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Can we be 'frienemies'?
January 15th, 2009
When is a moral-political-religious-economic principle really a prejudice, or vice versa?
When is an opponent to one’s view a member of the “loyal opposition” deserving respectful disagreement, and when is such a person a mortal enemy that must be fought with all intellectual and emotional weapons blazing and no quarter, much less respect, given?
My mind originally turned to these questions because of the controversy surrounding Evangelical Rev. Rick Warren’s invocation at the presidential inauguration next week. After Democratic President-elect Barack Obama invited Warren, howls came from the political left that the invitation had been extended and from the political right that it had been accepted.
Obama and Warren appear to be “frienemies” (friends-and-enemies), to use a trendy locution I’ve seen in print. They are opponents on many social issues, such as abortion and gay rights.
Yet both men also seek to overcome the bitterness of such divides. “We’re not going to agree on every single issue,” said Obama in defense of the invitation, “but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere … where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.”
And according to one article I’ve read, when someone asked Warren if he is “right wing” or “left wing,” Warren brilliantly replied, “I’m in favor of the whole bird.”
Good faith or no?
But a lot of people don’t find this convincing. To many on the left, Warren is a homophobic bigot and an embodiment of all that is wrong with the party that lost the election, and so should have no place at the celebration.
To many on the right, especially in the religious right, Obama so embodies everything evil about the U.S. political left that no Evangelical preacher – perhaps even no “authentic Christian” – should associate with him.
Such emotional divisiveness characterizes certain groups and people within the Jewish community, especially when the subject is Israel and what it should or shouldn’t do about its conflict with the Palestinian Arabs and the larger Arab and Muslim worlds. Israel’s recent actions in Gaza have once again brought this to the fore.
To many on the pro-Israel right, Israel’s action is long overdue, and their fear is that Israel may stop short of destroying Hamas for good. To some on the pro-Israel left, Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza is a huge mistake that ultimately will damage Israel’s standing in the world and reduce the chances for a negotiated peace settlement.
I have no problem with the disagreement as such. I believe both pro-Israel camps advance their arguments in good faith. What troubles me are the people in both camps who cannot or will not perceive the good faith of those on the other side.
To some on the left, the people on the right are religious, nationalist and even racist fanatics who will not listen to reason and will condemn Israel and the Jewish people to eternal and unnecessary fighting and suffering. To some on the right, the people on the left are blinkered, self-hating Jews or even Jewish anti-Semites who will not perceive the reality of Arab-Muslim hatred and intransigence and who insist on actions and policies that weaken Israel.
Some in each camp insist that implementing the other’s policies is suicidal, and therefore the other side is too dangerous to be allowed even to speak — including on the pages of The Chronicle.
Further complicating the situation is the existence of truly anti-Israel people, Jewish and not, on the right and left. Their arguments often look like those of pro-Israel leftists, but these people do not argue in good faith because they really are seeking to weaken or even destroy Israel.
Wisdom from Mill
Recently, I have been reading works by the great British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). In his superb essay “On Liberty,” he argues for the necessity of freedom of discussion of all sides of issues. I wish I could quote whole chunks of it, but can only share a few snippets:
“All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
“The usefulness of an opinion is itself a matter of opinion; as disputable, as open to discussion and requiring discussion as much as the opinion itself.” “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” “There is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices.”
But Mill has been criticized for having too sunny and optimistic a view of human nature and societies, for not perceiving “the depths of violence and rage and hatred beneath the thin shell of civilization” (according to Adam Gopnik in an Oct. 6, 2008, New Yorker magazine article about Mill).
And as Mill himself acknowledged, “No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act.”
So can we be “frienemies” and “disagree without being disagreeable” on such matters as the best policies for Israel’s and the Jewish people’s survival? Or are some opinions tantamount to instigation or treachery? What do you think?