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Viewpoint: Not Enough Conversation?

By Charles Krauthammer

(TIME, December 22) -- Scientific ideas don't die, they just fade away into popular culture. Psychoanalysis is as dead a science as alchemy. But its central idea, that somehow catharsis leads to cure, lives on -- rages on -- in Oprah and Geraldo and Ricki Lake and the whole steaming psychic stew that is our confessional culture.

No serious scientist would credit the notion, both unverified and unverifiable, that recalling the repressed, articulating the instinctual, magically undoes the inhibitions and pathologies of life. But no matter. So thoroughly has this fable soaked into the culture that it is now mere conventional wisdom that if we just let it all out from the deep recesses of our souls--the anger, the fear, the prejudice, whatever--we will all be better off.

Not surprisingly, therefore, President Clinton, whose political genius lies in his capacity for expressing, indeed embodying, the zeitgeist of the moment, has seized upon catharsis as his special contribution to dealing with America's racial agonies. Rather than undertaking, say, some vast, expensive and real program to improve inner-city schools, he has called for a "national conversation on race."

Because talk is cheap? Perish the thought. Because in confronting our deepest racial feelings -- even if emotions are "rubbed raw," he averred -- we will emerge better and stronger.

And so for the two hours of his recent town meeting in Akron, Ohio, the President searched and scratched, picked and poked to bring repressed truth and bias and hurt to the surface. Such was his attempt to start a "national conversation on race." It managed to go nowhere.

It had to. The whole conception of a presidentially mandated national conversation is nonsense, indeed pernicious nonsense. It is nonsense, first, to think that America suffers from a dearth of conversation about race. We are obsessed with race. We can't stop talking about race. Prop. 209, O.J., Piscataway, the gerrymandering cases, race and the death penalty, race and the law schools, race and the Oscars, race and baseball (black attendance is down): Is there an issue under the American sun that has not been given a racial cast?

An angry, hectored basketballer assaults his coach, and within days Johnnie Cochran turns up at the player's side and the airwaves are filled with agonized exegeses of the black player-white coach issue. Why, the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington is playing Othello in reverse colors: a white man (Patrick Stewart) is Othello; Iago, Desdemona and everyone else is black. Not enough conversation?

And, second, it is pernicious nonsense to think that bringing out the deepest, rawest, most unspoken parts of our souls is somehow the road to racial healing. Anyone who has actually done real psychotherapy, in which people really pour out their souls (in my 20s, I practiced psychiatry), knows how dangerous, delicate and often destructive such an exercise can be -- even in the privacy, confidentiality and highly ritualized setting of the doctor-patient relationship. But large groups? Of strangers? On live national TV? Led by a well-meaning but astute and cunning pol?

America is a society already so dedicated to free expression and emotional openness as to astonish the rest of a more reticent world. The last thing this steaming multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-everything cauldron of 260 million souls requires is yet more rawness in our national life.

America's problem is not inhibition. It is exhibition. What the President and the polity and the pedagogues should be preaching is racial decency. Respect. Restraint. Manners. The lesson ought to be: Whatever your innermost feelings -- and we have no idea, despite the claims of pop psychology, how to change inner feelings -- we demand certain behavior. That is what the civil rights laws are about. They do not mandate a pure society. They mandate right conduct amid impurity.

The decline of racial prejudice comes over generations, as children are taught, as today's children are indeed taught, the fundamental moral equality of all peoples and the fundamental silliness -- apart from the immorality -- of distinctions based on race. (And we certainly don't help teach our children indifference to race when we perpetuate social and political policies, such as preferential treatment based on race, that insist on the centrality of race consciousness.)

Akron was more than just another example of this President's belief in the therapeutic effects of talk, of his conviction that the major role of government is not to do but to discuss. It embodied perfectly the vacuousness of the race policy of an Administration that has U-turned twice on the landmark Piscataway case -- first joining, then opposing, then supporting again the suit of a white teacher fired to make room for a black colleague.

A President flummoxed by the dilemmas of race chooses to talk them into extinction. No dice. Talk is not a cure. It is a dodge.

In TIME This Week:

Cover Date Dec. 22, 1997

Public Eye: Lies My Ambassador Told Me
A Treaty Meets A Sour Congress
Turning Down The Heat
The Notebook
Why Talk Is Not Cheap
Viewpoint: Not Enough Conversation?
Drew Friedman 'Toon

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