If They Build It, Will You Come?

Would you come to a museum showing the best and worst of public debate? Would you contribute to the design? What could we name it?

My brain explodes as it tries to process the debates that are defining the decade: race relations, campus violence, health care, the economy, international instability, media bias, and, of course, education.

Nothing challenges the intellect better than a well-informed adversary arguing an issue in a measured, respectful tone.

Nothing angers the heart better than an ill-informed ally behaving like an imbecile.

And those who suggest that one side of any debate has a monopoly on reason or decorum reveal themselves as jackasses.

All of this has entered my subconscious and expressed itself in a recent dream in which I was trying to decide what format I’d use for my entry for a “Big Idea Contest.” The choices were either a written description of an idea for a new kind of museum or a 3-D model of the idea.

The museum, whose name I never figured out, would focus on the state of public debate. The twist would be that the means of debate would have primacy over the content. The primary goal of the museum (and this post as well) would be for us to examine the role each of us plays in how we talk to each other. Informing visitors about the issues would be a distant second.

Each gallery would be dedicated to a single issue. The room itself would be long and oval-shaped with a partition running down the middle.

Each side of the partition would be dedicated to the how one side of the issue is presented. A committee made up of advocates and adversaries would decide which artifacts, essays, videos, and so forth showed each side of at its best – and, equally important, at its worst.*

The curved walls would be made of some highly reflective material – the idea being that we would see ourselves as part of the presentation inasmuch as we are part of the means of the debate.

The partition between the two sides would be frosted to various degrees of transparency – with the view to the other side completely opaque in some places, foggy in other places, and clear in others. This would serve as a double metaphor of our willingness to try to understand our opponents as well as the clarity in which we view them. (This idea came to me after I woke up.)

Visitors could enter and exit each gallery from either side and would face a choice at the end– Do I go on to another issue or take a look at the other side of the same issue?

The galleries would be connected by lobbies designed to encourage interaction between the visitors.

Outside, the museum would have paths leading visitors to secluded, meditation areas and to overlooks that provided a long view to the distance. The attempt, of course, would be to encourage us to look within and to look beyond ourselves. (This idea also came after I woke.)

The last detail in the dream itself was that I would propose that the museum be built on a hill near Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Think of the implications of that.

*Note: The spirit would be that of a story I read once. Conservative author William F. Buckley, Jr. was travelling with historian and journalist Theodore White during the conflict between Mao Tse Tung, whom White supported, and Chiang Kai Shek, whom Buckley did. White mischievously offered to share the worst thing he knew about Mao if Buckley would share the worst thing he knew about Chiang. Imagine if we were all willing to (mischievously) share with our adversaries the biggest weaknesses in our own views.

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