The Needless Oppression of Ideological Gridlock

By - Dec 1st, 2004 02:52 pm
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By John Hughes

I was viewing the movie Motorcycle Diaries recently, watching Che Guevara’s revolutionary consciousness incubate, and I became reflective. Sitting in the dark, I began to wonder what a Great Liberator would look like if he or she arrived in America in 2004. From what would that Che, or that Gandhi, or that Malcolm X, liberate us? By what are we oppressed? Anything? Anyone?

Under the spell of that movie, I made a natural jump from South America in 1952 to today. I rummaged through the causes and issues that need a serious boost:  the environment, violence, the economy (global and domestic), health care (which is becoming apocalyptically expensive) and America’s frighteningly imperialistic stance towards the rest of the world. But somehow, as I sat holding a good woman’s hand, watching the scene where Che’s best friend danced with a nun, I realized that more than specific relief in any one of our many tactical pain points, we as a nation are in need of liberation from our ideological gridlock.

I certainly don’t mean that progressives should give away the store just so they can get along with conservatives. I don’t mean that anyone should back away from a good fight, a good debate, a rousing contest of wills. I don’t mean that we should airbrush differences of opinion in the popular arena, for the sake of a faux national unity. But I do mean something. If a Great Liberator were to come along now, I’d want that person to liberate America from the fact that we are in serious danger of becoming two permanently estranged halves, in a muted civil war for the rest of history. We need deliverance from this fate so we may continue to live out Abraham Lincoln’s dream of harboring, in his immortal words of1865, “malice toward none,” and “charity toward all.”

The day after I watched that movie, I was eating lunch with a colleague from my day job, and we invited a brand new acquaintance to join us.  This new acquaintance, Tracy, was a warm, empathic woman with a soft laugh. I liked her and we had a nice conversation. My colleague Helen eventually got around to discussing George W. Bush supporters in a stingingly frank manner. She lampooned suburban soccer moms in Hummers, screaming from the sidelines dressed in sweaters and pearls. I joined in, mentioning that often-seen sticker affixed to the back of redneck trucks, of a Ford boy peeing on the Chevy logo, and compared it to Bush’s attitude toward the rest of the world. Helen chipped in with some sort of adjective, like “pathetic” or “disgusting.” We shared a laugh.

Tracy wasn’t laughing. She’d grown silent, and watched us through a frozen smile, with eyes glazed. She was a Bush supporter, no doubt, and our friendship with her, ten minutes old, was cut off at the pass. She hasn’t eaten with us again.

We are at risk of becoming a nation of two ideological poles, and it’s not necessary. While it is mandatory that we continue to disagree in public, to debate, we have lost sight-all of us-of some truths that need to be remembered. For example, that group of people you so strongly disagree with-progressive or conservative-can’t be all wrong about everything.

Nobody, not even a Republican, is smart enough to be wrong about everything all the time. Everybody, even a Democrat, knows some sort of truth. Everybody breathes, everybody has a heart, and it is essential that we all be committed to listening to each other. Some sort of national identity needs to be forged, or recovered, for our survival as a culture, and we need to seek this through trying to understand the other side of the debate. We need to collectively cultivate a still point of silence and respect at the center of our opinionated clamoring.

We don’t have to sit down to dinner with Karl Rove or Donald Rumsfeld and rubber stamp their perversity (or for that matter drink a toast to gay marriage with Michael Moore or James Carville) in order to save America. I would advocate, however, cultivating a hospitable heart towards our ideological foes, and listening with respect to where their ideas come from. Such was Gandhi’s practice, and such was Malcom’s love, just before the forces of division gunned him down.

Let’s work-individually and collectively-to emulate our heroes and understand our foes. And let’s do it Lincoln’s way, with malice toward none and charity toward all.

It’s as good a place as any to start the healing.

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