can talk ourselves into any damn thing. We listen for the truth.

Walt Whitman famously wrote, "I can hear America singing….Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs."

Caroline Sturgis Tappan, a friend of Margaret Fuller’s who shocked the puritan in Ralph Waldo Emerson with her free-love advocacy, quick wit and refusal to stay silent when her friends needed talking back to, nonetheless saw another need in America, a need to listen:

                  Listen to the Wind

Oft do I pause amid this various life,
    And ask me whence and to what end I be,
And how this world is, with its busy strife,
    Till all seems new and marvelous to me.
The faces and the forms, which long had grown
    Tedious and common to my wearied sense,
Seem in a moment changed to things unknown,
    And I gaze at them with an awe intense;
But none do stop to wonder with me too,
    So I pass on and mingle with the rest,
And quite forget the far and wondrous view
    In glimpses shown, when mystery was my guest.
Yet, when I sit and prate of idle things
    With idle men, the night wind’s howl I hear,
And straight come back those dim, wild questionings,
    Like ghosts who wander through a sense-bound sphere.

The tug of talk’s alive and well in me, of course, so I invite your comments. Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Emerson said that. But I bet Caroline Sturgis Tappan was one of the first to hear it.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith