Big Ideas:
Disagreeing to Disagree

Last night, Kathleen had a business dinner, so I scooted across the street to the Japanese pub. Like any pub, this place has its regulars, who can be found at the bar on almost any night. I didn’t at first note that one of the regulars was sitting at a nearby table, with an older couple. I was reading Sandra Tsing Loh’s response to the Tiger Mom and sipping a Sapporo contentedly when my chicken teriyaki arrived. As I began piling a few pieces of dripping chicken onto the bowl of rice, however, I became aware of the regular’s voice, which was expressing concern about military preparedness. It was, as always, a very clear voice, almost unaccented — a public speaker’s voice if ever there was one. Without being loud, exactly, the regular was projecting his well-modulated tones throughout the bar area, and I later realized that he was intending to be heard by another regular, this one seated at the bar, whom he was baiting with opposing political views. 

By this time, he held me captive; I couldn’t keep my mind on the page. I couldn’t stop listening to his remarks, but, worse, I couldn’t fathom an effective challenge. As he sang the praises of Sarah Palin and charged Barack Obama with having adopted some of his father’s communist ideas; as he informed his fellow diners that the problem with liberals is that they reduce politics to the personal, and try to smear their opponents with scandal instead of confronting the real issues; as he conceded that he would vote for a libertarian — reluctantly — against a socialist — as he spouted a stream of idiotically short-sighted and poisonously selfish vews, I could think of nothing to say that would pierce his sleek smugness. I had no intention of barging in on the conversation, but I was so unnerved by my inability to venture any silent counter-arguments that I gobbled down my dinner and fled. 

It was very distressing. A great deal of my helplessness, I knew, owed to the man’s genial, level tone. Several times, he said that he quite liked a certain politician, but wouldn’t vote for him because the politican’s views were too far to the left. Nothing personal! In defense of his preposterous claim about the president’s alleged communism, he urged his antagonee, who had joined in from his perch at the bar (making reading quite perfectly impossible), to read Dreams of My Father. Then they would talk about it and he would see! This was as close as the guy came to offering proof of anything — and I almost wished that I had an annotated copy of the book with me, so that I could ask him to point to passages in support of his claim. It would be a depressing exercise, of course; to my objection that a such-and-such a sentence in the book did not make Mr Obama out to be a communist (and here I thought that “socialist” was as extreme as the name-calling was going to get), he would demur suavely and even regretfully; I must be naive, misinformed, or in some other way intellectually wanting. The best that I could hope for would be an offer to agree to disagree — and that has become a wholly unsatisfactory option (hence my liberal “hostility”). 

I can agree to disagree about the nature of the Holy Trinity, but I cannot agree to disagree about creationism or evolutionism. I cannot agree to disagree about drug laws, the death penalty, or restrictions on abortion. As lamentable as some actions may be, they neither justify nor warrant incarceration, execution, or unwanted pregnancy. I can expect society to arrange for my protection, but I don’t give it permission to punish those who would endanger me (hence my liberal “naiveté”). I can only persist in denouncing the opposing position as wrong. I can only tear my hair out wondering how the humanism that I have always espoused and that used to be honored in the breach has become so embattled. 

I can only hope that those who think the way I do outnumber those who think the way he does.