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Mutual Contempt: A Portrait of Polarized America
Tuesday, 06 March 2007 11:27
by Andrew Bard Schmookler

Over the months, I’ve occasionally suggested that some of the people who have supported the Bushites are not altogether contemptible and evil people.

For example, in my call for a “prophetic social movement,” I said that we need to reach out to some of the decent people who have been “seduced” by the Bushites, “for if these good people can be helped to see that these emperors have no moral clothes, they will withdraw their support.”

In a subsequent piece to explain how the defects in the seduced play a role in their own seduction, I posed the puzzle in terms of “how it is that a disproportionate number of the most remarkably decent people I know voted to re-elect a president whose administration has been remarkable precisely for its lack of such decency.”

And most recently, I made an offhand (even parenthetical) remark to the effect that some good people subscribe to a conservative political ideology.

I wouldn’t think this would be so bold or controversial a position to take, but every time I say anything along these lines there are some –not so much here on NSB as on other, larger websites of the anti-Bushite movement– who come forward to pound me. Or more to the point, they’ve come forward to denounce in unequivocal terms the people whose redeeming virtues I’ve asserted.

These people are scum, some of these respondents assert. Their religious beliefs are worthy of nothing but scorn. Their political values are contemptible. They deserve no respect or regard of any kind.

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These denunciations ring a bell for me. I’ve heard such things not so long ago, but with an interesting twist.

I do a monthly radio show to an area of Virginia where I lived for a decade up until 2002. Virginia’s a conservative state, and this area is more conservative than most of the rest of the state. For the decade I lived there, I discussed hot-button political and moral controversies, trying to undo the damage done to the consciousness of much of that audience by demagogues and panderers like Rush Limbaugh. By the time I left, I had the feeling that I’d accomplished something.

But of course with the coming of the Bushites, the forces of rationality and open-mindedness and mutual respect were over-whelmed by the deliberate manipulations of Rovian propagandists, sowing hate and polarization and irrational patterns of thought.

In the face of that, I used one of my monthly radio shows to poses this question for discussion: “I’d like to ask you conservatives about how you regard liberals. [To them, “liberal” includes everything to the left.] To what extent do you regard them as your fellow citizens, with a legitimate point of view, whose concerns and values deserve to be taken into account in determining the destiny of America? And to what extent do you regard them as your enemies, who are so evil or misguided that their views should be disregarded and who should be vanquished as thoroughly as possible and rendered irrelevant to our collective decisions as a nation?”

In the first hour of this two-hour show, there were plenty of right-wingers willing to come forward and denounce liberals without reservation. “Criminal” was one of the words used to describe liberals. Others included “ignorant” and “irresponsible” and “selfish.”

The right-wingers’ attacks on “liberals” had very much the same tone and flavor as the left-wingers’ attacks on conservatives evoked whenever I’ve acknowledged any virtues among the people on the other side of our divided nation.

Which leads me to ask these questions:

What do you think happens to a country like ours when it’s divided into two polarized camps that see each other in terms of such mutual contempt?

Do you think that a democracy can function well in such a polarized social/cultural/political environment?

Whose interests do you think are best served when people on each side have no respect or regard for people on the other?

How do you think the emergence of this mutual contempt came about?

And if your goal is to help the values you most believe in, regarding the nature of America’s political process, to gain ground in America, what do you think should be done about this mutual contempt?


A final note: To be sure, the conservative/traditionalist side of America has in recent years made a moral error of a magnitude unprecedented in the history of our country. What error could be more serious than mistaking the evil for the good? Seeing this been very disturbing to many of the rest of us. (I’ve written about the traumatic impact of witnessing this disgraceful episode in my essay, “Why ‘Good Will Toward Men’ Has Become More of a Challenge for Me: My Christmas Thoughts,” which can be found at www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=399.

But does this justify holding them in unadulterated contempt?

For one thing, the liberal side of America –as I have been arguing since I first launched NoneSoBlind– made some important moral errors over the past couple of generations, with its rejection of whole categories of moral judgment, thus helping to create in many Americans that fear of moral anarchy that fascists have always exploited to rise to power.

For another thing, history shows that most groups of people, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, can manifest something ugly. But people’s worst potentialities are not all there is to them. Thus the fact that American conservatives have followed a leadership that has brought out their worst side does not mean that its fair or valid to reduce them to the parts of them that are most defective.

That’s the same thing that those right-wingers who called into my Virginia radio show were doing to liberals– seeing them only in terms of their defects.

What happens when each side thinks it has a monopoly on truth and virtue?
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