Do we want to bridge the national divide?

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By KEN TRAINOR

How do you build a bridge? Do you start from one end and build all the way over to the other? Or do you start from both ends and meet in the middle?

There are two kinds of bridges?#34;literal and metaphorical. Building a metaphorical bridge and building a literal bridge are probably two very different propositions.

Recently, I was invited to breakfast by a "conservative" who doesn't like labels and doesn't like being branded by them. I can't blame him. What liberals mean by "conservative" and what conservatives mean by "liberal" tend to be pretty distorted.

He said I was a divider, not a uniter. He told me my job as a columnist is to build bridges, not aggravate the division.

I replied that I simply reflected the division, to some extent represented one side of it. The division is real and needs to be examined before anything can be done about it. And the divide has two sides. Everyone is part of the problem, not just liberals.

He thought that was a "dodge." He clearly thought I was the problem. I wasn't listening, he said. I came off as arrogant and intolerant of other points of view.

Funny, that's exactly how I would describe conservatives. In fact, he seemed to be not listening as aggressively as he claimed I wasn't listening to him.

It takes two to divide, and I've found that opposing sides tend to be mirror images of one another. One's right is another's left. One side thinks the opposition is arrogant, intolerant and elitist. So does the other side. Moral elitists vs. cultural elitists, both sides angrily accusing the other of being elitist.

You can see the mirror in our letters section. Conservative letter-writers say liberals sound mean-spirited and demeaning?#34;even hateful. But in doing so, they usually sound mean-spirited and demeaning?#34;even hateful. When we look in the mirror, we don't see ourselves. We see our mirror images?#34;our ideological enemies. Maybe that's why we continue to be our own worst enemies. We can't see the mote in our own eye.

Can this divide be bridged? Sure, but both sides have to want to build it. It has to come from both ends and meet in the middle. Neither side is ready. Conservatives?#34;in my opinion?#34;believe they can win the culture war, so they have no interest in meeting liberals half way. Liberals?#34;again in my opinion?#34;believe victory will be theirs in the long run. All they have to do is outlast the opposition. In the short-run they're girding to repel the attack they believe the conservatives have launched against their most deeply held beliefs. Conservatives no doubt feel the same?#34;that if they don't win, they'll be obliterated.

That's not a gulf one columnist can bridge alone. But my breakfast companion was really trying to tell me that I need to be able to communicate to both sides of the divide.

That's a good, constructive challenge, so my first attempt is to challenge conservatives to do a better job of listening to liberals. And, to be fair, liberals need to do a better job of listening to conservatives.

Here's the test: Answer the following question, yes or no ("Yes, but ..." and "No, but ..." are not allowed). "Do liberals have something of value to contribute to the national dialogue on values?" My answer to the mirror side of that question, for the record, is an unequivocal "Yes, conservatives have much to add to the values dialogue." I'll even take it a step further. Liberals have much to learn from listening to conservatives.

How about it, conservatives? Do liberals have anything to add? Can you learn anything by listening to them?

If you answer "yes" without the "but," bridge-building begins.

But we need to hear your answer.

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