America is bitterly divided between left and right with each side showing blatant distrust of the other. Liberals are concerned that Republicans are going to create a Khomeini-style theocracy, robbing women of their right to choose an abortion and shoving God down people’s throats. Conservatives are equally frightened that liberals want to make America into a heathen and sinful Bohemian cesspool.
About the only thing the two sides agree on is the preservation of the Union. No one is advocating that America split into red and blue states. Even if we do not come together, we dare not tear the country apart. But the biggest impediment to greater national harmony is the mutual fear that each side has for the other.
Whereas love is the glue that holds things together, fear is the antigravity that tears everything apart. America will continue to bleed so long as the two sides continue to be so panicked. It is time that we faced our fear.
I am in a unique position to advocate a coming together of left and right. While I am conservative on most social and political issues, I served for 11 years as rabbi at Oxford University, one of the most liberal bastions on earth. I succeeded in building lasting friendships with people who utterly disagreed with me. I did so because I still believed that they had something to teach me and I showed them the respect of an equal.
Many of my former students at Oxford have gone on to important and responsible positions in areas of academia, media and politics. Some have become pillars of the liberal establishment. Yet all remain on warm and friendly terms with me because, while they are opposed to my enthusiasm for President Bush and his doctrine of pre-emption, they know me. They ate at my table. They know my commitment to decency, and I too know their heart.
The biggest problem facing America is that people on the left and the right no longer know each other, and ignorance is the ultimate breeding ground for fear. They have virtually no interaction. Liberals and conservatives live in different cities. They have different radio networks to listen to. They even vacation in different watering holes.
The result is that many conservatives demonize every liberal as being like Michael Moore, and many liberals are convinced that every conservative is Ann Coulter. And how would each side know that there are many decent folks on the other side if all they are the caricatures?
Whereas anger is an emotion that increases through speech, fear is an emotion that diminishes with conversation. The more you talk about what makes you angry, the madder you become. But the more you talk about the things that make you afraid, the quicker they dissolve. On the contrary, fear is an emotion that grows not with action, but with thought, and we must therefore prevent our imagination from getting carried away with itself.
I believe that President Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy should join together to launch a national initiative encouraging Democrats and Republicans to invite one another to dinner in their respective homes. How sad that conservatives today only enjoy other conservatives company, that religious-minded people only want to hang out with fellow people of faith. How tragic that so many of my liberal friends consciously avoid having any social interaction with conservative colleagues from work and demonize them in their minds as fiends.
At Oxford, I pioneered weekly Friday-night dinners that brought together hundreds of students from every facet of life. Although it was our weekly Jewish Sabbath meal, we had hundreds of non-Jewish students representing 20-odd countries on any given week. I have continued the practice at my home, where every week at our home at least half the Sabbath table is not Jewish.
Although I am (mostly) a conservative talk-radio host, my dinners are mostly comprised of liberals, a vestige of my Oxford days and the fact that I live in the Northeastern United States. Besides, do I really want the boredom of only surrounding myself with people who agree with me? I always feel bad for Rush Limbaugh – whose radio show I otherwise so admire – when his ditto-head callers phone in to rubber-stamp his opinions. It is so much more gratifying to be challenged. The same is true with the guests you have over for dinner.
The Weekly Standard, which I read religiously every week, recently advertised a boat cruise for “fellow conservatives.” It would be far more interesting to have liberals at the lectures of the Standard’s editors, and hear them challenged and debated.
I can see conservative talk-radio hosts really getting behind this dinner initiative by encouraging their following to “take a liberal home with you,” while the Al Franken’s of the world can call inspire their liberal listeners to be courageous and allow a conservative to invade your home. We are all God’s children, are we not?
I mean, even Yankee and Boston Red-Sox fans sit in the same stadiums watching baseball, right? A grass-roots movement of national unity is the best way to counter the splintering of America. There is simply nothing as powerful as two men or two women who disagree with one another discovering mutual warmth over a glass of wine, even if they sharply disagree.
By discovering each other’s humanity, we come to the realization of the need for a two-party state not just to prevent tyranny, but to ensure dynamic tension. Rather than tolerating or stomaching each other’s differences, we have to come to the realization that we are enriched through difference.
Tolerance is actually a repugnant idea, implying as it does the need to suffer someone else’s presence. America is great specifically because of its left and right factions, which have always existed. Some of the best ideas that have come to conservatives have been generated by wishing to correct what they saw as liberal excess, and the same is true of the reverse.
I am a morally minded, passionately religious citizen of the United States, and I have fought hard for America to be a more Godly country. But I am well aware that countries that have had only religious tendencies have in the past descended into dangerous intolerance. Conversely, if America were comprised strictly of liberal and secular citizens, it could easily become a country without any permanent values. Having the two sides may create tension, as they rub against one another, but it is healthy friction, so long as it is motivated by principal and conviction rather than by hatred and fear.
I confess to a strong distaste for many of the activities of the American Civil Liberties Union. To many of us on the right, they seem intent on erasing God from the public arena. And yet, I have sometimes argued with airport security about not wanting to take off my shoes – or some such – and I have been amazed at how quickly they can threaten me with arbitrary arrest. And it is at moments like this that I remember that there must be organizations that are vigilant about protecting civil liberties.
Once the two sides overcome their mutual fear of the other destroying the country and begin to recognize the need for the other in order to create a more wholesome society, they can begin to speak to, rather than harangue, each other. Abortion, arguably the most divisive of all political issues, is a powerful case in point.
If religious conservatives ceased seeing liberals as Godless narcissists indifferent to human life, but rather as civil libertarians intent on protecting a woman’s rights, they might begin addressing them in a language of rights to which they may be more open. Women have a right to say no to selfish womanizers who only want to sleep with them for their own pleasure, and then promptly discard them – a situation that leads to most abortions in America.
Conversations like these many not lead to agreement on both sides, but they will allow the dialogue to begin.