Before I turn to my daunting task of introducing this session on what we might call public conversation let me note that only Ron Gross, the contemporary incarnation of Socrates, would dare to hold this rather raucous though illuminating event in the light of day in New York City. I am humbled and honored to be part of it.

I love conversation for its own sake and see it as the consummate human activity—a living acknowledgement that we are social creatures, that we need each other, and given the gift of language that we have, that we can connect to each other in ways unknown to other creatures—for better and worse.

When I think of the public value of conversation I think of those habits and actions that stand in opposition to it. We see these every day—in acts of reaction and revenge—in relying on our fists, our filibusters, our drones and yes, our nuclear weapons. We’ve used them all.

As Ron knows well the thrust of my work since the early nineties has been attempting to persuade people of two things.

  • That democracy may be our last best hope, or as Churchill so wryly put it,” the worst form of government except for all the others.” And
  • The central role that citizens play in making democracy work.

We are the sine qua non of democracy. Democracy can exist without a constitution and even at least for a time with not perfectly honest elections, but it can’t exist without us—asking the questions, What kind of society are we? And What kind of society to we aspire to be? As we well know there is a vast range of opinions on those subjects in our country today. But notwithstanding the polarization we see here—it is our obligation to keep the conversation alive and whenever possible—keep it civil!

One of my contemporary heroes is Adam Michnik, the cofounder of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, who gave this highly successful people’s movement its philosophical underpinnings—indeed its modus operandi. I quote from Jonathan Schell’s introduction to Michnik’s book, Letters from Prison. “In a sort of political and moral version of the hedonist’s credo, “Carpe diem,” the [Solidarity Movement] proceeded directly toward its goals. It’s simple—(I call it elegant) guiding principle was to start doing the things you think should be done, and to start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in freedom of speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.” And in the act of acting “as if” one lived in a free society—the free society was born. Needless to say there were costs to some individuals, including Michnik. The title of his book speaks the truth—Letters from Prison.

Their revolutionary strategy was acting as if they lived in a free society. The idea was that violent revolution could only lead to replacing one tyranny with another. It’s a simple idea—elegant in its simplicity. The Solidarity Movement became the engine for change that inspired and drove what was to become the Velvet Revolution in Central Europe. In that regard I should mention that Mechanic and, the Czech hero, Vaclav Havel engaged in many conversations on the matter, mostly in secret. A translation of those conversations into English has just been published. It’s called An Uncanny Era, translated and edited by Elzbieta Matynia of the New School.

I refer you also to the two major heroes of the 20th century—Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Their weapons were their words. Their words were conversational– democratic in tone. They eschewed the perfect—the ideal —to go for what was imperfect but doable—with great respect for others and for the rule of law. They were pragmatic idealists who became agents for change by persuading others to work toward challenging but achievable goals—so that their passionate desire for freedom could become a reality. I call that elegant too.

At a time when we are feeling sullen and skeptical and exhausted with war and its tragedies—lost lives, lost funds, lost friends and lost opportunities, we ask, “Whence came these wars and where are they going? When and where can it stop as one conflict begets another—and another and another?

The glimmer of hope in this literally bloody scenario is diplomacy. We have seen it at work in the past months with some successes. In our imperfect world, it’s better than the alternatives—war, sanctions, threats, terrorist attacks—revenge that begets revenge—again and again. In our world that has been beleaguered and brutalized by violence, it takes courage to talk to our enemies, even to strike deals with them—because in the delicate process of negotiation, we engage in that most human exercise, speaking to and understanding each other—reaching out for acceptable compromises. Is that more reprehensible than engaging in actions that have the trappings of video games?

One can imagine that our talking about the power of conversation is the banter of American naives or living-room liberals; that our talk—about talk—is cheap. But I have found more persuasive affirmation for our talk in a line from the documentary film, The Gatekeepers, featuring conversations with five former directors of Israel’s Shin Bet, the equivalent of our CIA.

Director Ami Ayalon, who served in that role from 1996 to 2000, commented, “We have won all the battles but we have lost the war.” He then suggested that the Israelis needed to talk more to their enemies—the leaders of Hamas and at the time the film was made, even Iran’s then-president Ahmadinejad.

Ayalon’s are not the words of triumph or triumphalism but rather of exhaustion, despair, shame and admission that good as they were at their game—they lost it.

So let’s talk about what we are and what we want to be—as public and private beings. When we talk to each other “as if” we were living in a civilized world we are taking one more step toward being that civilized world.



The Elegance and Efficacy of Conversation