I was reading tributes in various magazines of a well-respected and accomplished social scientist, who had recently passed away. Within those tributes, the word “serious” always crops up —as in, he was a “serious scholar” or a “serious man.”
Indeed, James Q. Wilson (even the name implies it, or the Q, as it does with the F, in George F. Will), was serious. He was cautious in temperament, careful in his diagnosis of contemporary social problems, and meticulous in his use of fact and data to support whatever viewpoint he was expressing. In the end, earning credibility and respect from his recondite audience of academic scholars, policymakers and general readers.
When someone says “serious” in this vein, usually the word starchy is not far behind. Or the image of the above-mentioned George Will, a model in this arena, with his professorial delivery, arch prose style, and overdone bowties and demeanor. It’s okay, George, I know you went to Oxford, and have read Evelyn Waugh. Nevertheless, seriousness is the foremost problem of public and cultural life today; it presenting with devastating precision the trite and tiresome vacuity of how things operate now.
As an issue “seriousness” does not compare to affordable health-care, who’s the next president, war with Iran, or any of the innumerable public questions out there. It’s kind of old-fashioned, out of date, un-hip, and middlebrow, a staple of the black-and-white era of the 50s, when men went to work in gray suits and fedora hats. Perhaps so.
But it seems to be coming back as a legitimate issue of public concern, and not solely as conservative complaint (who generally suffer as the stiff pants in politics and culture). Cultural critic Lee Seigel, affiliated with liberal magazines such as Slate, has written a book on it, titled “Are You Serious: How To Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly” . It’s a lament and how-to-guide. He gives examples of how it works, models for men in such figures as Cary Grant, gets into a wide-ranging philosophical discussion using Aristotle and Cicero (above my head), and gives us examples of how current standards of pop culture childishness is taking us backward.
Generally, it’s good to avoid easy connections, but the low rent quality of our politics may have something to do with the lack of seriousness in the society at large. Let’s admit it: The 1960s cultural cascade, while fun and sexy, daring and bold, but mostly intemperate, with a hint of youthful bombast, is what caused what is turning into a serious ailment.
Plenty of well-meaning movers-and-shakers in commerce, media mavens and politicians, lament the state of civility in public discourse. Yet civility requires common standards, a recognition of important principles and beliefs, the inseparability of passion and purpose, but its tight regulation through courtesy and honesty, not through political bullying and blackballing, or the veneer of false consensus that creates PC squadrons. In essence, a return to normalcy, a standard of adulthood that accepts limits, relishes differences, respects reality, but taking a mature view of them all.
The times require it. This presidential election has definitely clarified the situation for me, especially with the tug-of-war going on within the Republican primary. Or for me what’s really at stake: a national decline through the inertia of our political institutions, and a failed president in Barack Obama. All politics is local, says the late Speaker Tip O’ Neil. Through those great laboratories of democratic experiment, our local governments and associations, things do happen.
A few weeks ago, I attended an event sponsored by the Village Square, in which local elected officials came together to discuss pressing public problems. The discussion was fine, thoughtful, albeit with a few things I disagree with. Still, it was a great interaction between the politicians themselves and citizens. We need such a serious renewal.
The ultra-serious James Q. Wilson, an avatar of careful and rigorous scholarly detachment, a student of the hurlyburly of American politics, personal and professional standard is a great model. So, too, the Village Square’s unstinting belief in the ideal of civility.
I’m so serious, bro.
Chris Timmons shares his insights and conservative sensibilities in a featured blog for The Village Square. (Photo credit)
Be sure to join us on Thursday, March 22 for Economic Development Partnerships.
In most university communities, “town and gown” refers to the relationship between a city and its single institution of higher learning. Tallahassee is highly unusual in this respect. We have two major state universities in our midst, one of which is a leading historically black institution, as well as a community college that plays a key role in workforce development.
While this makes town-gown collaboration more challenging, TAG believes it also provides enhanced opportunity for making Tallahassee an even better place to live and work – in part, if we succeed in keeping a higher percentage of our college graduates.
