I’m proud of being a liberal. A leftist. A tree-hugger. My parents held these views, and I was raised to bask in liberalism and progressivism as the true inheritance of the educated and thoughtful person. I’ve tested my ideas in the world and tried to apply them, tried to be a good citizen, a student of American history, and a hopeful theorist of the future. When I was young I was an activist—of course—vocal, forward-thinking, and possessed of the hot certainty of youth. But in the past decade, as the culture swung widely to the right, I’ve shifted from the street-fighting indignation of my 20s into the wry disengagement and sarcastic disbelief that characterizes disillusioned radicals.
As the culture has regressed to the point of widely questioning whether “science” is real, I’ve suffered an almost complete failure of imagination—I’ve had no idea where to start or what to do. All the conversations I longed for were further up the food chain; the prospect of a shouting match with a grown person over whether “God” hates “fags” was just too much of an indignity to bear. I disengaged from the ongoing fight in the public square. Like a lot of liberals, it seems, I retreated into a cultural bunker, hopeful that this era would pass and the world would regain its sanity.
I recently had an e-mail exchange with an old high-school friend who is both a devout Christian and a leading intellectual in his field, and I was chagrined to find that my liberalism was no match for his conservatism. It’s not that I was ashamed of my ideas—far from it—but that in the face of his complete unwavering conviction in his ideology I could only sigh in protest. My liberal education and life experiences have taught me that hard ideologies and ironclad beliefs are things to avoid—right?—neither conducive to discussion nor concerned with seeking higher truth. I spent my college years, and many years subsequently, in a good-faith quest to open my mind, to appreciate the voices of other cultures, and to empathize with people from all walks of life. These were, and are, completely mainstream ideas on college campuses and in leftist culture. I embraced them, not unthinkingly, but because they seemed right and just. Of course you want to know what other people are thinking. Of course you don’t want to assume your own narrow thoughts are always correct. Of course.
Unfortunately, the practice of these liberal ideals is almost antithetical to conducting an impassioned debate. In these e-mail conversations with my Christian friend, I tried to remain non-ideological, a Socratic questioner, quizzing him somewhat obsequiously about his beliefs and convictions in the hope he would see the contradictions in his own thinking, or show an interest in learning my own thoughts in turn. But he couldn’t have been less interested in compromise, dismissing my views with a contemptuous sniff as typical liberal balderdash. Why argue with such an unreceptive, imperial blowhard? Why waste my time? What a jerk. His views were just as distasteful to me: Welfare mothers were lazy cheats, the war in Iraq had been a righteous cause, government is inherently wasteful and corrupt, and morals come only from the fear of God. Having dispatched these difficult questions, he was willing to “allow” that some welfare mothers, perhaps, could be saved, and that the war in Iraq had its “difficulties.” He wasn’t unreasonable—in fact, he was the picture of sanity.
Why bother shouting back my counterclaims in a voice matched in gall? I shared his contempt, don’t get me wrong. I thought his ideas were as backward and ignorant as the mutterings of a fourth-century alchemist, based on superstition, willful ignorance, prejudice, and spite—but I made no retort. My liberal education swirled in my head like a pink fog. I could employ only reason in the defense of liberalism, but his faith was as invulnerable to reason as a steel plate to an attack of butter. I was powerless to win him over to the simplest premise, to the basic conviction that humans are good, that mankind is progressing. These ideas are so basic to my worldview I was bored arguing for them. It was worse than arguing about evolution—it was like arguing about the existence of air. If Faith and Reason were on an equal footing, there would be no contest—Reason would always prevail. Yet for every argument Reason proffers against Faith, Faith simply claims Reason as its own spoiled, wayward child.
What good was I? What good were we? No wiser than two bumpkins arguing about how a radio works. We’re both educated, both raised in the same neighborhood, both patriotic Americans, yet unable and completely unwilling to share a single common value other than the conceit that our principles are “self-evident” and that the other is a dangerous fool. His conservative paranoia isn’t an argument for the future, and my liberal condescension isn’t a counter-argument. They’re both worldviews available only to someone willing to accept them a priori. Both our perspectives suffer from a fundamental flaw: There’s no arguing about our core ideas, they simply are.
It’s no wonder our nation’s opposing political parties can’t find common ground. We can’t meet halfway with our friends and neighbors.
Sadly, here I am, the dutiful liberal, processing this conflict in a newspaper and apportioning myself a share of the blame. My friend, on the other hand, sits comfortably at the right hand of God, confident that my self-questioning proves my views have no moral vigor. We’re a proxy for our country, a sociopath and a co-dependent both charged with running the family business. Liberalism isn’t just going to prevail someday, no matter how much we sit in the lotus position and say “Om,” any more than the Rapture is coming to take people out of their Mazdas on the freeway. We really need to find a new way to talk to each other.
John Roderick is the singer and songwriter for Seattle’s The Long Winters.