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To Deal With Opponents, Liberals Need not just Bridge-Building Tools, But Battle-Waging Tools as Well

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In response to the piece I recently published on this site --on the need for a "prophetic" social movement to speak moral truth to amoral power""several people wrote to me about the need to speak to our opponents with respect and compassion, to honor the god within each of them, and otherwise to make sure that these opponents feel well-treated in how we speak with them. Up to a point, I agree with them.

But there is also an issue here that I think needs exploring. I've 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.

That's what led me to channel my own energies into talk radio, to try to create a different kind of conversation.

At the beginning of my own shows, which were broadcast in a very conservative part of the country, I would speak about wanting for us to talk together in a spirit of "genuine inquiry," in a spirit of "mutual respect," "as if we might actually learn something from one another.

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?

Upon reflection, I came to see that this issue of how to deal with opponents was actually just another instance around which our cultural polarization had pulled things apart into half-truths. Just as America has tended to polarize into camps on issues like rights vs. responsibilities, liberty vs. order, compassion vs. judgment, so also have we polarized into two unwise camps on the issue of how to deal with opponents.

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 one's tool-box and having the good judgment to know which of the two, in a given situation, is the right one to use.

It's easy enough for us on the liberal side to see that there's 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.

What's not so clear to liberals is that there is a corresponding -complementary""imbalance on their own side of the divide. In my answer to the woman in California, I said something about not being sure I'd deal with the Nazis by seeking common ground. Sometimes, I said, one's 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 will""sincerely trying, in their own way, to find what is right.

With the Bushites, the consistent pattern of destructive and dishonest behavior tells me that we are no longer facing people of good will. We are facing, regrettably, an actual enemy. And our job with the likes of Tom Delay and Karl Rove is not to find common ground, not to appeal to the better angels of their nature, but to overcome them.

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.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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