From the beginning, Florida A&M University President James Ammons has understood that more collaboration between his institution and the broader community would mean better outcomes for both, which is why his support for the TAG initiative was immediate and unwavering. TAG asked Dr. Ammons to elaborate:
DR. AMMONS: More town gown collaboration is important to Florida A&M University because of the many opportunities it presents to help the institution and the students we serve reach their fullest potential. The more opportunities students have to interact with members of the local community, the likelier they are to consider remaining in town after graduation and speaking positively about the institution upon returning to their hometown. Sharing such positive experiences they have in Tallahassee with people in different cities and states throughout this country could help lead to an enhanced image of Tallahassee as a city where more people will want to come to visit, study, work and live.
TAG: Why do you believe the broader Leon County community has an important stake in closer collaboration with our universities and community college, particularly with regard to Florida A&M?
DR. AMMONS: I believe the community has an important stake in closer collaborations with FAMU and other area institutions because of the potential contributions we provide to the quality of life in Tallahassee. By working collaboratively with the citizens of the local community and area business leaders, we can enhance our relationships to unveil limitless opportunities. Such collaborations would also afford students the ability to learn first-hand about internships and employment availabilities at area businesses. Currently, there are several events at FAMU that attract area citizens to our campus. An extension of programs such as the University’s Lyceum Series would continue to create productive environments for exchanges of the arts and scholarly discussions and information between the university and local citizens.
TAG: One of the key issues that the TAG surveys identified was the need for more student engagement in the community. Please describe the differences you would like to see in the community with regard to engaging more college students in Tallahassee’s civic life and, similarly, engaging more Tallahasseeans in campus life.
DR. AMMONS: FAMU is engaged in many projects that serve the community. It would be great to have a formal and organized way of matching university talent with community needs.
While several volunteer opportunities are available to students, more detailed information on these opportunities would ensure the university could pair the opportunities with university talent. This engagement would provide FAMU and the business community with an opportunity to train and hire more of our graduates. This could become a valuable recruiting tool for local businesses and corporations.
Caught a little of the discussion about Tennessee Street development the past couple days but not quite up to speed. Have your own opinion and a little information you’d like to share? We put up a page outlining the basics of the issue HERE that is fully editable by you once you create an account. Feel free to add information, correct anything that appears to be incorrect (or need elaboration) and even write your own op-ed to share your opinion. While you’re there, you might want to weigh in the pro/con page.
(Photo credit: Andy Callahan)
We’re delighted to be partnering with the Florida Chamber Foundation and Collins Center to co-host a brand new forum on strictly Florida Topics – Florida Matters: Spirited Dialogue About the Issues. Next Thursday night, March 15th, kicks off the series at 5:30 pm with a conversation on “Government and Business Ethics” with special guest Jonathan Low of Predictiv Consulting and Florida Chamber Foundation’s own Dale Brill. Each event will also include discussion of the topic in small groups and a 3-flight wine tasting. The second program – on “Your Vote in Florida” – will be March 29th.
For more information and to reserve a seat, click HERE.
As we zip around town trying not to be late for work, outings with friends, school, the soccer game or whatever else keeps us all in such a hurry, we’ve probably all had moments when the yellow light actually urges us to hit the gas rather than slow down. Then, one day the City’s red light cameras came along. Does yellow still mean “pedal to the metal” for you, or does the kindergarten teaching that yellow means “caution” — and the risk of a traffic fine — cause your foot to reach for the brake instead? Are our red light cameras really working to prevent accidents and save lives, or is it just another way for the City to raise money? Check out some of the background and various arguments on this topic in The Village Square‘s “Get Local” Tallahassee section of our We the Wiki website. The content of our Wiki is made greater by factual, civil, diverse contributions from people like you. So, go ahead — check it out. And we hope you’ll even be moved to add some information, a new angle of the debate, or even an op-ed. If you’re a first-time user, be sure to check out the Tools & Tips page, too. And if you have trouble with the site using Internet Explorer, try switching over to Google Chrome, Firefox or Safari.
