My thought this particular moment is about a tenacious robin
attacking itself in the glass of my home-office window. It does not understand
it’s seeing itself in the glass and will continue to strike
because neither the bird nor its reflection will give up the fight.
Quarantine Poem #17
Many Americans just want the Culture War to go away. But the battle has been with us for at least 30 years — since Pat Buchanan’s fiery speech at the 1992 Republican Convention — though I think it goes all the way back to the Vietnam War in the ’60s, and possibly to this country’s very beginning. I’ve been addressing it in this paper since June 30, 1993 (“State of the nation — impeding America’s impediment to growth”) when I wrote:
“I try not to delve into politics too often because in the current climate, if people don’t agree with you, they don’t agree to disagree. They call you the Anti-Christ. This has a certain inhibiting effect on public discourse.”
Well, of course I did continue to delve into politics over the last three decades because it seemed unavoidable. In that same column, I wrote, “We characterize differences of opinion as grounds for treason and seem convinced that our point of view is the whole truth and nothing but the truth and America’s only hope for salvation.” That still applies.
And this was several years before the internet appeared — and more than a decade before Facebook.
So I’ve written about the Culture War many times, sometimes conciliatory, sometimes angry and judgmental, but often I sought dialogue. Here’s an early effort (Jan. 5, 2005) that went nowhere:
How do you build a bridge? Do you start from one end and build all the way over to the other side? Or do you start from both ends and meet in the middle?
Some bridges are literal, some are metaphorical. Building a metaphorical bridge and building a literal bridge are likely very different propositions. Both sides, first of all, have to want the bridge built. Step two is being willing to work with “the other side” in building it.
Recently, I was invited to breakfast by a “conservative” who doesn’t like being branded by such labels. I can’t blame him. What liberals mean by “conservative” and what conservatives mean by “liberal” tend to be pretty distorted.
But he was more than happy to apply labels to me. 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 reflected the division that already existed and to some extent represented one side of it. The division is real and needs to be understood before anything can be done about it. And the divide has two sides. Both sides are 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, I said, that’s exactly how I would describe conservatives. In fact, he seemed to be not listening just 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 the other. One’s right is another’s left. One side thinks the opposition is arrogant, intolerant and elitist. So does the other side. Elitists vs. elitists, both sides angrily accusing the other of being elitist.
You can see this mirror in our letters section. Conservative letter-writers say liberals sound mean-spirited and demeaning — even hateful. But in doing so, they usually sound mean-spirited and demeaning — even hateful. When we look in the mirror, we don’t see ourselves. We see our mirror images — 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 — in my opinion — believe they can win the Culture War, so they have no interest in meeting liberals halfway. Liberals — again in my opinion — believe victory will be theirs in the long run. All they have to do is outlast the opposition. In the short-run both sides are girding to repel the attack they believe the other side will launch against their most deeply held beliefs — that if they don’t win, they’ll be annihilated.
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.
You’ve heard my answer. Now we need to hear yours.
Seventeen years later, I’m still waiting for that answer.
And the only people I ever hear saying we need to end this Culture War through disarmed dialogue are people on the center-left.
Please prove me wrong.