Out for a walk Sunday evening, I was brooding about the state of politics and culture in the U.S., and my personal frustration at the complete closed-mindedness of many of the liberals I know. Sure, there are many, many on the right who are equally closed-minded. But for the most part I'm not trying to argue with them (although I have reason to think that my first and so far only "un-friending" on Facebook was a result of my mocking Donald Trump). And anyway those who are that way are mostly not educated people (or should I say "educated"?) who have a great deal invested in an image of themselves as being above all smart, reasonable, and tolerant, so I find their visceral reactions more forgiveable. What frustrates me most about many liberals is that they think of themselves as the intelligent, thoughtful, rational, open-minded side of this quarrel. And within some limits they are. But where conservatives are concerned their mental processes often revert to the same raw bigotry that they decry in racists. In a sad parallel, the most egregious example of this also has to do with race: the instantaneous reflexive labeling of any right-wing person or group as racist, regardless of or even in spite of the evidence (e.g. right-wing support for Ben Carson).
What had me thinking along these lines was an Internet "meme" which credits Obama with "saving the country" in spite of "unprecedented racism and hatred." Saving the country from what? It didn't say (not that there was space to do so--Internet memes have replaced bumper stickers for simple-minded sloganeering). A right-minded person wouldn't need to be told, and therefore anyone who asks to be told is not a right-minded person. Where is the evidence that opposition to Obama is primarily driven by racism? If you have to ask, you're probably incapable of understanding, and by virtue of raising the question have placed yourself under justifiable suspicion of being racist, or at minimum "racially insensitive."
And I was thinking about how someone on the right--me, for instance--would have an almost equal-but-opposite reaction to the meme, considering the statement laughable, believing in fact that Obama's presidency has done enormous harm to the country, and moreover that the reading of the widespread opposition to him as racist is itself an instance of the harm. I don't believe he would ever have been elected if he had not been officially black; he benefited greatly from the desire of white people, and not only white liberals, to feel good about themselves by voting for a black man. And he actually started out with a certain amount of good will from people who didn't vote for him, because of the hope of racial reconciliation his election represented.
Well, so much for that.
I ended up pondering, as I often do these days, the fact that the division between what we can loosely call the right and the left has reached a point where the two sides can't even talk to each other. (The role that the Internet has played in exacerbating the hostility is considerable, I think, but that's a topic for another day.)
So I sat down at my computer and looked in on Facebook, and one of the first things I saw was a link to this post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker from which the title of this post is taken. He's talking about moral disputes, not so much political ones, although the two are very much connected these days.
When such irrationality prevails it is impossible to have a discussion. There are no moorings. There is no foundation for a discussion. The only way one prevails in an argument where there is this atmosphere, is to shout louder than the other person, and finally to hit the other person.
And a week or so I'd read a similar thought from Michael Gerson, speaking of politics, specifically of the president's rhetoric on gun control.
But it matters when the president of the United States decides that democratic persuasion is a fool’s game. It encourages the kind of will-to-power politics we see on the left and right. In this view, opponents are evil — entirely beyond the normal instruments of reason and good faith. So the only option is the collection and exercise of power.
When the main players in our politics give up on deliberative democracy, it feels like some Rubicon is being crossed.
Indeed it does. I've thought for a long time that the country has reached a degree of division which is going to be very difficult or impossible to resolve, and I'm running across more and more people who who are of the same mind. It isn't only conservatives. I've seen similar comments on left-wing web sites, generally in a tone of rage. And I certainly don't see any sign on the left that any compromise or reconciliation is being considered, except in the sense that Obama generally means it, i.e., that the opposition should quit fighting.
For forty years or so we've talked about being in a culture war, but it's only a war because it involves more than culture: it involves law and governance and mutually exclusive demands of them. Two cultures might be able to coexist within a framework acceptable to both--and perhaps the American system should accommodate that, up to a point, a point where the two are operating on such different philosophical bases that they can't agree on the framework. And that's the point we've reached. It's more and more clear that whether or not that coexistence is possible in principle, it isn't going to be possible in practice. Some say that this war has already been won by the progressives, who are now enforcing their will on the losers. But that may not be so easy. The losers may not be the ruling class--they do not possess the dominant institutions--the government, the press, the academy, the entertainment industry. But there are an awful lot of them, and they're pretty angry. I wouldn't bet much on the proposition that the United States as we know it will exist a hundred years from now.
Speaking of anger: I think the idea of Donald Trump as president is preposterous, and will no doubt continue to think so even if it comes to pass. But to dismiss his support as "hate"--and of course, always, "racism"--is to fail to grasp what is really happening. Here's a good piece by William Voegeli at the Claremont Review on that topic:
Demagoguery flourishes when democracy falters. A disreputable, irresponsible figure like Donald Trump gets a hearing when the reputable, responsible people in charge of things turn out to be self-satisfied and self-deluded. The best way to fortify Trump’s presidential campaign is to insist his followers’ grievances are simply illegitimate, bigoted, and ignorant. The best way to defeat it is to argue that their justified demands for competent, serious governance deserve a statesman, not a showman.