The Forum

Today a friend of mine posted a video on her Facebook page and it spawned a Facebook conversation about racism, hipsters, and generally everything. I started to write a lengthy response to the sophisticated and intriguing (not sarcastic; the friend who shared the link is privileged to have such civil and perceptive friends on her Facebook) thoughts the commenters had already espoused. When my response reached its fifth paragraph, I started to question whether this kind of in-depth analysis really belonged as a comment on a Facebook wall post of a youtube video. Then I realized it was the third time in four days that I essentially had written an essay as a response to a Facebook. And then I realized that in addition to Facebook, I’d written about 20,000 words’ – roughly 25 single-spaced Word document pages, i.e. twice the length of my senior thesis at university – worth of my thoughts on politics (by this I mean ideas about justice, not partisan hackery; if I never hear the words “Democrat” or “Republican” again it’ll be too soon) in the past week and a half. Apparently I have a lot of thoughts these days and a need to get them out.

So I started a blog.

I’ve tried blogging before, but those were always rather forced “here’s what’s going on in my life” efforts I couldn’t get myself into. I don’t really like writing about the events of my life (to the chagrin, no doubt, of my family that lives a continent and a Pacific Ocean from me). I don’t like it because I’ve already lived those events and find it mind-numbingly tedious to trawl through them again at the slower pace of the keyboard. A year ago I also started with my old friend “Esquire,” and I still plan on writing for that at the same haphazard, staccato pace that has been the norm since its inception. So writing stuff for a site is nothing new, really.

But not politics, and given the nature of the sites I wrote for previously it made sense. I avoided politics and implicitly political social commentary in my personal blog because I was trying to make that into a “life update” blog, and nothing is sure to chase family member readership away than to post some lengthy treatise on capital punishment when they were expecting pics of Gyeongbokgung Fortress in Seoul. And I have avoided political commentary on The Path to Nibelheim because it doesn’t fit with the vision of the site, which is an eclectic mix of movie and video game reviews, passing thoughts on comic book characters, and passing attempts at short fiction.

Yet I have always had an ember in my heart that glows with rapt interest whenever those famously forbidden dinner table topics of religion and politics are broached. When I was a youth and active in church, this took the form of theology. At university, it was in my major of political theory. Now it is some sort of cataclysmic fusion of everything.

They may be forbidden topics at dinner tables and in many casual situations, but I have always seen the aversion to religious and political conversation as more of a tale of human tragedy than a desirable state of affairs. The fact we cannot even sit and talk of these two subjects everyone finds so important reflects not on the irrelevance of the topics or of their unworthiness for discussion, but rather on our inability as humans to engage in civil discourse on subjects in which we have a vested interest. The lack of educated, dynamic, intense, yet cordial conversation on things like religion and politics in our daily life is, I think, both emblematic of and contributory to our slow progress as empathetic and humane creatures. It is an impediment to the improvement of society.

I say this because I see the dual subject of religion and politics as integral to our conceptions of how we, as individuals and as a community, ought to live. Religion speaks to many of our deepest core beliefs regarding morality, and politics does the same for our conceptions of justice. If we cannot engage in sustained conversation wherein an array of differing opinions are aired without anyone becoming disdainful, or angry, or fearful, we cannot hope to become better people, either as individuals or a society, because the two ingredients for betterment will be absent. The first of these ingredients is an openness to new ideas, for to become better we must, by definition, change, and change cannot come without newness. The second ingredient is greater mutual understanding, and how can we come to understand one another if our opinions are scorned, berated or shunned, or if the fear of such rejection keeps us from voicing our opinions in earnest?

Because of their pervasive relevance to our lives and because of the deep fascination I hold for them personally, I have throughout my life been filled with thoughts about politics and religion, and by consequence of the sheer passage of years of these thoughts careening inside my head have come to develop some small number of ideas. I have always wanted to share them, and I view this as a fairly normal human experience. All of us hold ideas and to wish to share them. But there is always the problem of the forum.

You know the problem of the forum. It’s finding the right time and place to address a specific topic. For instance, spilling your feelings for the girl you’ve loved since middle school ought perhaps to be done on the homecoming dance floor, and not at her wedding reception six years on. For every subject, there is an appropriate time and place to bring it into the air, and while I have never struggled for thoughts or the desire to voice them, I have often been stopped by the inability to find the right forum.

Facebook is definitely not the right forum. In the first place, it’s visually excruciating to read anything beyond a normal three-line status update, and if people click the “read more” drop-down link on a lengthy comment and see more than two paragraphs the usual response (myself included) is, “No, f*** this. I have to be up for work at seven.” Esquire’s and my collaborative site, The Path to Nibelheim, isn’t the right forum, either. This is chiefly because nobody wants to have the smile they’ve just acquired after reading a light-hearted and sardonic review of The Dark Knight Rises wiped off their face by a weighty treatise on latent racism in our society.

