Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Road Ahead

Politics is clearly on the top of the agenda these days. But there are very different ways of doing and thinking about politics. On the one side are those whose political opponents are their enemies. They are the good people; their own opinions are correct. People who disagree are bad and dead wrong.
On the other side are those who understand that if we are going to live together in a democracy, that is if we are going to govern ourselves together then we must be able to work together and before we work together we need to be able to talk to each other. The slogan here is: “let’s come together.”
That is an important recommendation, but what exactly do we have to do to come together? It is important to ask and to answer that question. If we don’t, if we do not understand the next step, we will be frustrated and, after it while, angry and that leads to destructive politics.
Here is how this talk about “coming together” goes off the rails very quickly. We conclude that in order to come together we must avoid being hostile, we must not exclude anyone and therefore not build a wall between the United States and Mexico or refuse to allow Muslims to come to this country or, if they are already here, make them register. But now the idea of coming together just shows that we have been right all along, that some of the central demands President Trump and his folk are unjustified.
Others may interpret " coming together" as an affirmation that women should have control over their bodies and their reproductive choices, or that different forms of sexuality should all be legitimate. Such an interpretation of course would not sit well with the opponents of abortion or with people troubled by the legalization of gay marriage. Giving this interpretation to " coming together" would make it very difficult to form a unified opposition to the current Administration in Washington to include groups with whom we do not agree on everything.
Finally, some people may identify "coming together" with working in electoral campaigns, with recommending over and over that people go to the polls and vote. That would exclude the people who believe that political demonstrations are extremely important and that sometimes resistance has to be openly violent, or at least leave open the possibility of violence when protesters state their views strongly and publicly.
If we are reaching for unity we have to acknowledge that we have very different ideas about the appropriate forms of political action. A unified movement must find ways for these different tactics to be employed.
It is not difficult to see that identifying our specific views on controversial topics as “coming together” is an attempt to impose our world view on others. This line of talk will not bring anyone together except those who are together already. We cannot very well pretend to try to come together with those who think differently from us if all we’re doing is repeating once again what we believe to be true and good.
When we try to explain what it means to “come together” we often call for holding a conversation. We need to talk to the people who disagree with us. But what sort of shape will that conversation take? Proposals for conversations are often animated by the hope that if we can just sit down with people who see the world very differently from us we can persuade them to change their mind, to come over to our beliefs. We are not really hoping that the others will persuade us, that we will emerge from this conversation condemning abortion and gay marriage or shouting “America First!” or insisting that working in elections are the only proper tactic for political activists.
But this hope for a conversation that will overcome significant differences among us by bringing everybody around to see that we are right is, of course, a fantasy through which we avoid facing how serious the differences are in our nation. Would that our differences and difficulties were that easy to resolve!
There are people who have thought about this problem for a very long time and this is what they often suggest: people who hold to very different principles and who therefore may very well have different styles of talking and expressing themselves should be asked to talk to their political opponents. Some of them and some of us may well be willing to give that a try, even if we are not optimistic about the outcome.
We would talk not about what we disagree about because we understand that to be a waste of time. The question would instead be: are there projects we would be willing and able to cooperate on? In some places pro-choice and pro-life women have come together in projects aiming at preventing unwanted pregnancies or facilitating adoption for women who do not choose, for whatever reason, to raise the children they are giving birth to. It may be possible that individuals who have very different views of immigrants may still want to help immigrants already here to flourish and to become productive citizens. Persons who have very different ideas about the causes and remedies of poverty, may nevertheless want to cooperate to make sure that poor children get enough to eat.
We live in the same country and we participate in the same institutions. We share many common concerns. We can only cooperate to address these concerns if we talk to each other and foster cooperation even among people who disagree profoundly and may be inclined to distrust one another. That would be one way of coming together.
We can do this and secretly hope that after a long time of working together, we might have some good conversations not in order to persuade one another but in order to understand better how these people we have come to like and trust in the course of our common projects could have beliefs which we find quite wrong and, frankly, unattractive. But for the time being we need to be content to create projects on which persons of very different persuasion can learn to cooperate and learn to trust one another.