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.”
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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.”
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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.’”