Thursday, October 14, 2004

Common Sense

An article written by Rami Khouri in the Beirut-based Daily Star, the leading English Language newspaper of the Middle East, gives inspiration to this Friday edition of Daily Comment. Mr. Khouri's editorial speaks to a trait in American public affairs that every American knows about from the inside and the world's astute observers know from their various vantages. It is the strength of national character that usually emerges from the prickly, rough-hewn, contentiousness of a national debate. Tom Paine, the British immigrant turned colonial revolutionary, gave it a name—Common Sense.

Wednesday evening President Bush and Senator Kerry completed their third and final toe-to-toe debate. This one was largely on domestic issues, but national security and therefore terrorism and the Iraq War intruded. The opponents came out swinging and although neither landed a devastating blow to the other, the majority of the press on Thursday gave Kerry, the challenger, the round again. Bush was on the defensive and he did not, and we think could not explain his way out of the seemingly endless mistakes his administration has made. There was a palpable feeling at the end of the debate that "common sense" had emerged and come into focus, that given the presentation and the content the Bush candidacy does not add up to a claim on four more years, and that the Kerry candidacy really does add up to a convincing case for change and restoration of sound practices of governance.

The common sense that emerged is based partly in the manner and presentation of the two candidates, partly on what they said, partly on what they did not say, and partly on what they said when they misspoke. The sommon sense is a gestalt, a whole view, of the candidates and the contest. After being churned by the press, tilted by the columnists and pundits, buffeted by comments from and arguments with family and friends, settled on several good nights' sleep, and finally spoken softly over some irrelevant matter in the passing day, we realize that one candidate represents our values and the other does not. The moment crystallizes and, developing coherent patterns of facets, begins almost to glow with an inner radiance, a feeling of final truth.

It remains for this common sense about the contestants to be resolved at the polls, but there is one more thing that lurks in the shadows and threatens the exercise of our good common sense. Ariana Huffington wrote about this threat on Wednesday. Her sense of things is that Americans have been pushed off their normal "judgment center" by fear. The hypothesis is not new and it is rarely challenged these days. It is simply this: given a vivid experience of danger, the human brain will rely first and to the exclusion of higher order processes on the old "fight, freeze, or flight" response to that danger. These responses are carried out in parts of the brain that we share with almost all four-legged vertebrates, that is, they are tried and true mechanisms that get our bodies out of harm's way or failing that attempt to make us either invisible or invincible. If these processes are at work then reflective thinking is suppressed because it just seems to get in the way.

The effect of fear-based behaviors on our good common sense is debatable. We here at the American Liberalism Project retain our fear of renewed terrorist activity, we also are apprehensive about driving on the crowded freeways in our respective cities, we are equally fearful of the new influenza that will be arriving in our schools and homes and offices this winter. Our fears are controlled, though, by higher order processes. In other words, we have a grip! We have understood ourselves and our reaction to the ambient and cyclic threats of our times, and we have basically overcome our need to fight, freeze, or flee. The question is, of course, will the majority of voting Americans rise above their fears and maintain contact with their common sense as they vote this fall?

We think they will!