#787 – Dick Bernard: "Conversation" and the Government Shutdown in Washington

Long-time journalist on politics, Eric Black, published a most interesting column in the October 7 MinnPost. Mr. Black has built a very strong positive reputation over many years as a reporter on politics in this region. He continues writing in retirement.
Succinctly, Black watched the 14 minute interview of John Boehner by George Stephanopoulos Sunday, October 6, in which Boehner used the word “conversation” 22 times in context with the Government shutdown in DC, as in “let’s sit down and have a conversation”.
Black’s column caused me to think back to July, 2012, in my own town of Woodbury, when the word “conversation” was used in conjunction with a community meeting about another word “taxes”. It was such a noble idea: one of the organizers of the conversation wrote a column in the local paper, and the papers editor wrote an editorial piece in support of the idea, and I wrote a column before the meeting which you can read here. Unfortunately, the links to the actual newspaper articles no longer work, but you’ll get the essence from my writing.
As I say, I wrote the column before the meeting.
I actually attended and participated in the event, which seemed to attract about 50 people. I again wrote about the meeting some months later, here entitled “Taxes, and other words”. (You’ll note the latter post was #51 about Election 2012. Politics as warfare did not begin this fall; nor in 2011. The intense warfare goes back to the mid-1990s. It is a war that is destroying us as a civil society.)
But, back to the word “conversation” and that community “conversation” in the summer of 2012.
“Conversation” is a positive word, and that’s why it is useful as a political word, which is why Boehner used it so often. But it is something different to put words into practice. “Conversation” implies a mutuality and it suggests civility and willingness to listen and compromise, and all the good things that go with a civil society.
But it has to be more than simply a word.
At the conversation in Summer 2012, we 50-or-so were pretty crowded into a room, and were divided into table groups of about six per table, for two ’rounds’ of structured talking about the word “taxes”. When the first group was completed (a timed exercise), we self-selected to another group of people at another table: new participants, same topic. The convenors were well prepared, and handled the sessions professionally. They knew the process.
My first group was the very embodiment of a positive conversation: good listening, good thoughts and ideas, accepting other points of view. It was a pleasure to be part of it.
The second group, not so….
I had noticed – they were impossible to miss – a band of adult roughnecks who seemed to hang together at the beginning of the session, and were loud and dominating.
I didn’t know any of them.
They apparently knew me, perhaps from that column of mine in the local newspaper or in some other way. And when we changed tables, four of them came to the table I had chosen, and one other person who’d been with me at the first table joined as well.
This group was the polar opposite of the first: two of the four were civil enough, but the other two were not there to listen and converse: they were there to dominate. It was, to say the least, an uncomfortable time. The sixth man in the group had participated at the first table; at this table, he said nothing – a wise strategy. I did my best to keep it all civil, but at least once had to take on the loudmouth who was not interested in other opinions than his own.
So, when I looked at Boehner’s use of the word “conversation” last Sunday, I had to look at it in context with the performance of his caucus in the House of Representatives, which is a bunch not interested in conversation except as a mechanism to control and dominate and “win” their agenda.
After the meeting I wrote to the lady who was convenor of the conversation, observing that I felt bullied in the second half of the meeting.
Judging from her response, she knew the characters, and understood.
The ladies who’d had the idea summarized the meeting to we participants, and talked hopefully about a followup session.
To my knowledge, that second session never happened.
I understand why.