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Meeting of the Minds, moderated by Gary Grine, meets Wednesdays at Filter Coffee House. Grine formed this group when he decided that the Thursday discussion group he had founded became “too political and too liberal.”

From their chairs around a long rectangular table, several participants have made convincing points to the group of 15 attentive listeners. When the moderator recognizes another raised hand, Carl Lock rises, pauses, and gesticulates slowly before speaking. Lock, of Native American and Scottish descent, chooses his words carefully and articulates a well-constructed argument for a minute or two, referring now and again to “his people.” Is he putting on a senatorial effect, more ancient Roman, perhaps, than contemporary American? After all, he describes himself as a history buff. Or, one wonders, is he a member of Toastmasters? Later, he tells me: “No, I got into the habit of standing to speak in meetings after I was elected to student government at the old San Diego Evening College. Standing up gives the diaphragm more power. I tend to speak softly. So I stand to be heard.”

Lock is a regular participant in Civilized Conversations, a Thursday-evening discussion group that meets at Filter Coffee House on Thirtieth Street in North Park. People become members unofficially, simply by attending meetings. They come from numerous walks of life and many areas of San Diego County. Linda Navarro, formerly a Bay Area newspaper reporter and now a local attorney, wonders why more attorneys don’t participate. “After all, lawyers like to argue,” she says. “They probably don’t have time. I make time to come to the meetings.”

Meeting of the Minds, moderated by Gary Grine, meets Wednesdays at Filter Coffee House. Grine formed this group when he decided that the Thursday discussion group he had founded became “too political and too liberal.”

Meeting of the Minds, moderated by Gary Grine, meets Wednesdays at Filter Coffee House. Grine formed this group when he decided that the Thursday discussion group he had founded became “too political and too liberal.”

There is a second group, called Meeting of the Minds, which convenes on Wednesday evenings, also at Filter. Both were started by Gary Grine, a local small-business broker who in his free time loves not only to talk but to start other people talking. Grine is a fan of coffee houses, he says, explaining the meetings’ origins. So often, those who sit in coffee houses are “alone and not alone. There is a social and an individual context enjoyed simultaneously there. I thought it might be interesting if people wanted to converse with the other patrons.”

Gary Grine

Gary Grine

Seven years ago, Grine started Politics and Religions, progenitor of both current discussion groups. Grine, who is 57, grew up in Maryland and attended Kent State University in Ohio, where, in the wake of the 1970 National Guard massacre of four students, he “became radicalized.” He later drifted in a rightward direction, especially after becoming involved in the business world. For several years, he gave tennis lessons in Lake Tahoe before moving to San Diego in the late 1980s.

Last summer, Grine left his first group, and soon afterward they dropped Politics and Religion as a title and renamed themselves Civilized Conversations. Looking back, Grine is surprised his baby lasted as long as it did. He retains “many fond memories of six years of meetings” and vividly recalls “some terrific meetings” among more than 300 he has moderated. Those that stand out were ones where “you encountered new thoughts” and came away with “a charged energy, a kind of brain-high that sends endorphins through your system.” Grine believes that “the brain is always seeking new ideas, and there is a neurological reward for new thought processes. There are people who have to discuss things.”

But even close families have their squabbles. “A schism became inevitable,” says Grine. Politics and Religion became “too political and too liberal.” He confesses that the group’s original name contributed to the situation he now laments. But it didn’t take him long to start the new group, Meeting of the Minds, whose focus is more consistently on science, history, and philosophy, rather than on contemporary politics.

When I ask Navarro if the group has tilted left of late, as Grine charged, she says: “Probably Gary tilted right.” In the face of Grine’s criticism, Civilized Conversations is hardly backing off its fondness for politics. The group occasionally discusses other topics, a legacy Grine can say he left them. Shortly after starting Politics and Religion, he was inviting speakers on Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, fundamentalist Christianity, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Baha’is. Eventually, after boning up, he would give the group introductory talks on Aristotle, Rousseau, Kant, and Nietzsche, among other well-known philosophers.

Meeting of the Minds, Grine’s new group, struggled to get off the ground last summer, most often attracting only four or five participants per meeting. The problem may have been that the meetings were first held on Friday evenings. Since the move to Wednesdays, attendance has improved and is now hovering at around eight or nine participants, a number Grine finds conducive to good discussion.

