Tony Cesare: 'Where Are All the Smart People?'

Looking for reasoned political debate in a sea of trolls.

“A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity” – Samuel Johnson

My wife pointed out that most of my favorite expressions come from Disney/Pixar movies, which either means I'm living under the same roof with two kids under 7 and they control the remote, or I need to grow up.

The Incredibles is not only my favorite; it’s the most quotable. Not a day goes by that I don’t repeat pearls of wisdom such as, “I never look back darling, it distracts from the now!” (Edna Mode), or “Et ton costume est complètement ridicule!" (Bomb Voyage).

Occasionally when I’m stressed at work I’ll close my eyes and imagine I’m the villain Syndrome and I run around the conference room screaming, “Am I good enough now? Who's super now?” and pretend to "freeze" co-workers with my “zero-point energy weapon." They’re used to it.

However, it was my wife who came up with the one expression I use almost every day.

It was about eight years ago during the last election cycle and we were watching some political round table (as effective as Ambien at inducing sleep) that involved opposing ideologues Ann Coulter and James Carville. After watching an hour of passive aggression and waiting for Anne to flash a forked tongue and pick a fly off Carville’s pumpkin head, my wife reached for the remote and in an exasperated tone yelled, “Where are all the smart people?”

It’s perfect.

Think of all the everyday situations where you can use it. Stuck on hold with customer support? Cut off by a driver who is texting? Reading this column? Ever since Steve Jobs passed away, it’s something I ask myself almost every day.

“Where are all the smart people?”

In the wake of my “Bummer Park” piece regarding public drunkenness in and about our parks, Downers Grove Commissioner Bob Barnett contacted me and asked if I would be willing to meet for a drink and discuss what I’d written.

I was hesitant to accept. Although the issue is important to me, I don’t want to be defined by it. Shockingly, I can think of far more interesting things to write about here in Downers Grove.

Nonetheless, I took him up on his offer and we sat down over a few beers with the Chicago Bears' only loss of the season playing out behind us. During the course of our rambling discussion, we talked about a wide range of local issues/concerns beyond the confines of “Bummer Park.” Unlike the agenda-driven formality of village council meetings, our discussion flowed easily from topic to topic and I found his willingness to accept differing opinions and separate rumor from fact to be forthright and refreshing.

I enjoyed my conversation with Commissioner Barnett so much that I invited him to meet again the following month at the Moose Lodge (where I subtly slipped him a membership form and an offer for sponsorship...). Only this time I invited a frequent Patch commenter who has chided me both publicly and privately for not offering more than rhetoric when it comes to solving problems within the community. If nothing else, I wanted to prove that I do have the courage of my convictions.

Within the first sips of High Life, it was apparent that my new friend and I had very different perspectives on just about everything (even taste in beer...), and during the course of our discussion the three of us alternated between discussion, exasperation and crossing the bar to buy another round.

I don’t recall anyone screaming "Libotard" or "Plutocrat." Nobody took a swing at anyone, and nobody chucked a glass against the wall. (I had a signal set up with a few of my Lodge brothers in case we needed to escort someone out. Don’t let those guys fool you, they may look old but they know how to handle a jerk.) It was just three reasonably smart people who just happen to have a few differences of opinion.

It’s amazing how civil and productive a debate can be when you stop hiding behind the keyboard and talk face to face with a real person—no trolls, no puppets, no false bravado. 

What if everyone who wanted to could partake in an informal one-on-one discussion with a representative from local government? At one point Bob commented that it's difficult to engage the community on an individual basis because at some point “your friends and family would rather talk about something else.”

I’ve given up on the possibility of reasoned political discussion on a national level. During a mock debate with Jon Stewart, Bill O'Reilly said, "You can make a lot of money being an assassin-right wing or left wing. If you're a hater, you go into radio, print or cable, and you get paid. Capitalism drives that. There are people—Americans—who want to hear hate. There are no rules on the Internet; go look at the comments after this is over. That is not going to get any better."

I believe he’s right.

But I also believe, and I think we proved, it's still possible on a community level. I would love to make our "Beer(s) with Bob" a monthly event, kind of like a PG-13 version of Coffee with the Council. Invite other smart people to get together and discuss whatever local issue concerns them. Transients abusing our parks? Downtown development? Storm water and flooding? What’s the best beer on tap at Emmett’s? No topic off limits, no tape recorders or flash photography. What is said in the tavern stays in the tavern.

It can’t happen of course. The logistics and legalities make it all but impossible. The reality is the cynics are all ready pouncing on their keyboards to accuse me of shilling for a particular candidate or agenda. It’s not true, but I’ll never be able to convince them otherwise.

I didn’t have any ulterior motives when I agreed to our meeting, and nothing about our conversation (none of which will ever appear in print) led me to believe he had any. Besides, if you’re a local politician attempting to curry favor with a journalist, you’d be better off choosing a sixth-grader writing for the school newspaper than me.

If you want to know where all the smart people are, they're the ones who are willing to push past the online rhetoric and meet face-to-face to try and solve a community's problems.

The only reason I agreed to meet with Commissioner Barnett is a relatively simple one: He asked.

Why hasn’t anyone else?

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Scott C. November 13, 2012 at 02:20 PM
Great article, Tony. Hope to see more "Beers with Bob" (whether Bob can make them all or not) and more articles like this - that move us beyond the rhetoric and into reality, the only place where real solutions to real (accurately defined) problems can be found. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead
Brian Beatty November 13, 2012 at 04:48 PM
After the election was the first time I hear "Conservative Entertainment Complex"
John McCormack November 13, 2012 at 05:32 PM
Tony – I took particular note of your statement; “It’s amazing how civil and productive a debate can be when you stop hiding behind the keyboard and talk face to face with a real person …” While one of the things I love about blogs is the ability to immediately weigh in with a comment, opinion, rebuttal, etc., it really bugs me that so many do it with putting their name out front. While I can respect one’s honest need for privacy and anonymity, I often associate the most vitriolic and seemingly hateful comments, which often reduce honest debate to cyber sniping, with people who choose to remain anonymous.
Tony Cesare November 13, 2012 at 07:53 PM
@John-Your absolutely right. My attitude on anonymity on blogs has evolved. I tend to ignore the author and focus on the words, but its amazing how many of the most vitriolic comments come from trolls hiding behind puppet pseudonyms.
BBS11 December 13, 2012 at 04:14 AM
@John... Remember the Winters' Reporter old "Sound Off" page... It was ahead of its time in format, at least. Now if I want that I can tune in to MSNBC, CNN or FOX. Sigh.


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