Tommy and Me and the Mending Wall

C. John Grom is a retired executive recruiter whose passion for effective government led him to found of “Right and Left Inc.”, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit corporation committed to the promotion of political civility. He is the Producer and Moderator of an award winning local television talk show “The Right and Left Discussion Forum” which is available on the Internet at, and a frequent guest contributor to the editorial page of his local newspaper. In addition he manages, a web site and blog promoting political civility. Mr. Grom holds a BSBA degree from the University of Akron.


In 1948 Tommy and I were nine years old and we got into a fight by the bike rack behind our school. He liked Truman and I liked Dewey. I don’t know why I liked Dewey or why Tommy liked Truman, the way they looked I suppose. Why does any nine year old decide who they would like to see elected President of the United States? All I remember is that it mattered enough at the moment for Tommy and me to duke it out.

The election was a few weeks away and we were both aware of the adult conversations that took place around us. I was a Dewey fan much like I was a fan of the Cleveland Indians who had just won the World Series for the first time in twenty eight years. Anything positive that was said by adults about Dewey or the Indians I took for gospel and repeated it with my own embellishments. By the same token I would reject out of hand anything positive about Truman or negative about Dewey or the Indians.

Tommy felt the same way, only opposite, so we argued. We insulted each other and we called each other names and actually came to blows that one time. But we were only nine years old. Neither one of us knew much about either candidate or the issues of the day but it didn’t matter we had each picked our side and we believed anything that supported it and we built a wall between us.

Our wall was something like Robert Frost’s Mending Wall in his great poem of the same name. Frost describes how he and his neighbor would meet every spring to repair the winter damaged wall that divided their property. On a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each…. We wear our fingers rough with handling them. Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, one on a side. It comes to little more: There it is we do not need a wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. Frost goes on,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.

Tommy and I did not ask to whom we were likely to give offense; offense was the centerpiece of our relationship. We were not trying to convert each other, we were trying in every way possible to demean and diminish each other with our words and gestures. We didn’t listen, we didn’t question, we didn’t care we just wanted to strike out. Our reward, if there was one, was the belief that we had launched the most damaging insult before the bell rang ending recess. But, we were only nine years old and that’s the way nine-year-olds behave.

I have friends on social media sites who remind me a great deal of the nine-year-old Tommy and me. The insults and name calling hurled across the political wall have no apparent purpose other than to give offense and no apparent result other than to harden people against each other. They often link their page to ultra partisan websites that appear to exist only to provide their site visitors with reinforcing material for their prejudices or additional insults to hurl over the wall.

There is a good reason we are not allowed to vote when we are nine years old. At that age we still have a lot to learn about cooperation, collaboration, reconciliation, consensus building, compromise, listening to each other, caring about each others’ needs and make our contribution to a society that provides possibilities for all of us to live happy, healthy and productive lives.

When we are nine years old we have not yet learned to ask ourselves before we build a wall, what am I walling in or walling out and to whom I was likely to give offense. We know as mature adults that good fences do not necessarily make good neighbors. Sometimes we have to tear down the wall to see that we really have a lot in common with each other, that without the wall we can do things together that no one group of us could possibly do alone.

Krugman, Ryan, and Civil Debate

Clive Cook, over at Bloomberg View, did a particularly good job last week of articulating one of the central dilemmas that face many of us who are interested in civility within the landscape of our highly charged political present. His article, “Krugman’s Wrong: Civility Isn’t Stupid,” looks at one of the biggest players and one of the most common tropes in progressive politics in the United States; but his point is well made, and equally applicable among conservatives.

The dilemma is this: is it ever acceptable to take a break from civility and launch an ad hominem attack on a political opponent? Especially when it is apparent, from your perspective, that that opponent is acting in bad faith?

Cook (rightly, we think) says that it is not. And though Cook defends economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman against critics who accuse Krugman of calling Representative Paul Ryan stupid (he didn’t), he is rightly critical of Krugman’s tendency, as he puts it, to become too easily exasperated … and much too quick to see bad faith (mostly on the opposing side, rarely on his own).

All of this stems from a recent column, “Knowledge Isn’t Power,” and a blog post that Krugman made as a follow-up called “Con Men Aren’t Stupid.” In the latter, he dismisses civility, saying that he has documented [Paul] Ryan’s many cons very extensively, showing in particular that his budgets were sold on false pretenses. And that if it is his job to inform readers about what’s going on, then the attempt to sell right-wing goals under false pretenses is an important part of the story.

Cook’s point in his response at Bloomberg View is that while that may be true in a limited way, it is also profoundly counterproductive. He writes:

The problem with [Krugman’s] view on civility is that without a minimum of mutual respect, debate degenerates into a useless squabble, which is what U.S. politics has become. In a functioning democracy, deals have to be struck among groups with different views. Differences of opinion shouldn’t be suppressed, but if mutual disgust rises to the point where negotiation is no longer possible, everybody loses.

And he writes that if you begin from a position of contempt for your political opponent, you don’t expect to learn anything from him, and you lose your ear for finding what’s valuable in the arguments of people you disagree with.

Both are important points. Both characterize a regular feature in Krugman’s popular writing that undercuts analyses that are otherwise often well-conceived. And both offer a valuable lesson to conservative pundits, too, where ad hominem attacks — of the President, of Democratic leaders, and of media figures including Krugman himself — too often find enthusiastic voice.

There is a lesson to be learned in this: that though we may believe, under certain circumstances, that a break with civility is justified, more often, as Cook says, it’s mere self-indulgence. Ad hominem attacks are an exercise in letting off steam, or of riling up one’s own supporters. But they do not change minds. And they bring us no closer to the kind of productive (if occasionally contentious) debate that leads to compromise and ultimately to positive legislative outcomes.