∗ ∗ ∗

A former participant in Politics and Religion, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me by phone that when Grine first became interested in starting a discussion group, “he wanted to better himself, to talk to others who knew more than he did about various topics. So he gathered a few people about him, which became the first group’s core. It was kind of a social experiment.”

The group’s ideal, says this man, was that along with contributing your thoughts, “you must passionately listen. Gary would say that the group was for personal change and for the brain to get a workout. But it was also a civic workout, something to help people become good citizens. I usually attended to participate on specific topics because sometimes the other talk drove me crazy. Conspiracy theories were especially maddening. And sometimes people said things harshly. The attack mode just doesn’t work well in a discussion group. Neither does an insistence that only you could possibly have a worthwhile view.”

The policy of the meetings has always been to allow anyone to come and stay, as long as they are polite. That means addressing the group only when the moderator acknowledges your raised hand, limiting your speaking time to two minutes, and not chattering with others while the speaker is making points.

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.’”

David Genser

David Genser

Upon leaving Politics and Religion, Grine turned over the job of moderator to David Genser, who by then had become a regular participant. Genser, who is 50, was born in La Mesa, attended Helix High School, and graduated from SDSU in political science and economics before earning a masters degree at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Eventually, he put in a 12-year stint at the Government Accountability Office in Washington DC. About ten years ago, he was forced to retire due to a muscle affliction that has left him disabled. At the time of his retirement, he came back to San Diego. He currently lives in Poway.

Ahead of a discussion about Facebook and friendship, Genser and I meet in Filter’s wide front area. Prior to our conversation, I listens to Grine’s reasons for choosing Genser as the new moderator of the first group. “David was helping me lead the group on certain topics, especially the political ones,” Grine says, “and he obviously wanted to be the moderator.”

But Genser now tells me that his becoming moderator “happened by default. I think Gary believes I wanted to be moderator because I tend to talk a lot.” Genser wears two hats because he is loathe to stop giving opinions — “that is the group’s purpose, after all” — just to be “the neutral moderator. So, besides calling on this or that person to speak, I occasionally call on myself.”

Genser tells me that, even in our nation’s capital, he’s never seen a group like Politics and Religion. At his first meeting, he liked what the group was doing and kept coming back. Including the time since the group changed its name to Civilized Conversations, he’s been attending for more than four years.

Genser and Grine agree to a large extent about the basics of leading the groups: Put questions to participants, call on them, keep order. Once, in a meeting of Politics and Religion several years ago,” Grine says, a Christian fundamentalist harassed two young Mormon men who were making a presentation, charging them with belonging to a cult. Another time, a man with “Atheist” printed on his shirt disrupted the group so much that Grine had to ask Filter’s owner to throw him out of the coffee house.

“Being the moderator is not rocket science,” says Genser, “but it’s not a picnic either. People can get upset if you don’t call on them. But, clearly, any moderator’s main goal is to make sure everyone can participate and to keep the conversation going. I try to bring up different angles on a topic once it seems one direction has been exhausted. Of course, the moderator also has to remind people not to interrupt those who are speaking, but people here are real good about that. I think it’s a tribute to [those] who show up that we’ve had so little conflict.

“The main focus of the group,” he says, “is learning by talking. You do learn by listening, but also by talking. When I hear people speaking, I feel them refining their thoughts as they speak.”

∗ ∗ ∗

What should moderators do, I ask, when they detect that group participants are expressing opinions that contradict known facts?

“Well, it’s not a classroom,” Genser says, “and people have to be respected and opinions listened to. The purpose is to debate, so the people who make arguments are the ones who have to support them with facts. But I do occasionally interrupt to point out relevant facts.”

Genser believes working at the Government Accountability Office has had an effect on his life that is useful in Civilized Conversations. He calls the agency “the only honest broker in town. Everybody in Washington is lobbying, everybody has their conclusions, and then they try to find the facts to fit them. We did the opposite. So, I try to be the same way in the group, which is mostly about opinions and perspectives based on different values but also about learning new information. The national media does such a poor job of informing people with basic information about public policy. If you watch cable news long enough, you can feel yourself getting stupider.

