But there is also an issue here that I think needs exploring. Ive had my own journey on these issues, and it has led me to belief that the liberal belief in extending kindness and compassion to their opponents represents their embrace of what is really only a half-truth.
The issue of how to deal with opponents first occupied me when I saw, with alarm, what people like Rush Limbaugh were doing to our national discourse. By pandering to their supporters and abusing their opponents, people like Limbaugh were deliberately fostering polarization, deliberately making it impossible for constructive dialogue to transpire across our growing national divide.
Thats what led me to channel my own energies into talk radio, to try to create a different kind of conversation.
And in my travels around the country, I would sometimes present to liberal audiences a talk I called Beyond Dispute, talking about polarization and how it leads both sides to embody what are only half-truths. We are called, I would say, not to beat each other over the head with our half-truths, but rather to enter into genuine dialogue to work toward an integration in which the apparent contradictions of our polarized state would be resolved in a higher wisdom.
Then, on one occasion in California, a woman in the audience said something about how of course, we should always approach our adversaries with love and respect and a desire to find a common ground. And I found that something in this generalization felt too sweeping. Was this really always the best thing?
One side knows only how to treat its opponents as enemies; the other side knows only the virtues of compassion and respect. And just as wisdom on those other issues consists of some good integration of the half truths, so also in this domain wisdom consists of having both sets of tools in ones tool-box and having the good judgment to know which of the two, in a given situation, is the right one to use.
Its easy enough for us on the liberal side to see that theres something amiss with the tendency in many conservatives to treat every opponent as an enemy to be vanquished rather than as a fellow human being with whom to seek common ground. Just this summer, I did a radio show deep in Bush country in which I asked conservatives which of those approaches characterized how they thought liberals should be dealt with. It was harrowing to hear how many in that audience were ready unabashedly to say that liberals were bad or misguided people who should have no voice whatever in determining the course of our country. And, of course, this is how their leadership has been operating for some time now.
Whats not so clear to liberals is that there is a corresponding complementaryimbalance on their own side of the divide. In my answer to the woman in California, I said something about not being sure Id deal with the Nazis by seeking common ground. Sometimes, I said, ones opponent must simply be fought.
And that captures an important change in what I think is required now, in the age of Bushite rule, from what I thought was required in the 1990s, as these polarizing forces were rising but were not yet in power.
In the 1990s, the issue that concerned me was how to deal with our fellow Americans who were getting swept up into a righteous hysteria of Us-vs.-Them thinking. Not only did I think that my own political tribe had no monopoly on wisdom on many of the issues that divide us; I also thought that the people on the other side were not only in possession of a piece of the truth but were also people of good willsincerely trying, in their own way, to find what is right.
Our struggle against them ought not be conducted out of punitive rage; compassion for twisted human beings is, in my view, always in order. But the main order of business is to combat them through a campaign of truth told with integrity, so that they cease to be able to put their pernicious imprint upon the world we share.
While it is an error to treat every opponent as an enemy, it is no less an error to treat no opponent as an enemy. And I would suggest that the unbalanced half-truth of many liberals on this issue is a major contributor to the manifest impotence of American liberalism in the face of the evil forces that have taken over the country from the right. It should be no surprise that a group led by vicious partisans like Tom Delay might vanquish an opponent who believes in an unvarying obligation to be nice.