Resolved: To have serious discourse without rancor

Marty Rochester

By Marty Rochester

It is that time of year when one typically starts trying to honor New Year’s resolutions that deserve to be fulfilled, even if only a few actually end up being implemented. 

My track record of sticking to good intentions is, like most people’s, very uneven. Some resolutions are recycled from year to year in the stubborn hope they may yet be accomplished, and some are new. Better to identify a few, manageable aspirations than create a long list. 

So here are my resolutions, in no particular order of priority:

• In writing op-eds and conducting everyday conversations, I will continue to stick to my principles however they might irritate some readers and listeners, although I will strive to do so with as little stridency as possible. I will endeavor to model the moderate, civil exchanges I often have called for in our national political discourse, which today is all too loud and polarized. I am talking here about tone more than substance.

• Even in regard to substance, I will seek to explore possibilities of compromise among competing views in ways that promote constructive change without undermining my core beliefs. For example, how can we reconcile values such as individual freedom and social justice that can be in tension with each other – that is, insist on both personal responsibility along with collective obligation to address societal inequities? What is the proper mix?

• I will try to be a more religious person, including attending services more often. In return, I will expect rabbis to do their part. How can we continue to use our temples and synagogues to promote the wonderful Jewish tradition of tikkun olam while reminding ourselves that that is not the only, or even the primary, rationale of Judaism? The Torah teaches lessons about not only kindness and generosity but other moral behaviors as well.

• One such moral behavior I wish to emulate is truthfulness. No matter what issue we are considering, we should be guided by the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan’s caution that “you are entitled to your opinions but not your facts.” Yes, at a time when, in the name of maintaining “safe spaces” and other excuses, we are too quick to suppress speech, we should be tolerating wide-ranging expression of ideas, if only to inform and sharpen one’s own position against opposing views. But not all ideas are equal. Some are more grounded in fact than others, and we are all obligated to avoid simplistic, questionable analysis in our discussion of race, gender, class, climate change and all other matters.

• As a new retiree – I retired from teaching at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in September – I hope to make productive use of my increased free time, including sharing more of the household responsibilities with my wife, Ruth. There is a joke that university deans like to tell: “How many professors does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Change?” The reference here is to the fact that most professors are averse to change, preferring, rightly or wrongly, to continue teaching as Socrates did millennia ago. In the spirit of truthfulness, I must confess that, as my wife can testify, I truly can barely change a light bulb in our house. My intention is to start working on this.

• Now that I have more free time and do not have to be preoccupied with the “publish or perish” imperative of academia, I want to expand my reading options beyond the scholarly literature and read lighter, popular nonfiction books. As one example, I recently finished Joseph Persico’s “Roosevelt’s Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II.” Did you know that Col. Jimmy Doolittle, who led the dangerous 1942 B-25 bombing raid over Japan, had a doctorate from MIT in aeronautical engineering?

• I am also reading more fiction, such as the bestseller by my daughter-in-law’s sister, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, “Fleishman is in Trouble.” Do you agree that the Jewishness of the main characters is exceeded only by the vulgarity of the language, of which there is too much today?

• I hope to be more giving. In the past, I have been an Oasis tutor, been a “big brother” to minority children and contributed money to various charities. But I can certainly do more. I do not do this out of a sense of guilt that my being relatively well-off is the cause of others’ poverty and deprivation. Rather, I choose to give because lots of people, for various reasons, are really hurting and needy. (Respected liberal and conservative researchers at both the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute have said that, if one takes four relatively simple steps in life – get a high school diploma, get a full-time job, get married and wait until marriage before having kids – then there is an 80 percent probability of escaping poverty.)

No doubt some readers will criticize some of the above, for example complaining that I do not adequately realize how advantaged I am and how my “privilege” contributes to others’ lack thereof. All I can say is, as with everything else, let’s have a fair, honest discussion without rancor. That may be one hope for the New Year where I am asking too much, but perhaps I am mistaken.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the  University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and  American politics.