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Bumper Sticker Nation

Anyone who deals in the fine art of creating and delivering messages, especially messages tied to deeper ideas and meaty issues that require thoughtful debate and consideration, will benefit from reading an op-ed in today’s New York Times by Stephen L. Carter, novelist and Yale law professor, about the controversy resulting from remarks about race that Attorney General Eric Holder made last week.

In a 2,300-word speech about how America talks about race, and which was written for Black History Month, the one phrase that was picked up, commented on and criticized was Holder’s description of the U.S. as “a nation of cowards.”

As Carter points out, in the ensuing coverage of and conversation about Holder’s remark, the context for his comment got drowned out in the criticism that followed.  Carter says Holder was actually trying to make the point that we still do a poor job discussing race in this country.  He writes: “The truly intriguing aspect is not what the attorney general had to say about race, but rather what he had to say about the way in which we discuss it.  ‘Our national conversation on race,’ said Mr. Holder, “‘is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their narrow self interest.’”

Carter says this rush to reduce larger issues to simplistic “sloganeering” and “applause lines” makes it difficult to engage in meaningful debate about serious issues. “Whether we argue over war or the economy, marriage or religion, abortion or guns, we reduce our ideas to just the right size for the adolescent tantrum of the bumper sticker.”  He adds: “…democracy needs dialogue more than it needs bumper stickers.”

Nicely said. And, yes, too many words for a bumper sticker.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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