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Bill Buckley and Saul Alinsky walk into a bar ...

I watched a most interesting video the other day. It was of two men who, perhaps more than any other, represented (and continue to represent from the grave) their respective philosophies par excellence: William Buckley and Saul Alinsky. Rarely had I seen such an unlikely and mismatched pair conversing together. But to make matters even stranger, it was on Buckley’s show at the time, “Firing Line.” Buckley had actually invited Saul Alinsky onto his show and for rather long stretches of time shut his mouth and let Alinsky speak from that platform to explain his beliefs. Then they conversed, probing each other and their respective ideas. It was almost like peering into an alternate universe.

Does something like this happen today? Of course, conservatives and liberals “talk” all the time on news shows, but do they actually converse? On a trip to the Middle East, a friend asked me if I had ever heard of a “Middle Eastern dialogue.” I replied that I hadn’t, and he proceeded to inform me that a “Middle Eastern dialogue” was actually two people engaging in a monologue at the same time – perhaps an apt description for much of the talking that goes on between conservatives and liberals in the media of our own country today.

The fact is that today, a lot of talking is going on, but very little conversing. We, as a society, are losing the ability to engage in conversation. Talking and conversing are drastically different activities. Talking is geared toward being heard, while conversation is geared toward listening. Talking is gauged toward the imposition of a view; conversation is gauged toward an exchange of views. Talking does not require us to affirm or respect the common humanity of those with whom we vehemently disagree and thus allows us to treat them as somehow slightly less the human. In fact, a recent conservative book was entitled “How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them.” Conversation, on the other hand, is geared not toward destroying your opponent, or even “winning” an argument against him (how does one define “winning” anyway?), but understanding him better and vice versa.

But unfortunately, true conversation has almost come to mean “compromise” today. This could not be further from the truth. Was Buckley compromising with Alinsky? Was he somehow abrogating his conservative values? No. On the contrary, he was exemplifying his conservative values by his steadfast commitment to the free exchange of ideas. He was not offended by Alinsky having different ideas than him. A conservative understands human nature and that differing ideas are inevitable. As such, Buckley had countless numbers of people on his show, by invitation, who were not just mildly different from him in their beliefs, but diametrically opposed, and he gave them a fair hearing. But the point of the fair hearing was not to give them a soapbox but to engage with them in conversation, and in his famously erudite way, Buckley was then able to ask serious, substantive and necessary questions of his opponents, something that could not have happened had he not shown the grace and class of inviting them on his show in the first place, and daring to let them speak. To this day, one of the best ways of hearing a liberal express his actual views in a blaringly honest way is to look at the archives of “Firing Line.” What an achievement.

This deficit in the ability to converse is not confined to right or left, conservative or liberal, but has nearly overtaken our society as a whole. Yes, we have the conservative and the liberal on the talk show, but are they really engaging in substantive conversation, or just an exchange of zingers? Are they really trying to understand each other, or just appear to one-up their opponent while they are both having their 15 seconds of fame on national television? I leave this to you to decide.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the word “convert” is nearly buried within “conversation.” Only through conversation can we ever hope to convince others to join our side and see the efficacy of our ideas and their power to change the lives of ordinary people, rich people, black people, white people and purple people for the better. Simply talking at someone, which typically has as its goal “winning” the argument, is quite ill-prepared to do so. On the other hand, conversing with someone, not with the intention of winning, but of understanding, is usually the first step toward ultimately winning over an opponent on the other side!

I challenge everyone to watch some of the old Presidential debates: Kennedy vs. Nixon, Reagan vs. Carter, Reagan vs. Mondale and even Bush vs. Dukakis. One will notice the very same phenomena in all of these debates – compared to today, they are not only far more substantive, but far more collegial. The point of the debates were to give the American people a better idea of what each candidate stood for. Whereas today, post-debate discussion is typically centered around the “zingers” each was able to spew out, back then, “zingers” played a relatively minor role in the debates. Just recently I watched the Reagan-Mondale debate again, and both, even while criticizing their opponents, did so in a collegial way, and at the same time expressed friendship and respect. On occasion, they even expressed full-throated support for what their opponent said – they were not afraid to point out when they agreed. They may have despised each other behind closed doors, but when they engaged in civic discussion, they did so civilly and substantively.

The facts are that many of us on the right have lost this ability, or even the willingness to try it. Just like our opponents on the left, we would rather caricature and malign those we disagree with, rather than recognize we actually have a lot more in common than we may realize, and that we can be friendly and civil while at the same time playing out our gladiatorial combat in the arena of ideas. The other side may not do this, but we can, and we’ll win converts if we do.

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