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But discussions began to become acrimonious in a different way, my anonymous source tells me, after President Obama was elected. “It was especially healthcare reform that polarized the group,” he says. “Some participants were saying Obama is a dictator who was not born here, [that] he is a crypto-Muslim. It was like those people were operating from their glands. It was a wild vibe. And what it really came down to was fear of higher taxes.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Civilized Conversations, moderated by David Genser, has met on Thursdays at Filter Coffee House for seven years. “The main focus of the group,” Genser says, “is learning by talking.”

Civilized Conversations, moderated by David Genser, has met on Thursdays at Filter Coffee House for seven years. “The main focus of the group,” Genser says, “is learning by talking.”

According to several participants in Civilized Conversations, there is rarely an even balance between conservatives and liberals in attendance. At different times, each persuasion has dominated, depending on who shows up. By email, Gary Grine expressed reservations about the liberal/conservative language. “We talked about...‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ in the group many times. For one thing, they are labels which imply a general assessment of a person or doctrine. This is unfair. Things are usually more complex than that.” Still, Grine does not hesitate to use the categories himself. “For lack of more specific descriptions, we all find ourselves using these terms.”

With that caveat in mind, during our earliest conversations Grine told me that Politics and Religion had been leaning strongly left over the last year. He explained how he thought the situation evolved.

“I picked the topics for the first year and a half of the group’s existence and then started taking topics of interest from other people. At that point, the group usually consisted of 4 to 8 people.” Later, 10 to 15 people began coming regularly. “To handle the topics, we chose a rotating committee with myself being the only permanent member.”

In early December, I meet Grine at Filter, which until several years ago, was called The Other Side Coffee House. We sit in the back at the rectangular table where the meetings of both the Wednesday and Thursday night groups are held. Two hanging lamps light the table from above, one with yellows and reds and the other with a soothing blue. One imagines the hot colors stimulating vigorous argument, while the blue maintains a serenity the groups want to prevail in the long run. Standing at the center of the table is a foot-high bronze elephant, reminiscent of the elephant in Hindu legend whose different parts are felt by the hands of seven blind men, each trying to describe what reality is.

“After decisions started being made by committee — and that’s okay because I’m democratic — the group eventually came down to having a liberal bias,” says Grine. “When I say that, I don’t mean I’m against liberals. But as the group leaned that way for a while, it got to the point where we weren’t discussing anything that provoked an exchange of ideas. It was more, like, ‘This is liberal thought; we’re all behind this liberal thought, and we’re going ahead with our agenda.’ That’s very boring, to be honest. You already know what everybody’s going to say.”

Grine’s complaint came down to three things: there were too many liberals in the group, most of the members were interested almost exclusively in political topics, and even when a different kind of topic was discussed, “the politicos” politicized it. “At least in the early days,” he says, “there was a rotation of topics. Only every sixth evening, for instance, would there be something explicitly political. An attempt was made to mix things up.

“So, I got tired of it, and I told the group, ‘Look, you’re creating a mutual-admiration society. You’re preaching to the choir, and it’s gotten to be one of the most boring situations I can think of. It’s all just group-think. So, if people want to talk liberal politics, they can come here on Thursday nights. If you’re a conservative and want to venture into the lion’s den, welcome. But if you want to expand your thinking with new subjects and open your mind, just skip it.”

A few months after he left Politics and Religion, says Grine, “I went back to see how the group [by then called Civilized Conversations] would handle the Republican gains in the House of Representatives in last fall’s election. And it was the perfect example of what drove me away. I was unaware that the topic for the evening was the Tea Party. The first thing that came out was that Tea Party people are a bunch of imbeciles that can’t think and get all their ideas from Fox News. I had to call them on it. I said, ‘You just stereotyped a million people. Why don’t you bring some Tea Party members here? They can explain what they’re about, though they’d probably be crucified. The liberals were saying things like, ‘We should ban Fox News,’ and ‘Let’s quash Prop 13 and redistribute the wealth to all Californians,’ and so forth.

“Their program would become just a tyranny. Of course, you can have tyranny on the left or the right. You can have Stalin or Hitler. Today, in our country’s politics, you have extremes in these same directions. And for each one, it’s ‘my way or the highway,’ and things are just not getting done politically.

“When I was moderating the old group, the bugaboos for the liberals were big corporations and Republicans. I can safely say that half that group felt that those two are immoral and evil. How do you debate someone like that? So you get this polarization, and that’s when I decided I wanted to leave the group. I wasn’t learning anything new. The people in that group are smart people, lovely people, but when it comes to the political discussions, you hear the same things repeatedly. Like the uncle who, every time you see him, he tells you that same old story again. The worst crime is that it’s boring.”

