Friday, 7 January 2005

Cross-Ideological Alliances

With divisive partisanship, culture wars, and worldview analysis all seemingly on the increase, is there reason to hope for moderation, compromise, and indeed simply the willingness for those on different sides of a debate to acknowledge some truth in the arguments of their adversaries? My take is that there is always hope - at least long term - for forward steps toward healing, understanding, and enlightenment. More often than not enlightenment implies a realization that some assumption one has been operating under is either mistaken or incomplete. Enlightenment therefore is more likely to come by reading and paying attention to views which are contrary to one's own. It does not necessarily mean "switching sides", though it may mean realizing that the accepted separation into sides is a false one.

I have recently discovered an ideological soul mate in David Brin, who asks:
With whom should you ally yourself? Someone who shares your immediate political campaign, while disagreeing with you utterly over long-term goals? Or someone who shares your deep agenda for a better world, but disagrees over immediate tactics?

Most people -- when it is posed that way -- choose the latter. After all, tactics are a matter for pragmatic debate. We can try out all sorts of methods. Success may call for a mix of your way and mine.
When conservatives argue that there's a tendency among liberal academics to subscribe to certain orthodoxies about what is true, and what can be mockingly dismissed, they are largely correct. Of course they don't as readily see the same phenomenon operating on their side of the fence. They are aware of all the differences of opinion there, which are freely aired, just as the academics are keenly aware of their own differences among themselves. On both sides however, there are subjects which are taboo - but shouldn't be.

There is an understandable concern that ceding certain points is strategically dangerous, because "the other side isn't going to give an inch, so we can't afford to." This sort of turf protection, though, is short-sighted and forces people into silly corners where they are left defending indefensible positions.

In the run up to last year's election, in spite of my dismay that it wasn't blazingly obvious to most sensible people, regardless of how they self-identified, that Bush was a dangerous choice, I discovered that the constellation of people with whom I can most naturally relate included a fair number who made (sometimes nuanced!) decisions to support Bush. As perplexing as their choice may be to me, it is nonetheless very encouraging to know there is potential for dialog across this divide.

There are two sides to what has been referred to as polarization in our society. To be sure the vilification of the other which accompanies it, is hurtful and stymies progress toward solutions. But if passion can be harnessed with calm reason, people will realize that there are areas of agreement. Natural cross-ideological alliances can be nurtured to bring change that most will be happy with, and good can happen even in the darkest times.

For example, we can look for allies on "the right" who agree that the worst examples of corporate wrong-doing often need much stronger penalties. I look at the successes of Eliot Spitzer in reining in excesses in the financial industry. This interview of James Cramer by David Brancaccio on NOW was instructive:
BRANCACCIO: You're a man who has long experience hanging out with captains of industry, people in the business community. What do they tell you when the name Eliot Spitzer comes up in conversation?

CRAMER: If they're in a group, they'll tell me that he's the Anti-Christ. If they're individual and we're alone at a bar, best thing. Best thing that ever happened. Because for the most part people want to be good, but whole cultures have flourished where the people who are honest don't do as well as the people who are dishonest. I think that Eliot is changing the calculus back to where the honesty is rewarded and the dishonest is out of favor again. Most people want to be honest.

And while seeking areas where our supposed adversaries, are actually inclined at some level to agree with us, we should be willing to cede areas where those traditionally thought of as "the other side" have the stronger argument. For instance, we can acknowledge that there are indeed plenty of individual regulations, such as the total ban on DDT, which were in retrospect too onerous, and need revision. There is a temptation to see every potential concession as a bargaining chip, but every instance where we defend a weak position in anticipation of a trade, becomes instead a liability which can be used to tarnish the whole of what are important principles.

So while I won't shy away, for now, from referring to myself as liberal or progressive, the label should never substitute for particulars, and if you catch me bending to orthodoxy rather than reason, please challenge me.

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