But, goddamn it, there’s got to be some kind of forum for political/religious/society discussion, hasn’t there? It’s called a forum, for god’s sake. You know, “forum,” the place where the Roman senators met to discuss politics and ethics and the direction of society? Where Caesar reigned in his fascinating mixture of popularism and despotism before he was stabbed to death by several dozen men filled with what blend of avarice and fear of tyranny only history will ever know? Where citizens would gather, each with his own set of secret ambitions and altruism, to make and hear words resounding with eternal concepts like justice and freedom and courage? All that is lovely, and brutal, and enigmatic about the human race – its majesty, its cravenness, its mystery, its desire to improve – was embodied in that single building where men once met to decide, together, what must be done.

We’ve come a long way since Rome. We have universal suffrage, and biennial elections, and a Bill of Rights. And if the majority of the people who still house our Senate are still old white men, there is now at least a smidgeon of color and a sprinkling of women in that arena of laws to show that we haven’t wasted all of the two thousand years that have intervened.

But where we have gained, we have also lost. Indeed, we have lost the forum itself. We have no public place where it is known and expected that citizens will go and discuss matters of politics and everyone assumes these topics to be not only relevant but vital to their daily life. The common citizen is no longer expected to be competent in expressing his or her views in a rhetorically compelling and articulate way. The Great Conversation that ought to be the engine room for a republic, lest it stagnate and decay, is not a Great Conversation any longer. It is more like a great torrent – an eternal deluge of calculated and calibrated opinions spouted from television sets and campaign platforms by a series of specialists, specialists who are ever retreating from the day to day world that most of us face and into a partitioned and incestuous world where only the politicos go.

The arena of politics has been cordoned off into the hands of a few professionals, and this is not all. There is no forum today not only because we are removed and disenfranchised from the actual decision-making process but because we are removed and estranged from our neighbors. We live atomistic lives, partitioned by the walls of our apartments from our neighbors just as the politicos live partitioned off from the graft of common citizens by jumbo-trons and TV cameras. In such a world, where we busy little ants scurry by each other without so much as brushing antennae, how are we to exchange ideas, consider new thoughts, draw from each other’s experiences, and through the hard give-and-take process of dialogue come to a consensus?

The simple answer is, we cannot. We are proscribed from this by the specialized and distant state of modern politics, by the individualistic and frenetic pace of life, and finally by our own conversational immaturity. We find it preferable in the face of rampant problems of most urgent necessity – of health care, water shortage, global hunger, global warming, and violence – to avoid the subjects that touch them all – the subjects of politics and justice and ultimate right and wrong – and let them gain momentum, rather than to swallow our anger, our pride, our incredulity, and engage in civil conversation with our neighbors, our family, our community.

We, the modern polis, the citizens who, like it or not, always have and always will constitute the fundamental machinery of any republic, are sputtering. Sputtering because there is no real conversation, only a deluge of angry and partisan back-and-forths. Sputtering because we do not take the time to hear and be heard. Sputtering because we cannot take a deep breath and stomach our knee-jerk reactions when encountering an idea that hits us the wrong way – a quality I believe to be so essential that it ought to be considered a prerequisite for graduating to adulthood.

We sputter because there is no forum. It has been taken from us, and we have allowed it to be taken.

Yet there is hope.

The 21st century is like none ever experienced by humankind. Technology advances at lightning pace, and for the first time both the powers of establishments that be and the information we receive are global in scale. We move faster, get information more quickly, process it more swiftly, than ever before. And while many cite the lack of neighborly interaction described above and cry out for a “return” to the halcyon days of yore, I think this is both futile and foolish.

This is not yore. This is today. And while people’s modes of interactions may have changed, we are still as interconnected and communicative as we ever have been. A Tesla storm of messages crackles through the airwaves between magic communication devices (read: iPhones) every second. E-mails shoot through wires at the speed of light to the opposite side of the globe with a regularity so ubiquitous it is mundane. We know what is happening in our close friends’ lives, even if they live thousands of miles away, on a daily basis because of Facebook and Twitter.

Yes, it is true that we no longer go to the local market once a week along with everyone else to get our produce. We don’t have ice cream socials, the whole town doesn’t go to church on Sundays, and knitting circles and book clubs are havens for the exceptionally nostalgic rather than hubs of social interaction. We cannot expect citizens to trot out to the city center on Saturday mornings and mill about full of high ideas and speeches in their heads and dreams of grandeur. Those days are gone and they will never come again. The forum as it was known in Rome is a relic of history.

The forum, though, need not be, for we have a potential for exchange of a diversity of eloquent, dynamic and probative views between people of different perspectives but of a common interest in justice such as has never been seen. For a forum is not merely a place; it is a designation. It is an agreement to come together and share ideas that affect the polis, and to do so with an interest in improving our society politically, socially, ethically. In the Internet we have an entire universe of space from which to choose a meeting ground for this Great Conversation. We have but to designate where that will be.

Well, I have staked out one piece of that universe. I will come here because I have thoughts and I have a voice to be heard, and I hope you have voices too. What is more, I hope you use them not just here but wherever you happen to meet me in this world, virtual or physical. Because I believe this earth to be filled with infinite possibilities, and that it is up to us to dream them up and make them happen.

Let the dreaming begin.


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