Thirty years ago, when I was still a music critic, I received a letter from a lady who informed me in no uncertain terms that I didn’t know what I was talking about.
This was after I’d written about the origins of gospel music, a subject on which I considered myself, if not expert, reasonably well informed. But Minnie C. Howard, a church musician in West Palm Beach, politely sliced me up with such surgical precision that, though I was bleeding from a dozen rhetorical wounds, I could only admire the cutting.
So I did the only thing that made sense. I got her on the phone, and we had an amiable chat about my ignorance.
This sort of thing didn’t happen every day, but it happened. Whether the subject was music or, later, social issues, I would find myself, a few times a year, having an exchange with someone whose objections to something I’d written were interesting and well informed. I didn’t always change their minds nor they, mine. But I found value in an opposing viewpoint ably argued.
That hardly happens anymore. These days, I read critical emails with a finger hovering over the delete button, ready to consign them to oblivion the instant the writer reaches what I call “the stupid part.” Which is never long in coming: some asinine conspiracy, some wild untruth, some silly talking point, and into the ether it goes. It occurs to me that I have become something I once scorned: a person with a closed mind.
I regret that. One thing I’ve always prized was a willingness to hear the other side, to entertain its ideas.
But these days, the other side has no ideas. Consider that the GOP didn’t even bother to put forth a platform in last year’s campaign – reportedly the first time it has failed to do so since 1856. “The Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda,” read the resolution it adopted in place of a statement of party policies and priorities.
No ideas. Thus, on the one side you have many of us grappling with era-defining challenges: climate change, immigration, aging infrastructure, poverty, pandemic and race, to name a few. Meanwhile, on the other side, many of us are more worried about Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and the threat to America’s hamburgers. The only serious issues for which they show any appetite involve banning voters from voting and protesters from protesting.
I miss the days when it was possible to have a thoughtful debate on a substantive matter with a political opposite. The loss of that offers superfluous evidence that we have become a people without common goals, common facts and thus, common ground.
And Lord, what to do about that? You cannot reason with those who have abandoned the practice. And the unfortunate truth is that there are some things to which a mind should be closed: bigotry, ignorance, illogic and fear-mongering leading the list. So what is there to do except hope that time in the intellectual wilderness, a session in the moral woodshed, the ameliorating effects of progress, bring them back around?
May it happen soon. There are few things more dismaying, or that make me more anxious for America’s future, or that have greater capacity to drive me nuts, than dealing with some guy who thinks the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were patriots, but George Floyd had it coming. It’s mentally and emotionally draining. That’s why, as much as you hate it, there are times these days when you simply must close your mind.
If only to protect it.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.