Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tavern Politics

I'm in the midst of reading and watching John Adams. In short, this is a biography by David McCullough documenting the life of our 1st vice president and 2nd president, with emphasis on the tumultuous times surrounding our fight for independence from England. John Adams was much more and played a much larger role than just his executive branch duties and it's all on magnificent display here. Many of you may have already seen the miniseries, but I'm something of a Luddite and have no cable or satellite television, so for me it's a revelation. I highly recommend this if you're at all interested in being the proverbial fly on the wall (watch and listen and you'll know what I mean), as the founding of our great nation is brought to life and shows what really went on during those times.

What strikes me about the story is the ability of men of politics to have civil discourse over pints of beer in a tavern. Story in fact, is by no means fictional (and that's the beauty of this documentary), but historical fact gleaned from letters written and diary entries made, by the participants. Politics, in thinking just now, is also perhaps not the correct word, as political parties had not yet even been created until after the Declaration of Independence had been signed! As I was saying, the tavern served as a place where men, often of differing opinions, could discuss their views in a less formal setting than Constitution Hall. The places were frequented in the evening after federal work for the day was over, much the same as we go to our neighborhood tavern today after work. The tempering effect of beer was absolutely essential, in my opinion, to the openness in which ideas and views were put forth. Keen listening, that lost sense, was practiced widely. Speaking in civil tone, not elevated screeching, in complete and grammatically correct sentences, was the order of the evening. Perhaps, courageousness too, was a beneficial side-effect of the beer: not every man feeling able to put forth a hard view without it. Trial balloons or ideas were floated here first, too, before presentation to the assembly in Constitution Hall. All in all, a very worth-while endeavor, drinking beer and forming a new government of and for men! Wouldn't you say?

Today, some sharing of ideas and views still takes place in taverns around this great country of ours. I wonder though, how persuasive any of it is among its participants. I have heard it said (I don't know who said it but they may be right), that we've (we being US citizens), by and large, all made up our minds about everything and there's very little persuasion or mind-changing, taking place anymore. Is it because we're all too educated and know we're right about everything? Perhaps we've lost the ability to actively listen and thoughtfully analyze an oral argument, enough to discount and expose logical flaws and/or the various duplicitous ploys of argument like red herrings, straw men, slippery slope fallacies, and the such. Maybe the world has just gotten two darned complicated with very little right and wrong, yes or no, absolute conclusions; we live in a world unlike that of 231 years ago, a world that is made up of an infinite number of shades of gray, making judging the merits of an idea unmanageable. Too much data! Or maybe the real fault lies with the division created by having to choose a side (political party), that in itself creating an atmosphere of unreasonableness and confrontation. Us versus Them, an almost instinctual nature to pick sides and fight to the death regardless of merit.

I don't know who said it, but paraphrased: this democracy will only survive if the people electing their leaders are educated, read, and involved in the process. Each and every one of us. There are no exceptions to my knowledge.

So the next time, you're in a tavern and someone starts preaching tavern politics from his chair, don't immediately discount him. Engage him in some discourse to understand and explore his point of view. He probably has something meaningful to say.

If you're interested in learning more about this subject, try to find a copy of Rum Punch and Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia by Peter Thompson (Univ. Of Pa. Press, 1998).

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