The Magazine


Jul 14, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 43 • By JAMES W. CEASER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

ON JUNE 14, PRESIDENT CLINTON launched his highly touted "conversation" on race at the University of California, San Diego. The initiative was months in the making but, as the president would have it, a lifetime in the preparation. "If there is any issue I ought to have credibility on," he said, "it is this one. It is part of who I am and what I've done."

The president has committed himself to at least one conversation-related " event" per month over the next year. Then, after conferring with members of the special commission he has created, he will issue a report to the nation. This will conclude the formal phase of the conversation, but the president hopes that its impact on the hearts and minds of the citizenry will continue.

Until last month, most Americans would have taken a "conversation" to mean a private verbal exchange between two persons or among individuals in a small group. But those who spend a good deal of time on college campuses knew better: "Conversations" on hot-button issues such as sexual harassment, " diversity," and race relations are commonplace in academia. They are convened by administrators under one of two circumstances: either when these administrators have nothing to say on a subject deemed to be serious and crying out for discussion; or when they in fact have a major change of mind, in which case the "conversation" is used to circumvent traditional forums for deliberation (like faculty senates). Guided from the top, but free from the stigma of appearing to be so, a conversation is a remarkably effective instrument for engineering a desired consensus. The opposition is duly heard, a few cosmetic changes are made to the original proposal (in order to demonstrate the sincerity of the dialogue), and the final plan is announced, with widespread self-congratulation for the "civility" of the process.

It is unsurprising that the notion of this type of conversation should have been introduced into Washington-speak by Sheldon Hackney, Clinton's chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a former president of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1994, Hackney organized a "national conversation on American pluralism and identity," which supported earnest discussions of these themes in seminars and town meetings across the country. This conversation continued for a couple of years -- for all I know, it may be going on still -- but it evidently failed to obviate the need for the president's current initiative.

So where did this concept of a national conversation come from, originally? You might think it stemmed from the information "superhighway," of which the White House is so enamored, with its Internet exchanges ("chat groups"), constant telephone contacts, and appeals to reach out and touch someone. But in fact the concept has a much deeper and more deliberate origin. It was introduced by the German thinker Adam Muller (1779-1829), who first called for an all-European "conversation" in 1804 and who later, in his influential Lectures on Rhetoric, made the idea of "conversation" a central element of rhetorical theory.

Miller is known today as one of the most representative of German Romantic thinkers. And he is best understood by what he opposed: rational constitutionalist thought. Constitutionalist thinkers -- such as the American founders -- made a great effort to distinguish public communication from private communication. They were of course aware of what Alexander Hamilton called "the little arts of popularity" -- the devices by which politicians curry favor and win power -- but they sought to guard against these tactics and to set a higher standard of deliberative speech (such as that taking place in representative assemblies and among constitutional officers). The separation of public speech from other forms of discourse was meant to add to the dignity of political reasoning and to help complete the transition from medieval times, when a nation was likened to a natural family in which the monarch exercised authority based on the parental model.

Muller's idea of "conversation" was a primary weapon in his attack on rational constitutionalism. Wishing to recreate a new organic entity under an allembracing state, he aimed to bring back to politics the intimacy that rational forms had taken from it and to break down barriers separating the public from the private. He thus begins where one might expect -- with the purely private relations between the sexes. His idea is that, while male and female are different, there is nonetheless a yearning for a deeper unity. " Conversation" is the vehicle that will fuse these seemingly opposite forces and realize a full harmony.