Suddenly everyone is having a “conversation.” The word has come of age. I see it bowing and scraping on the opinion pages and TV talk shows three or four times a day. Its formulaic sidekick is the equally irksome “if you will,” beloved of Wolf Blitzer, John King and other TV correspondents. “If you will” is something between a sheeplike cough and a verbal tail-wag, a signifier of decorum, itself a prime ingredient of the “national conversation.”
“National conversations” are clubby affairs. Their prime purpose is to exclude the unconversational, meaning intellectual or verbal excess–above all, unseemly questioning of the essential functionality of the existing system. Indeed, I began to keep an eye out for the term a few years ago, when I read a column in which some rabble-rouser was haughtily blackballed as most definitely not being part of the national conversation.
It’s possible that the “national conversation” got its start as an effort to dignify the interactions of the “chattering classes,” a phrase that had its origin as a right-wing snarl in the Thatcher years. Real men and real women didn’t chatter. They moved briskly forward with the business of “governance,” yet another irksome locution.
Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia about race stuck pretty carefully to the unwritten rules of a national conversation, in marked contrast to the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose stimulating rhetoric has caused such an extraordinary affront–if you will–to the conversing classes.
The junior senator from Illinois is a master at drowning the floundering swimmer he purports to rescue while earning credit for extending a manly hand in solidarity. I noticed this the first time I wrote about Obama, back in the spring of 2006, when Ned Lamont was trying to make the disgusting political conduct of Senator Joseph Lieberman part of the national conversation, at least among Democrats. Obama hastened to a big political dinner in Connecticut to cut the conversation off and denounce any deviations from support of his mentor Lieberman.
Obama repeated his fake-rescue technique when Illinois’s senior senator, Dick Durbin, got into trouble for likening conditions at Guantánamo to those in a Nazi or Stalin-era camp. This was one of Durbin’s finer moments, as he read an FBI man’s account of how he had entered an interview room “to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more.”
“If I read this to you,” Durbin told his fellow senators, “and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime–Pol Pot or others–that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course.”