Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fear and Loathing in American Politics

I've been thinking a lot about the stuff that's been going on in American politics recently: the health care debates, the speech to school children, the guy who called Obama a liar in Congress. Partisanship, political divisions and racism are heating up to the point where it scares me.

There have definitely been insults hurled and accusations made that don't deserve serious debate or argument (the whole "Obama is secretly a Kenyan Muslim" thing being the most obvious to come to mind). But I really think the problem is that neither side makes an effort to understand the other. People tend to camp themselves in either the left or the right at a very young age and stick with it. Having a political position is fine: good, even. But refusing to make a serious effort to empathize with and learn about the arguments made by the other side is dangerous.

I read this essay by Mark Lilla today called "Taking the Right Seriously" and it really made an impression on me. He argues that it hurts liberals to teach courses that treat conservative thought as a pathology, and that it hurts conservatives to engage in a liberal academic witch hunt. He wrote about a professor, Paul Lyons, who taught a course on American conservative thought:

"The students had loud debates over Reagan's legacy, Bush's foreign policy, religious freedom, abortion, even the "war on Christmas"—and nobody broke into tears or ran to the dean to complain. And the more the students argued, the more they came to respect one another. According to Lyons, students learned that that conservative guy was no longer just the predictable gun nut or religious fanatic. And the conservative students learned that they had to make real arguments, not rely on clich├ęs and sound bites recycled from Fox News."

Saying universities are full of lefties and socialists is kind of a cliche. But I had plenty of undergraduate classes where the reading lists didn't have one single book or article that didn't come from a leftist point of view. And, to be fair, I'd be willing to bet the opposite is true of the schools in the United States that have abstinence-only sex ed and teach creationism in science classes.

This is how you explain conservatives in the US calling liberals terrorists and commies, and liberals calling conservatives fascists and nazis. It doesn't get anyone anywhere. It breeds hate and hysteria. But if you're only exposed to one side of the argument, that's all you know how to do.

I'm not sure how you break the cycle. But it's a serious problem, and it's not just an American problem. I'd like to take a class like the one described above. I bet a lot of other people would too.

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