Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Left and Right

Most of my adult life I've been on what is called, in our degraded political language, "the left."

That is, I was in favor of protecting the environment from rapacious exploitation, of an economy with safety nets and protection for the little guys against unscrupulous corporate predators. I led editorial battles to save farmland and woods from suburban sprawl. A $50 million bond issue to save open space in one county passed, in part, because of editorials I wrote about it. I've spent hours and dollars working to keep religious fundamentalists from taking over local school boards (a much more important job than simply bashing on Jerry Falwell). I've advocated for minorities and sick Vietnam veterans. I sought to vote for statesmen who would offer a generous foreign policy that shared America's good fortune with the world. I was in favor of Enlightenment virtues and freedoms in opposition to fundamentalist strictures and darkness, peaceful solutions over violent ones.

Which means I spent much of the '80s and '90s in active, public disputation with "the right." When I thought of "them" I pictured zealous, pious, ignorant, self-assured demagogues of crusading ideologies, inflexible mean men clad in expensive suits and cheap ethics.

Yet, as a small-town newspaper editor, the people I dealt with on the "right," with three or four odious exceptions, were fine and decent. The head of the local anti-abortion group was a soft-spoken young widowed mother of two. A school-prayer advocate was a cheerfully avuncular man who always asked about my son and would as gladly sit in my office and chat about the things we agreed on -- such as the genius of George Washington -- as the ones we didn't. The ex-mayor, a hardcore law-and-order cop, used to regale me with sotires of law enforcement in the old days. I welcomed visits and phone calls from them.

I still hate SUVs and corporate malfeasance, executives who jilt retirees out of their hard-earned savings and foul the waters. I still think police should be held to a high standard in exchange for the power we grant them. I'm still a friend of freedoms and Enlightenment values, and an ally of whoever embraces them, in whatever place or culture. I reject the notion of school prayer as a panacaea for society's ills. I think abortion is tragic, but a necessary evil.

In other words, I still disagree with my old enemies. But on one major issue, I've come down on the other side from my former friends.

After much studying and soul-searching, I came to the conclusion that the world probably, and Iraqis definitely, would be better off if the U.S. used its military might for once to remove a corrupt fascist who had been occasionally useful to us. He was our mess, largely, so it was our job to clean him out.

On a larger scale, I'm one of those who believes America is at war, and ought to behave like it, since Sept. 11. Many people seem to regard that attack not as a second Pearl Harbor, but as an "isolated incident." I do not.

It strikes me as a decision a principled man could possibly make. But it doesn't strike my liberal friends that way. I understand their vexation, but they can only see venality and psychopathia in me.

And having once stood on the other side from them, and seen them in that perspective, I can't imagine going back to their camp (not that they are inviting me back).

Every day I have to go to work and sit there with my mouth shut, for the sake of peace -- yes, peace -- and listen to a half dozen thoughtless people talk very, very loudly about things they know very little about. They are obsessed with Bush, who is the throbbing boil that collects their systematic hatred of something I can't quite figure out, but seems to include the United States, the idea of power, and authority figures in general.

All they read is "Stupid Bushisms" Web sites and e-mail forwards. They wouldn't know where to look for Samuel Huntington in bookstore. They couldn't find an average Iraqi's blog on the Internet. I doubt they can name a single Iranian legislator or begin to describe the difference between Twelve Imam Shiism and the Seven Imam variety.

I have to hear these people explain that it everything done by the current administration is the work of madmen and fools who follow them. They give detailed theories of the kind of venality or pathology that is the only possible explanation for why anyone would agree with Bush that deposing Saddam Hussein was a good thing. They gloat over deaths of Americans in Iraq, heedless of the fact that other people we work with have sons in the Army over there.

I give money every month to humanitarian groups working in Iraq. For all their supposed sympathy and solidarity with the "oppressed" people of that land, my anti-war co-workers wouldn't give a dime to buy a schoolbook or a pump filter for Kurdish villagers. Because doing so would "help Bush." They don't care a fig for the intellectual class in Baghdad -- the people who share their values. They only wait impatiently for the country to dissolve in chaos so they can crow about how right they were all along.

People generally are reasonable, pragmatic and practical when they have the power and the opportunity to effect their policies. When the world is going their way, they are good-natured. When it's not and they feel powerless, they get strident and negative. The apoplectic rage against Bill Clinton in 1999 was a good example.

For the anti-war people today, the world is not going their way. The war happened (whether they know it or not -- they still carry "no war" signs every weekend), and it was not the quagmire they wanted it to be. Iraq is about to have the most progressive constitution in the Arab world. Yet the people on the local right in the '80s were not getting their way, either. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, but he wasn't actively pushing a social conservative agenda. Abortion and pornography were legal. School prayer wasn't.

On the whole, my old adversaries never forgot that their opponents were human beings. And thus they never stopped being human themselves. I wish I could say the same of the self-proclaimed humanists around me today.

"The death of the paranoid style would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to people with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant." [Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics"]