I’m a big fan of Jim Wright. He’s a writer and US Navy veteran who publishes Stonekettle Station, a blog about American politics. I absolutely love his writing… even if I don’t agree with what he writes 100% of the time (I think he’s dead wrong on Bradley Manning, for example.) But I respect what he writes, and I respect his opinions because not everyone is required to agree with me. In fact, a diversity of opinions in a constructive discourse is the very essence of democracy, and Jim Wright gets that.
Which is why his most recent blog post is upsetting to me. Earlier this week he wrote a fun, insightful piece he titled “Conservikaze”, about the showdown between the Tea Party and President Obama over Obamacare and the US government shutdown. I enjoyed it and agreed with about 90% of it. Tuesday’s blog post “Welcome to the Revolution” deals with the shitblizzard of right-wing abuse the earlier post triggered — as well as the political realities of mob rule by a cadre of apparently insane racists holding the US economy hostage over an idealogical debate that they’ve already lost.
Let me clarify: I’m not upset by anything that Mr. Wright put down in his blog; I’m upset by the threats and abuse he’s received for writing it. To me, this pretty much sums up the fundamental breakdown in the US political system — and by extension all the political systems of the Western world: people feeling the need to spew hateful abuse simply because they disagree with someone else’s opinions.
I write a lot of stuff on this blog simply because I’m trying to get shit straight in my head and because I like people reading what I write… and I have a sneaking suspicion that Jim Wright’s reasons are similar. (I’ve never met the guy, but I’ve read enough of his stuff to get a sense of his motivations… and we can smell our own.) What gets me is how much abuse he suffers because of it, and I rather admire his ability to let it roll off his back. Politics gets people worked up, so a certain thick skin is required, a certain attitude of “you can’t take it personally”, and a certain willingness to compartmentalize it and let politics be politics… which is easier said than done.
Case in point: My MP, the Right Honorable Dean del Mastro, has been charged with violating the Elections Act. Specifically, he’s been accused of exceeding spending limits to get elected and then deliberately falsifying documents to cover up that fact. That’s an extremely serious set of allegations. He’s facing jail time. And if he’s guilty, he damned well deserves jail time. Subverting the electoral process is the fastest way I can think of to undermine democracy and anyone convicted of it should be punished to the maximum extent of the law.
But here’s the thing: One of my good friends is also a friend of the del Mastro family. They’re conservative people, yes, but they’re also decent, well-meaning folks who stood by her during a rough time in her life. She’s upset because she knows Dean, and she knows how much distress this whole situation has caused — and will continue to cause — his family. And you know what? I sympathize, I really do: It has to hurt that Dean was forced to leave the Conservative Party caucus after literally decades of loyalty; it has to feel like he’s being thrown under the bus. Do I think he’s guilty? Well, we’ll find out at his trial, but I personally doubt that any prosecutor would charge the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary with electoral fraud unless they were extremely certain a conviction would result.
This is not a subject I can safely discuss with my friend… at least, not if we want to remain friends. I’m focussed on the political aspect of the situation and she’s focussed on the impact on people she personally knows and cares about. We are both right… and we’ve tacitly agreed to disagree and to let it lie because we respect each other and don’t want to damage our friendship over it. We are smart enough to know that, and we’ve made it work.
Back in my activist days I was surrounded by people who agreed with me. The uniformity of opinion among so many rugged leftist individualists was, in retrospect, darkly amusing. There was damn near a checklist that you had to work through in order to be a leftie: some of it was good sensible stuff, like being a feminist and an environmentalist; some it it was more involved, like learning an anti-oppression mindset; and some of it was a downright problematic, like being unquestioningly pro-Palestinian. The danger, of course, is that uniformity of opinion can rather easily become a rigid conformity… and then dogmatism.
I’ve seen it happen: I’ve watched otherwise intelligent people become more and more extreme and unquestioning in their beliefs, and the end result is usually a small group of isolated individuals who are no longer in sync with the larger community. The so-called Black Bloc protesters torching police cars at the Toronto G20 summit were a perfect example of this phenomenon; what the overall protest community needed (and were working towards) was a weekend of peaceful demonstration which would show that the government was wrong to spend a billion dollars on security: all that the small group of extremists proved was that the government crackdown and subsequent abuses of civil liberties by police were justified.
That’s what’s happening in the US right now… except that it’s not street protesters on the left making this disastrous mistake, it’s right-leaning congressmen. A street protester who doesn’t understand (or care about) the larger political realities and optics can torch a police car without heeding the enormous damage they’re doing to their own cause… and apparently a Tea Party congressman can torch an entire economy with the same mindset. The problem in both cases is the same: when you only listen to your opinions being reflected from and reinforced by people who agree with you there’s no incentive to modify (or moderate) your opinions.
A few years back on one my my favourite TV shows,(the tragically short-lived Sports Night) the actor Robert Guillaume uttered the line “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” I’ve pretty much internalized that one, and I’m glad I have, because getting involved in an organization as broadly diverse as the Society for Creative Anachronism has exposed me to an awful lot of people who are not left-leaning student activists.
Likewise, I don’t always agree with Jim Wright, but I always enjoy reading his opinions: a day with a new Stonekettle Station post is a good day for me. He’s articulate, a skilled writer, and is coming from a radically different background than I am (and of course I read a lot of other bloggers about whom I can say the same things.) The points Wright makes are invaluable additions to the political discourse… and even if I disagree with any specific point he deserves better than ignoramuses (ignoramii?) heaping badly-spelled abuse on him. (I do enjoy his erudite counter-abuse of his abusers, but then we all need our guilty little pleasures.)
You don’t have to agree with me. I don’t have to agree with you. I’ve got lots of friends, some of them very good friends, whose political opinions are absolutely mind-boggling to me. Honestly, I’ve had a couple of moments lately where I’ve had to catch myself just before I shouted in a friend’s face “But how can you believe that? You’re a good person!” And you know what? They are good people. They also disagree with me. It might be a source of amazement to some, but one of the fundamental truths of this world is that good people who disagree with me are still good people… and being disagreed-with doesn’t necessarily imply that I’m a bad person either.
I could, for example, simply be wrong. It happens occasionally.
Or we could both be wrong. Or, as in the case of my friend who knows our MP personally, we could both be right but from different points of view. This is why it’s so important to respect other people’s views, and to value a diversity of opinions. Because it’s almost never as simple as right and wrong… and even when it is there’s still people involved, which tends to complicate matters even at the best of times.
If you’re smart, surround yourself with (or at least read the writing of) smart people who disagree with you… so what does it say about you if you think that anyone who disagrees with you can’t possibly be smart?