“Most political groups exist to organize like-minded people, and we don’t do that. I suspect that if you go to a Tea Party meeting or the local socialist club, there might not be a lot of rancor there, but you’re probably not learning much either. And you’re not being challenged. Our group does that, within the ground rules of politeness.

“And people who are ideologically rigid don’t stick around long in our group. They’re welcome to come. But if you think that President Obama is a foreign-born communist traitor who’s trying to destroy America, then ours is probably not the group for you. And if you think capitalism is inherently evil, it’s probably not for you, either. That doesn’t mean that only moderates are welcome. ‘Moderate’ is not a position. By definition, it’s in between what people think. So, for our group, moderation cannot be a goal. We’re a debating society.”

To help with the facts surrounding a debate, Genser says, “we came up with a new practice a couple of years ago, where if somebody besides the moderator knows something about the topic, they give the opening presentation. It usually falls on to me to give it because I know something about most political topics, just because of my background. I usually give 15-minute presentations, sometimes 20, if I know a lot about the subject — something in healthcare policy or foreign policy, for example.”

∗ ∗ ∗

I mention Grine’s complaint that when the group conversations are political, you always know what people are going to say before they say it.

“There’s some truth in that,” says Genser, “although I think it would also be true if we were talking about baseball or, for that matter, philosophy. I’ve been in the group five years, and it meets 50 times a year. That’s 250 meetings. So we do have the problem of [needing to discuss things that haven’t] been said before, and we try to think of new, inventive topics.”

Genser notes that different people keep showing up, too. “If you come tonight, then a year from now, you’re likely to find 12 people, but you’ll find a few different ones. Every group has a core. We have about ten people that almost always show up. We get another ten that show up sometimes, or most of the time, and a few people that wish they could get here but usually can’t. Then, of course, there are newbies.”

Does the political landscape change enough to make for variety? “Yes, new issues emerge, and there are zeitgeist changes,” Genser says.

∗ ∗ ∗

In Politics and Religion, Grine finds one refrain especially irritating. “It always bothered me that some of the smart people in the group looked at business as — I won’t use the word ‘evil’ — but that you can’t be successful in business unless you cheat somehow or you abuse your employees. We had an objectivist come in — an Ayn Rand type — and he tried to explain to them, ‘I don’t abuse my employees because that would be stupid. I’ve got to keep those people.’”

Grine says he gave several presentations intended to educate the group about the nature of small business. What being a business broker has taught him is that successful small businesses invariably have about 15 percent profitability. “If you see a company with higher profitability than that, then other companies come in to compete, and when they all get in, prices start dropping. It’s fascinating to see it work. If I hear you say your business has a 25-percent profit margin, it’s not that I don’t believe you, but I look at the financials, and usually some things are missing. If you’re thinking about buying a business that really does have a 25-percent profit margin, remember that it won’t be long before the competition comes in and brings prices down.”

I ask if Grine has ever conducted a group discussion of business ethics.

“The members said there is no [such thing as] business ethics. I brought the subject up several times, but to them it was an oxymoron. But let’s say you fix tires in a small town. If you screw your customers, they’re going to go to the next town over and get their tires fixed there. You’d go out of business.”

At a more complex level, however, every once in a while you run across a Bernie Madoff.

“Oh, well, that’s obscene,” says Grine.

And yet it happens, right?

“It does. But [adapting Winston Churchill’s remark about democracy] they say that capitalism is the worst system, except all the others. And the liberals’ bugaboos are always CEOs making too much money, which is true. But what percentage of the corporations’ revenues do the CEOs actually take?

Grine acknowledges that businesses of all sizes occasionally abuse employees. “I work with small businesses, so I don’t pretend to understand big corporations.” But critics often speak from what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “morality of resentment.”

“The labor movement has helped create a system that is beneficial to workers,” Grine says, “although with the rise of wages, globalization is inevitable. Keeping jobs in the U.S. is important. But, I personally would like to see globalization proceed, because maybe it will help eliminate catastrophic wars like we had in the 20th Century, that is, if world economies become interlocked.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Lacie Watkins, whose father brought her to San Diego from Arkansas as a child, has been attending Politics and Religion, and now Civilized Conversations, for two and a half years. She confesses to being one of the group members who challenges the ethics of big corporations. “But only over things they do that are wrong,” she says.

