Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #040. First published in the St. Cloud Times Nov. 23, 2010

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my column that I was not a happy camper Nov. 3.

My opinions about society and politics are clearly progressive, and back in June I identified myself, by
way of disclosure, as an associate chair of the local DFL party.

My most immediate hope now is for the recounts — that Mark Dayton's nearly 9,000 vote lead over Tom
Emmer in the governor's race will hold up and King Banaian's 10-vote lead over Carol Lewis in House 15B won't. But it's clear the next two years will not be what I was looking forward to, in either Minnesota or the nation.

We hear a lot about what "the American people" or "the people of Minnesota" said by voting the way they did, and I certainly admit much of what was said wasn't what I wanted to hear. But if you look beneath or beyond the sound bites, it appears the message isn't as monotone as some would have you believe.

I am just optimistic enough to believe that although there are people who don't like the president, most do not agree with Sen. Mitch McConnell that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

I believe, and I suspect a majority of Americans believe, the single most important thing we want to achieve in the next two years is solving the critical problems this country faces, and it will require that people who can't stand each other work together.

Opposing ideas

Many polls show the American people are divided not only between each other but within themselves. For example, we want less spending and more services. We, as individuals, are discovering how hard it is to achieve what F. Scott Fitzgerald identified as "the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

Alas, we can't expect much that will be helpful from our 6th District U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. Her  

manipulation of facts and her co-opting of the media, a staple of her behavior well before this election, hasn't abated a bit.

Her repetition of an unsubstantiated (and patently absurd) claim that President Obama's trip to India was costing the taxpayers $200 million a day has generated plenty of rebuttal, but there are many who will believe it because she said it. A polarizing figure, Bachmann is the antithesis of the statesperson we need to hold the center together for the common good.

By contrast, the most encouraging word I've heard in the days since Nov. 2 comes from someone I, along with many others, worked hard to defeat, state District 15 Sen.-elect John Pederson. I disagree with most of his ideas, and I think his policy prescriptions take us in the wrong direction. But I took heart when a friend told me about hearing Pederson say, in a radio interview, that he has to take seriously that nearly half the voters backed his opponent, and he has to represent them too. With this acknowledgment, Pederson has set the bar high.

An honest look

In the fog of rancor and polarization that has settled over our public life, I look again for clarity, as I did in a column two years ago, to the great philosopher of liberty, John Stuart Mill (1806-73). He accomplished Fitzgerald's feat of holding two opposing ideas in mind by acknowledging his debts to both a progressive thinker, Jeremy Bentham, and a conservative one, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And it was not just their teachings he learned from, but their critical stance toward their own positions: "The writings of both contain severe lessons to their own side, on many of the errors and faults they are addicted to."

Had my state Senate candidate won — and, of course, I think we'd be better off if he had — I am sure he'd have said something like Pederson said. We need more of that — lots more.