∗ ∗ ∗

As both the former, and now current, group moderator, Grine tells me he has “tried to create situations where you’re learning something. I use Socratic questioning to bring ideas out. One time, a member of the group said, ‘Why do you ask so many stupid questions?’ I told him, ‘That’s not me asking the questions; it’s the moderator.’”

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civilizedconversation April 27, 2011 @ 1:51 p.m.

To learn more about either Meeting Of The Minds or Civilized Conversation, including their upcoming topics, see http://civilizedconversation.wordpress.com/

DavidG

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Dadler April 28, 2011 @ 12:36 p.m.

Sigh. Nice piece, but if Grine can manage only that the Tea Party members could explain what they believe, well, good luck to him on his ongoing intellectual quest. I don't want to ban Fox News or hand ten million dollar checks to every person on public assistance, I would respectfully ask Mr. Grine how he actualy feels about REALITY, where there has been a massive "transfre of wealth" to the undeserving uber-wealthy. This is just fact, we're finally getting to see some of the Feds books to get enough of a sickening clue. And why did the reporter not challenge some of Grine's statements with a more rounded assessment of the state of things?

Spare me the bemoaning of too many liberals. The truth is our nation has been stolen, plain and simple, by those wealthy enough to write the laws, buy the politicians, and carry off the heist untouched. But I am supposed to believe, of course, that Tea Partiers, who can yell and scream at everyone but somehow go entirely weak in the knees and cower before billionaires, are to be taken seriously, when it is precisely their cowardice before the MOST powerful people in the nation that their seriousness cannot be considered.

Conservative, liberal, whatever, this is what has happened, and is continuing to happen.

I salute the free and unbridled exchange of ideas.

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dmlocal May 2, 2011 @ 7:39 p.m.

Dadler, how do you reconcile Obama's relationship with GE? Not a word from the left. Not a word about Libya. Not a word about all the things that Obama does that's straight from the Bush playbook. If you'd do your homework, and see that the Tea Party wants to go after those who are ripping off the American Tax Payer, you'd probably join them. Which billionaires are you referring to? Ridicule, blanket statements and dismissiveness is the trademark that those on the left MUST use to bolster their claims. Good job, you covered all the necessary bases. As far as Tea Party people screaming, you must be kidding. One quick look at the union thugs in WI, and you'll see that there's NO comparison. NONE. I salute your unbridled exchange of ridicule, as your ideas are lacking in, well, ideas.

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dannyboy7293 April 29, 2011 @ 9:56 a.m.

The Reader's choice of Sarah Palin as a poster child for the "Fall of Western Civilization" got me to at least browse the article. Kudos to the responsible party, though the implied characterization is a truly cheap shot.

Grine is to be commended for putting up with those navel gazers for as long as he did. The demographics of the participants are an amusing snapshot of those who see themselves as the intellectual keepers of the flame: retired school teachers, academics, Washington apparatchiks, you know, people who belong to the biggest circle-jerk of all time - democratic socialism.

Being a liberal means never having to put up with an opposing viewpoint; you simply label it as evil and, voila! You're done. My son has lived in that neigborhood for a decade and I now understand what he means about its decline at the hands of the urban cognoscenti.

While I would enjoy the opportunity to exchange ideas in a truly free environment, I'm too busy 6 days a weeek exploiting the people who work for me and jealuosly counting my shekels every night after I put in another 12-hour day.

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dmlocal May 2, 2011 @ 7:21 p.m.

Damn. Danny boy, I had all sorts of retorts until I read your beautifully put piece. I would like to add a couple things: When did ridicule, belittlement, bullying, and threats constitute an point of view? I definitely have had my left leanings, but I've never needed to resort to chiding someone for their opposing view. That's weak. It's also why I went with the Tea Party crew, since I want accountability in my government. How that gets construed as racist is unbelievable. I just look at the Unions and their crazy behavior and my choice is easy. How they treated Palin in WI says it all.

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JoeyJ June 15, 2011 @ 12:35 p.m.

Thank you for your very nice article on the recent developments with the Politics and Religion discussion group.

When I am in San Diego, I always make it a point to attend their meetings. Although my views are different from those held by many of the members, I am always encouraged to participate and my comments are met with thoughtful and courteous replies.

Kudos to Gary Grine for starting and moderating this group! I am looking forward to attending both groups during me upcoming visit.

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