Given that the groups are dominated by men, most of them older than 30, I ask Watkins if she ever challenges them from feminist points of view. Does she consider herself a feminist?

She is quick with a response. “Feminist or femi-Nazi?” We laugh. “I am a feminist in terms of second-wave and third-wave feminism, yes,” she says. “But I bring my entire self to the table. I’m a Christian, working class, African-American female. All of those things affect my world view and how the world sees me at different places and times. I will say that, usually, being brown has been more of a barrier in my life than having a uterus.”

Watkins has given two presentations to the group, one on gender and one on race and class. “But I would hope that I bring a little bit more to the table than race and class and gender analysis.” A particular concern is “food justice.” Watkins has served for six years on the Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference as their peace and justice chair. “For me, a reading of biblical truth entails a strong justice aspect. I see the gospel as a subversive text.”

What was it in Watkins’s earlier life that may have predisposed her to join a public-discussion group? She mentions two influences. “In the early 1970s, I was one of the first students at Muir Alternative School, near SDSU, when it was a real alternative school and not a continuation school. The other thing was being part of the evangelical movement for a long time. There is nothing like having questions inside of you that you don’t feel you have permission to ask, or conversations that you feel you don’t have permission to start. And that’s how I felt for 15 years.” So now, she says, “it’s important for me to feel that I can hold my own intellectually and assertively with people who are normally in positions of power but are not used to having to deal with people like me. Before, when I did start asking questions, it was always with fear and trepidation and sweat in my armpits. If I know that part of my call is to be an advocate for other people, that means I must be able to speak up. When I first walked into the discussion group, I was intimidated. Two and a half years later, I’m not intimidated.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Jim Zimmerman now participates in both Civilized Conversations and Meeting of the Minds. I asked him how he acquired a taste for public group discussions. “I remember being involved in a lot of such bull sessions in college,” says Zimmerman, who graduated from Brown University in the 1960s. He later went to Yale, where he eventually obtained a PhD in Chinese history. Research for his doctoral dissertation on 12th-century China took Zimmerman first to Taiwan and then to Japan, where for ten years he taught at Shoin University in Kobe and then at Kyoto University. When he came back to the U.S., he became a consultant to businesses “whenever they had to look at Japanese or Chinese documents or situations. It involved quite a bit of legal work. Then, just to finish the story, I ended up with Amnesty International. I’ve been the China country specialist for Amnesty International for the past 15 years.”

I sit behind Zimmerman at a Civilized Conversations discussion called “Why do both the Right and the Left want to take their country back?” The issue of European immigrants coming to the U.S. to acquire land in the 18th and 19th Centuries has come up. Carl Lock stood to bemoan the U.S. government’s willingness to practically give away land, largely to take it out of the hands of Indians and to move that population farther west. Zimmerman countered with another motive that the Europeans often had. “My German ancestors, who came to Pennsylvania in the 1730s, came out of a terrible, terrible situation. Louis XIV had invaded the Rhineland twice. And take eastern Europeans who came into the U.S. later. They wanted to avoid service in the Czarist army. So the motives weren’t just to come here for land.” Later, Zimmerman reminds me that it’s still that way among many immigrant groups.

Zimmerman reflects on Gary Grine’s departure from the group. “At first, nobody could understand why Gary wanted to leave. It had always been his group. He did say the group was ultraliberal, which I don’t think is true. Everyone has different ideas about that. His outburst, though, was genuine and very angry. But several people now go to both Civilized Conversations and Meeting of the Minds. At this point, there are no more unfriendly feelings.

“I like the people in the groups. I think they have something to say, not always, perhaps, but quite often. And many times I learn something. I don’t know a lot about all the topics, but I can learn something.”

∗ ∗ ∗

Is Civilized Conversations, as Grine has been saying, essentially political and liberal?

Genser says, “It’s about politics, yes. And Gary is correct that we are in a phase now where more liberals are showing up than conservatives. We were conservative earlier, especially before I started, as I’m told. The factions wax and wane, and now the liberal faction is waxing. But that may change.

“So, the core competence or interest in the group is politics, but I try to keep it away from current events, which can cause things to get rancorous. I assume people look into the topics, but often they use only Wikipedia. I do it myself when I know very little about something.”

