Tuesday night before February 22nd column The System is Not to Blame, We Are was pre-published online, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham spoke at a civil discourse forum at University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. In a moment of unscripted inspiration Meacham coined “Middle-of-the-Road Rage” — a clever idiom for jarring middle-class citizens from passive inertia to productive action.
During the Q&A I asked Meacham how Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue a Twin Cities suburb-based initiative I’m involved with can incite such rage. Meacham nearly pounced when I mentioned Minnesota’s Senator Al Franken and Representative Michelle Bachmann had been invited to share the stage of the regional performing arts center in Burnsville, Minnesota for an upcoming event. Newsweek would certainly show up for such a “performance,” he shot back.
Alas, Bachmann has declined. But Meacham’s reaction illustrates a key theme of our effort. Which is that the most immediate way to engage our media-satured culture is through the public embodiments of our most rage-inciting rhetoric. A dubious reality Meacham had explained earlier in his talk. Such culturally propogated methods belie the personal realities of the real people in our community.
In discussions with everyone from conservative pastors to police officers to peace protesters we hear deep despair with the polarized idealogies of public leaders. Contrasting this discontent is a commom ideal we are witnessing people adapt. As they identify their shared disgust with ineffective blame games, a rich mix of citizens are increasingly interested not in changing others’ individual beliefs, but rather accepting their personal responsibility to work together through “productive – not destructive – discourse.”
Co-leaders like 80-something former Minnesota GOP governor Al Quie and 20-something young liberal folk-singer Heatherlyn exemplify the sorts of heretofore unlikely collaborations which can achieve the potentials of Robert Penn Warren’s “calculated gradualism.” Meacham cited civil-rights journalist Penn Warren’s view that culture change is never a rapid process.
Evolutions like these, Meacham points out, can’t occur with interest-driven institutional deliberation. But they can — as they historically have — occur when the sums of human interests and abilities are catalyzed by personal passions. In other words, only when real people invest their shared efforts to solve cultural problems will the systems that govern our common lives evolve.
So the question initiatives like Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue must ask is: What can more effectively incite change Middle-of-the-Road rage or Middle-of-Road passion? Only citizens, through shared action, can provide the answer.