Flannery O'Connor And The Limits Of Political Reason

In the early 1940s, a young southern writer by the name of Flannery O'Connor spun a tale about an extremist politician and his base that resonates deeply today.

An election campaign is on for the governorship of a southern state. Every time the mild mannered college teacher Rayber goes to get a shave or a haircut, the men who work in the local barbershop are talking and laughing about their favorite candidate, the wildly racist strongman, Mr. Hawkson, known as "Hawk," and they often repeat with enthusiasm something outrageous he's just said at a public rally.

Hawk's campaign is all bluster and insults. He's got pet-names for his opponents, diminishing "effeminate" epithets that his followers relish and love to repeat. The head barber at one point says that all his talks are "killeroos," as he recounts to the roomful of chortling and celebrating men some of their candidate's most recent racist statements. Rayber is shocked that they're speaking so crudely while quiet George, a young African American man, sweeps the floor of the shop toward the back. The professor has to speak up.

"A great many people," Rayber said, "consider Hawk a demagogue."
He wondered if George knew what demagogue meant. He should have said "lying politician."

"Demagogue!" The barber slapped his knee and whooped. "That's what Hawk said!" he howled. "Ain't that a shot! 'Folks,' he says, 'them Mother Hubbards says I'm a demagogue.' Then he rears back and says sort of soft-like, 'Am I a demagogue, you people?' And they yells, 'Naw, Hawk, you ain't no demagogue!' And he comes forward shouting, 'Oh yeah I am, I'm the best damn demagogue in this state!" And you should hear them people roar! Whew!"

Rayber is stunned. He doesn't know what to say. There are so many issues at stake in this election. There are too many obvious things deeply wrong about this man, Hawk. The progressive but timid college teacher can't figure out where to start. He wishes the barber would read some things. The man says he doesn't have to read nothing. All he has to do is think, using horse sense. No big words are going to make any difference. Doesn't Rayber know that Hawk is gonna keep those other people in their place and make sure everybody like him and the teacher make more money if he's elected? Rayber tries to point out that a little extra money isn't going to mean anything if the state collapses under the weight of Hawk's total incompetence and crazy beliefs. So he vows to defend his own sensible candidate some time soon in the barbershop and enlighten all of them. The barbers laugh more and say that he just can't use the phrase 'goodgovermint.' That's not allowed, they snicker.

Rayber goes home and writes a two page statement about the vast differences between the candidates. At first, it's hard. The real issues are so obvious. Where should he begin? How do these men not see such things already? He laboriously writes out what's wrong with Hawk and what's right about the clearly better candidate, the reasonable and progressive Darmon. He then takes this little two page speech to a friend, the philosophy professor Jacobs, explains what's going on, and reads it aloud to practice and get some feedback. The philosopher says, simply, "I never argue." Rayber insists: But what if you're right? "I never argue," Jacobs repeats, knowing the futility of what his friend is attempting.

Our hero goes back to the barbershop and reads his treatise aloud, hoping to refute and reform these men, using the real issues and clear reason. They laugh and laugh and laugh. In the end, he punches the barber and runs out of the shop.

The seventeenth century French scientist Blaise Pascal, as well as the prominent eighteenth century British philosopher David Hume, both understood that, for most people, reason is the servant of passion and can rarely undermine or overturn its commitments. Emotion trumps all. So when a political candidate appeals to the basest and most fundamental fears, resentments, and sources of personal bitterness, no amount or quality of reasoning can possibly make a difference. You either walk away, or someone throws a punch.

It's a sad commentary on the human condition. And in this classic story, "The Barber," Flannery O'Connor anticipated well what's going on in our current presidential election. She captures in the character of Rayber the total confidence of progressives in being right, the accompanying astonishment that anyone could possibly support someone like Hawk, and our often Quixotic approach to any attempt at explaining what's what and turning things around.

Aristotle believed that politics is about how best to live well together. As such, in principle, political discussion should be among the most ennobling forms of discourse. When I recently suggested this during a breakfast in New York City at a table of corporate leaders overlooking the Statue of Liberty, everyone laughed so suddenly and loudly I thought a few might choke on their eggs. There can clearly be a huge gap between theory and practice. And it's one we're all experiencing quite vividly right now. And yet, despite Rayber's ratiocinative failure in the story, and my own experience of strict limits in similar efforts throughout the current campaign, I remain stubbornly convinced that cool and sensible reason has a role to play. Or else, our democracy is doomed. And if you happen to disagree, please don't tell me. I'd hate for somebody to have to get punched.