Genser leads the group as much on its website as in the meetings. A post this winter announced that the next two weeks’ topics would be devoted to the question: “Is Inequality a Ticking Time Bomb?” The first part would concentrate on “the rise of inequality.” For part two, Genser asks, “Are we an oligarchy?”

“I grouped them together,” he writes, “because I see them as two sides of a coin…This week is more about growing poverty and the erosion of the middle class, while next week is about the rich — and their growing domination of our political system.”

Genser provides a little background for the coming discussion. For instance, “The lower middle class, while not officially poor, is in slow-motion collapse, as unemployment among high school graduates exceeds 15 percent, manufacturing jobs vanish, college costs grow out of reach, etc.” Then come several discussion questions. “How did this happen? Was it natural/inevitable, or was it in our (political) control to prevent? Is it a moral crisis? What is our moral responsibility here? What political values should guide us? Enlightened self-interest? Christian ethics? Ayn Rand novels?”

Grine’s subjects offer a study in contrast. “For group discussion,” he says, “I’ve always chosen subjects I’m interested in learning about.” The first 22 topics chosen for Meeting of the Minds included the following, usually introduced in the form of questions: the Renaissance, fractal geometry, the egocentric predicament, quantum gravity, Martin Luther and the politics of power, the life of Mozart, the science of color, cosmic singularities, and Kant’s contributions to modern thought. During an evening devoted to Plato’s and Aristotle’s contributions to Christianity, I find myself drawn into a lively discussion of how “otherworldly” Christianity has been. Before I know it, Grine asks me to give a presentation on the philosophy of language as found in the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Believe me, I learned more about the subject by prepping than I’d ever known before.

Esoteric enough for you? Heck, to understand half the rudiments of subjects like these would be daunting. And to take up another topic seven days later, and keep going week after week? How could anyone keep up without Wikipedia?

Clearly, full comprehension is not a requirement. Jim Wolner, a retired school teacher who attends both of the current groups, puts it like this: “I recall many evenings early on when my mind was so refreshed and so stimulated from new thoughts, whether I agreed or did not agree, understood or did not understand. The mental stimulation was fantastic. Next day, I would tell my wife, ‘My brain feels so alive.’”

Grine concurs. “Whether fully grasped or not, ideas are important. There are people who need to discuss things, not so much to gain facts or have a social gathering but to think new thoughts. I’m interested in provoking those thought processes in the minds of group participants. Ideas change history just as much as battles and other factors.” An example is John Locke’s social-contract theory, which influenced Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the American nation. Grine wants me to recall that the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence was probably taken from Locke, who wrote, “All mankind…being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”

Or, take an idea that was not paid sufficient heed in European politics. Otto von Bismarck, who united Germany in the late 19th Century, developed a foreign policy based on power rather than idealized notions of peace. “Then Hitler showed, by his contempt, the importance of that ‘realpolitik,’” says Grine. “He just made trash of the treaties he signed.”

Grine, of German heritage, tells me he is often preoccupied by “what happened in that great culture. Think of all the great music that has come out of Germany, its scientists and philosophers, like Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche (he is less enamored of Marx). I keep wondering how Nazism could have emerged from such a background.”

Whereas Grine has always made Western philosophy, science, and history the mainstays of his topic selection (he does want to expand into Buddhism), Genser defends politics as his group’s central concern. He calls politics “the most important thing we do as a society, as people living together. This is not a game. We come because we enjoy each other’s company, but what we’re talking about are things that matter, not how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

Over the months that I’ve conversed with Grine about the North Park discussion groups, he’s softened, acknowledging that Civilized Conversations has its place, that it’s helpful to many people who need to discuss things political. But, last fall, during the discouragement he experienced at his new meeting’s slow start, he bemoaned in an email the “political takeover” of his first group. He asked, “Is Western Culture of interest anymore to a pluralistic society? I just hate to see them throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

“I’m very interested in the individual. People often just want me to state my opinion. But this is the most important thing in the world — to you. You need to express yourself. As moderator in the group, my job is not to lecture but to get dialogue and debate going, to get things out of the participants.”

Grine showed me the draft of a paper he is working on to explain his point of view. In its concluding remarks, he writes: “People have a duty to think new thoughts, to create and re-create themselves.”

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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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