“[Olympia Snowe] has graced Congress since 1978 with the kind of balance and fortitude necessary to make compromise happen and we’re going to miss her. The challenge is going to be that I’m not sure it’s an inside job anymore, it’s got to be done by the American people.” — Peter D. Kiernan, author of Becoming China’s Bitch
Editor’s note: Tomorrow we host Dr. Byron Johnson, author of “More God, Less Crime” at Faith, Food, Friday. In the beginning of his book, Dr. Johnson tells a pretty convincing story about how he was discriminated against in his academic career over his religious beliefs. The person responsible for bringing Dr. Johnson to town is the very Reverend Allison DeFoor (a close friend of the author) mentioned in this piece. The irony of that required a peanut gallery observation: Perhaps we’ve got ourselves in a bit of a do-loop, with aggressive behavior begetting aggressive behavior – lather, rinse and repeat endlessly? And perhaps it’s a cycle we could reverse? (more…)
Six years ago a group of liberal and conservative Tallahassee leaders – who somehow enjoyed enduring across-the-aisle friendships despite enduring political disagreement – started an audacious civic experiment. They were frustrated by the divisiveness of the political dialogue nationally and its increasingly negative impact on local decision-making. And they were nervy enough to think they could fix it.
“The experiment” is now called The Village Square, named after Albert Einstein’s reflection on America’s first nuclear energy debate: “To the village square, we must carry the facts… from there must come America’s voice.”
In the good company of Mr. Einstein, we were doing some Grade A wishful thinking when we decided to elevate facts as central to our mission. Facts, after all (and especially in the internet age), are ripe for motivated cherry picking and human beings are nothing if not motivated cherry pickers.
Using the central metaphor in Civil Politics’ founder Jonathan Haidt’s forthcoming The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, with a founding charter on facts, The Village Square had decided to talk to “riders” on their “elephants.”
“The mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant… The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”
An encyclopedic volume of facts can drive any particular complex issue – hard for mere mortals (with children, bosses and a mortgage) to absorb. So instead, people make decisions intuitively (and based on others around them), then settle on a set of “facts” that support the decision they’ve already made. “The Righteous Mind” offers overwhelming scientific support for the driving force of “post-hoc” rationalization in our mental processes.
I now suspect our original conservative and liberal friends were unconsciously deluding ourselves that The Village Square would convince our wayward friends on the opposite side of the aisle of the ultimate correctness of our own political views. That didn’t happen.
Instead, in the process of rolling up our sleeves together in common work, we had accidentally put ourselves in the company of a very different group of elephants than our usual herd. That is what has changed everything – including (ironically) allowing us to be naturally affected by a broader range of facts.
Now when our “elephants” lean in the direction our minds choose instinctively – we choose a different direction than we might have without these new and unique relationships. Using Jon Haidt’s construct, in the process of aiming our efforts at what doesn’t work – talking to the rider – The Village Square stumbled on what does work: We changed the path of the elephant.
“…If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”
Do we still talk to riders? Sure we do. Riders matter, as servants of the elephant. Riders need good ideas to talk to other people, and try to influence them. But the ingredient essential to our success has always been that we speak to elephants.
More soon on how you get 4 ton pachyderms into a room…
(Photo credit: Cody Simms)
“I have made the decision not to run for re-election to the United States Senate and to pursue other opportunities outside the Senate that perhaps I can give voice to the frustrations that exist with the political system here in Washington where it’s dysfunctional and the political paralysis has overtaken the environment to the detriment of this country.” — Senator Olympia Snowe, (R – Maine)
Were there such a thing as Village Square homework (and there should be), this would be it. Conservatives, be sure to hang in for the whole the discussion; Dr. Haidt’s work is extremely validating of a conservative world view (and in a way that will help liberals understand you better, how much better does it get than that…) We believe Dr. Haidt is doing some of the most important work of our time. So get a bowl of popcorn and set aside 45 minutes. You won’t be sorry.