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*Contra Gentes*: Left and Right, The Challenge of Listening

Posted on Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 09:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments4 Comments

I’m not big on political commentary in this journal, for the same reason that I’m dubious about the rightness of voting.

Nonetheless, I think it’s important to pay attention to the tidal flows of secular political culture, if for no other reason, then because we as Friends are called to minister to the people who’ve let their heads get sucked into that culture.

Friends, if you haven’t already noticed it, I’d like to call your attention to the discussion currently swirling about conservative columnist Rod Dreher’s confession on National Public Radio the day before yesterday.

What Dreher confessed to all the world was that George W. Bush’s adventurism in Iraq is beginning to make him think that maybe the hippies were right after all.

You can read a transcript of the highlights of Dreher’s confession, and an excellent terse essay putting it into perspective, on Glenn Greenwald’s blog “Unclaimed Territory”. I highly recommend that you take a look at that essay first, and then come back here for the rest of what I have to share.

(Back already? Great! I will continue —)

What you’ve doubtless already noticed, without any help from me, is that while Dreher may be complaining about Bush’s failings, he’s not about to turn liberal. He’s still more or less as jingoistic as the next neo-con; he’s just angry at Bush because he feels that the U.S. should win its wars, not flub them.

Bush’s crime in Dreher’s eyes is not his decision to make war on the enemy that took down the World Trade Center, but his act of blundering into a quagmire where he made the U.S. look foolish — just like that dreadful President Carter did during the Iran hostage crisis. What Dreher is agreeing with the “hippies” about is not their anti-war, anti-imperialism stance (the one that brought out half a million of them to demonstrate before the White House in 1970), but their skepticism of authority in general and government in particular.

And in fact, this is no real change of heart for Dreher, although some liberal commentators are leaping to proclaim it as such. Dreher has long been forthright in explaining that he embraces some ideas popularly associated with “hippies” and the left, for conservative-Christian, not “hippie” or left-wing, reasons.

Which brings me to a quite devastating commentary by one of those “hippie” people — Barbara O’Brien’s response on her site “The Mahablog”.

O’Brien’s point is that conservatives never did grasp what liberalism and “hippies” are really about. The conservatives always thought they were about big government, excessive taxation, doomed entitlement programs, and fluffy-bunny responses to enemies abroad. The actual “why” of the liberal position on each of these matters always escaped them. It still escapes Dreher, too, for all his vaunted re-thinking of the issues.

Is there any liberal Quaker reading this, who doesn’t wish the right wing would listen to their “whys” for once, and not just caricature their positions?

But is it too much to point out that liberals, including Quaker liberals, overlook the conservative “whys” and caricature the conservative positions in the very same way?

Consider the intelligent, well-educated Quaker RichardM’s recent essay on his blog “A Place to Stand”. His explanation of the Enlightenment (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century movement in Western thinking) is first-rate. But he mis-hears George W. Bush’s version of Christianity, and mis-hears and caricatures the fundamentalist position.

Or consider my dialogue with Pam in the comments to my recent essay “Meeting for Worship; Meeting for Business” right here on this site. Pam’s support for the liberal values of free-thinking, independence, and skepticism regarding organized religion, is wise and admirable, and I will say nothing against those values or against her. But in her righteous defense of them, she finds it difficult to grasp the (to her) unexpected “whys” of traditional Quakerism, and repeatedly caricatures them without intending to.

Both sides have problems hearing the position of the other side. — No, dear heaven, let me rephrase that, because there are more than two “sides” in the world, and I myself am not innocent of the sin I’m describing here. I had to be taught how to hear liberals by my classmates at Harvard in the Sixties, and I had to be taught how to hear conservatives by my Quaker friends in the Nineties, and I still make blunders of my own in both departments. I can testify from my own struggles that every “side”, not excepting my own, has trouble hearing the people it is on the “other side” from. Merely to be on a “side”, any side at all, is to make it hard for yourself to listen.

Dreher himself has spent a lot of time and effort in the last year or so, talking about this failure of listening. For example, in this interview with GodSpy.com’s Angelo Matera:

Dreher: For too many of us on the right, calling something liberal and making fun of it is a way of avoiding having to question our own prejudices.

Matera: In other words, if liberals like it, we hate it?

Dreher: Yeah. It’s reactionary. Liberals are the same way—checking any new idea against their knee-jerk ideological sense, and rejecting it out of hand, often based on superficial reasons.

And he gets down to concrete examples. Consider this, from the same interview:

Dreher: …There was a woman, an animal rights nut, who’d be out … every Saturday, and she’d see people walking by with kids, and she’d scream, “breeders, breeders, you’re ruining the world for the animals.” That was my view of people who stood up for animal welfare.

Then Matthew Scully’s book Dominion came across my desk at National Review, and I said, wait, I know him, he used to work here. Matt’s an honorable man and a conservative, and I was willing to listen to him, and he made a very conservative, very persuasive case for animal welfare. He turned me around. God did give man dominion over animals, but he didn’t intend for us to turn these creatures into widgets. That’s what’s so foul about factory farming. …[It was] my own determination to stick by political labels [that] kept me, for a long time, from taking the case for animal welfare seriously.

Go read the rest of that GodSpy.com interview, my liberal friends, and then come back and tell me what you think.

It’s not just the Other Guy who isn’t listening. It’s ourselves.

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Reader Comments (4)

Hi Marshall: wonderful questions here. I'm afraid that I've come to believe that a lot of the communities we build today are simply refuges for like-minded people who don't want to bother understanding the others. You see this phenomenon all over, but certainly (and maybe especially) among Friends. How many times have I heard post-worship banter about how smart us NPR educated liberals are compared to everyone else.

If we're going to really reach out to new seekers with the Good News we need to understand the dreams and values people hold. If our message is real then people will hear it: not immediately at first, but if we're faithful we can gather the great people and be ourselves gathered into a body guided by the Spirit. I hope some good discussion follows your post.
Your Friend,

Jan 14, 2007 at 07:38PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Kelley

Martin, if it's only what you just said, it's already a great discussion. Thank you.

I think that, if we wish to become of good service as ministers, we need both to understand what the conditions of others are (which means, if we're NPR liberals, really hearing what fundies care about & why; if we're fundies, really hearing what NPR liberals care about & why), and to understand what the Good News actually is. A very big assignment!

Jan 16, 2007 at 07:04AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

I just wanted to pipe in that you completely speak my mind with this post.

Jan 23, 2007 at 12:02PM | Unregistered CommenterTania Harrison

Bless you, Tania! Thanks for stopping by and speaking up.

Jan 24, 2007 at 05:57AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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