When it comes to political debate in this country, that tendency to demonize the opposition is almost a knee-jerk reaction. If someone disagrees with us, it MUST be because they are evil - or at least have evil intentions. This is why political debate - whether its Democrats vs Republicans, Obamarox vs Obamasux, or any other variation - becomes so personal and toxic. It is assumed that we not only disagree, but that our opponent exhibits moral failings that must be called into question.
Once that kind of discussion gets going, our job is to find as much evidence as possible to caricature our opponent's moral failings and put as much distance as possible between them and us. Our ultimate goal becomes to defeat them by any means necessary. We are justified in doing so because our cause is righteous.
Almost as much as teapublicans, the folks that ignite this kind of reaction from me are the ones I sometimes call the "dudebros"....Glenn Greenwald as exhibit A. Of course Greenwald's stock-in-trade is the demonization of his opponents, so its almost impossible to not respond in kind. But take a look at how President Obama responded in his interview with Charlie Rose at the height of the controversy over the Snowden/Greenwald revelations.
I've got to tell you though Charlie, I think this is a healthy thing because its a sign of maturity that this debate would not have been taking place 5 years ago. And I welcome it. I really do because - contrary to what some people think - the longer I'm in this job the more I believe on the one hand, that most folks in government are trying to do the right thing. They work really hard, they're really dedicated...On the other hand, what I also believe is its useful to have a bunch of critics out there who are checking government power and who are making sure we are doing things right so that if we've triple-checked how we're operating any one of these programs, lets go quadruple-check it. I'm comfortable with that and I'm glad to see that we are starting to do that.To those of us who not only disagree with Greenwald but fantasize about him going up in flames, this is pretty maddening. It reminds me of how Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about his feelings about Martin Luther King, Jr. during his younger days.
King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.We all know that MLK's belief in white people NEVER meant that he accepted their racism. What we're talking about here is not appeasement or simply giving in to their arguments. I'd suggest that its all about that "bet that they are no different" from us that is the point. And no matter how much we disagree, we all share this in common.
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?And so, what President Obama (and MLK and Mandela) know is that no matter how strong our disagreements are with one another, we not only share the capacity for evil deeds, but for good as well. Here's how James Kloppenberg described what President Obama does with that awareness.
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Although Obama’s reform agenda echoes aspects of those advanced by many Democrats over the last century, he has admitted—and this is the decisive point in understanding his outlook—that his opponents hold principles rooted as deeply in American history as his own. “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him,” he wrote in Audacity. “That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.” Obama rejects dogma, embraces uncertainty, and dismisses the fables that often pass for history among partisans on both sides who need heroes and villains, and who resist more-nuanced understandings of the past and the present.Just as demonizing an opponent puts more distance between them and us, empathy looks for common ground. In one of my favorite speeches that President Obama has ever given, he laid out the challenge to an audience of primarily black people at a celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday.
But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes – a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.Yeah, all that sounds nice and pretty...until you ask me to apply it to someone like John Boehner or Glenn Greenwald, then it makes me "suck my teeth." It's so damn hard. But its also what made people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela such great leaders. And I suspect its also at the heart of what makes President Barack Obama one as well.
It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see past our differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. But what makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart – that puts up walls between us.
We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don’t think like us or look like us or come from where we do...
So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others – all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.
Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts.