I’ve mentioned a few conservatives who intrigue me because of their willingness to think in unorthodox ways. Dennis Prager, on the other hand, is a conservative who intrigues me because he is so relentlessly orthodox, so consumed by his contempt for liberals, that I know I’ll never find common ground with him. On anything, possibly. But smart conservatives I know seem to dig him, so I pay (sporadic) attention, knowing he possibly is the manifestation of the Conservative Id.
Here’s a passage from his latest, explaining why he thinks some conservatives still aren’t on the side of President Trump:
The first and, by far, the greatest reason is this: They do not believe that America is engaged in a civil war, with the survival of America as we know it at stake.
While they strongly differ with the left, they do not regard the left-right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation. On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do.
Now. There was some conservative pushback against this piece — but not much against the “Civil War” contention. To be honest, I think a lot of folks on the left would agree that we’re in a kill-or-be-killed — maybe metaphorical, maybe not — battle over what makes being “American.”
So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about reconciliation, because I think we Americans are going to need a healthy dose of it sometime soon if we’re going to continue down the path of being a single nation. (I don’t think that outcome is guaranteed, frankly: Just because we’re currently and have been one nation for a long time doesn’t mean that state of affairs is guaranteed for the future. And who knows? Maybe a division would be for the best. But I digress….)
Specifically, I’ve been wondering how to advocate for the things I think are good, oppose the things I think are bad, yet still lay the groundwork for peaceful coexistence with neighbors who think differently than I do.
Is that even possible?
We’ve talked a bit about Nazi punching lately, and one concern I haven’t really expressed about the whole thing is this: How do we decide who the Nazis are?
Don’t get me wrong: Richard Spencer is an avowed white supremacist. If you’re going to divide people into Nazi-Not a Nazi categories, he’s pretty easy to categorize.
But damn, it sure seems the labels for what defines a Nazi are pretty expansive these days, and on both sides. Google “trump hitler” and you get 33 million results. The first page of image results gets you this:
Conservatives do the same: I remember well when National Review’s John Derbyshire responded to a Senator Obama proposal — that college students do community service — with a blog post headlined “Arbeit Macht Frei.” You know: The message that welcomed Jews to the concentration camps. (Derbyshire was eventually forced to leave NRO because of his own racist posting: Despite his rhetoric against Obama, most people would probably toward placing Derb in the “Nazi” category.) Google “obama hitler” and you get a mere 18 million results. You can guess what the image results page looks like.
We can’t all be Nazis can we? Yet, we (and here I’m speaking of Americans, left and right) persist in seeing the other side as such — with the result that we naturally contemplate extreme behaviors in response. Like (say) punching strangers.
(One problem: The Nazis encompassed such a vast array of behaviors that it’s pretty easy to start to make comparisons: Ohmigod! They were democratically elected! They didn’t start off shepherding Jews into concentration camps — but by expelling and hassling and incarcerating disfavored ethnic groups. It’s easy enough to start to draw comparisons, but then: Most people, even on the left, agree that the United States is like other countries in that it has the right to secure its borders and regulate immigration to a degree. But once you accept that logic to any degree and act accordingly, the Nazi comparisons become pretty easy.)
(This is why a certain brand of libertarianism can be seductive in its clarity — the kind that seems to see nearly any government action as tyranny, which means any tradeoff is bad — but that’s for another time.)
If we all see each other as Nazis and we’re all willing to act accordingly, we cannot continue to live together. Because, eventually, we will kill each other.
If one of us is right about the other side being Nazis, that’s possibly even justified. If that’s the case, then yes, we’re in a Civil War, and there’s nothing to do but have it out.
What if we’re all wrong? What if most of us aren’t Nazis? Or what if we’re not Nazis yet and can still be precluded from becoming so?
Perhaps we need to resist seeing each other in villainous terms. That’s not to say that there aren’t villains — it’s easy to go too far the other way, because there definitely are people who make evil choices for evil reasons, and there are the occasional sociopaths — but, maybe, there aren’t nearly as many as we tend to think there are. Maybe, for the sake of survival, we have to get comfortable with just a touch of ambiguity along those lines.
So. Maybe we on the left need to recognize that (say) many conservatives who are trying to repeal Obamacare aren’t motivated by hatred of the poor, but a genuine belief that a genuine free market might serve everybody better?
Or that not everybody who calls themself “pro-life” is trying to control women’s lives, but genuinely believe they’re preventing murder?
Or that people who favor immigration restrictions aren’t necessarily racist, but do genuinely worry about terrorism?
I don’t think the above stances are, ultimately, correct. And certainly, there are conservatives who have contempt for the poor, conservatives who want to keep women in their place, and conservatives who are acting out of racist motivations. (And, certainly, conservatives might do well to recognize that most liberals don’t want big government for its own sake, believe that real and important issues of female autonomy really are in play on the abortion issue, and genuinely believe immigration really did help build the country and continues to have benefits.)
But combining empathy — does my own life contain contradictions? — with logic suggests that the number of easily caricatured single-dimension villains in our life is smaller than we typically suspect. The other side isn’t necessarily evil, just … wrong. Mistaken. But mistaken because their ideas of a just society are a bit different than ours, not because they reject the idea of a just society.
And if that’s the case, maybe we should avoid the Civil War? It’s not mindless middle-of-the-roadism, is it, to say: “I think I’m right, but personal humility — I might be wrong sometimes! — and respect for my neighbor dictate that I listen to her, and even if we disagree, I don’t have to think she’s a horrible person?”
(Even as I write this, I become aware of my that I’m privileged — I’m a white guy with a degree and — from time to time — an audience for my ramblings, so the likelihood of me experiencing oppression is small, the number of villains in my universe is small. Maybe the problem isn’t that we all see each other as Nazis, but that we don’t — correctly! — see ourselves as Nazis when so many of us are closer to it than we admit. The banality, the routine of evil is what makes it so insidious after all, right? Cut to: Lots of black folks nodding furiously.)
Since the election, I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. In some ways, he makes an easy example: Those of us benefit from the status quo would prefer it if everybody setting out to oppose the status quo agreed to use peaceful methods and not threaten an actual armed uprising, even as we continue to glorify armed uprisings in the name of underdog causes we care about. We’re hypocrites, most of us.
Get away from that, though, and it’s good to remember that King sought both justice and reconciliation — saw them, in fact, as inextricable from each other:
Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action.
Sounds easy. Isn’t.
Something that shapes me in all this: In 2011, I underwent a series of surgeries that saved my life from a severe attack of diverticulitis. During that period, people I thought I hated — people I had every right to hate — offered me support and comfort and grace. It was a revelatory experience, one that I’ve tried to keep in mind since. I’m less inclined than ever to find an excuse not to love my neighbor — though I’m obviously imperfect on this front — and more inclined to *try* to offer grace where I least want to give it. I think that’s the way of MLK. I think that’s the way of Jesus. Religious inclinations aside, I suspect it has the virtue of being … virtuous.
I hope you’ll forgive the rambling, Rebecca. I want to to do the right things, oppose the bad ones, and work for reconciliation. Maybe that’s impossible. Maybe if we each and every one of us hold to what we think is true, the civil war is inevitable.
But I don’t think it is. I don’t want it to be. I think we can avert it. It will, however, take hard work, choice, and a generosity of spirit that probably doesn’t come naturally to us.
God help us,