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For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were reality, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.
- Nicolo Machiavelli, The 8th Institute
I began writing opinion pieces in 1973. It’s now 39-years later and in something approaching 500,000 words, I have expressed many opinions about issues and people. I have neither hidden my political beliefs nor Christian faith, neither my cultural values nor love of baseball.
I have sought to be respectful toward those who hold different views than me. I think I’ve succeeded in that, with the exception of calling Donald Trump an “idiot” for championing the “Obama wasn’t born in America” campaign.
But following a contentious national political campaign, I find myself wondering if there’s any value endeavoring to tell others what to think?
I think of what William Blake wrote about those who “see with but not through the eye,” those who see the outline of things but not the substance thereof. Or, in Machiavelli’s phrase, “the things that seem and those that are,” and ponder where am I in the mix?
If you are a person of strong opinion what should your or my expectation be on the rights of others to hold opposing views with similar conviction?
N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop, whose books are widely read, writes in Simply Christian about cognitive dissonance, “the phenomenon whereby people who believe something strongly go on saying it all the more shrilly when faced with contrary evidence.”
Former United States Senator Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, frequently invokes the words of his late Senate colleague, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts.”
Progressives and/or liberals no doubt concur with Bishop Wright and Senator Moynihan, because people on the left are certain right-wingers and their allies care more about opinions than facts.
But doesn’t the senator’s words cut both ways? If liberals see right-wingers and extremists “all the more shrilly when faced with contrary evidence,” are not right-wingers and extremists entitled to view their counterparts on the other end of the ideological spectrum as being equally shrilly on matters of evidence?
Starting with the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision in 1973 there has been an exponential rise in contempt toward those whose views on politics and culture, of life styles and religion, clash with one’s own.
It’s not that anger, suspicion, and distrust suddenly emerged after ’73 – an argument no one would make unless oblivious to McCarthyism – but even during that ugly and divisive period, common courtesies and respect toward others were still valued and observed by most in the body politic.When the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision, politics in our country began to change; the change has been harmful and common civility has been the greatest loser.
The abortion issue became the rage as conservatives in the church and elsewhere focused their moral energy to undo Roe v Wade; if not in the courts then by opposing by whatever means available those in public life who supported the decision. That clash has been a constant for 39 years of our national life and there’s no evidence it’s going away.
Like other either/or issues, abortion has been reduced to dangerous invective and attack at the expense of dialogue. Most Americans oppose abortion but also believe women should have sovereignty over their own bodies – that no man, no government, no law, no court, has the right to deny women so fundamental a freedom.
This very issue was at play in this year’s presidential election, with Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan siding with those opposing abortion and Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden with those supporting a woman’s freedom to choose.
But the puzzlement to some is why conservatives believe pro-choice supporters morally culpable while appearing to dismiss out of hand freedom of choice? Do the rights of the unborn exceed in moral terms women’s sovereignty?
Between pro-life and pro-choice advocates a very great gulf is fixed, and bridging it seems unlikely. In consequence, the efforts by both sides to change hearts and minds on this polarizing moral issue have come to naught.
It is not my intent here to convince either persuasion but to ask those of decent instincts within both persuasions to rise above this and other issues. Rather than demonizing those holding contrary views, embrace them as fellow human beings and creatures of the same God.
To that end, and in the hope of persuading people of the redeeming merits of civility, I offer the following examples from our national political experiences:
George McGovern recently died. He had been a college professor, war hero (35 B-24 missions over Germany in WWII), Food for Peace director, member of Congress and United States senator, candidate for president in ’72, patriot and exemplary public servant.
The day after Senator McGovern lost overwhelmingly to Richard Nixon (the only state he carried was Massachusetts), one of the first phone calls he received was from Barry Goldwater, his Senate colleague and the 1964 Republican nominee for president, and a man also acquainted with losing big in a presidential race.
According to Senator McGovern, the conversation went something like this, “George, its Barry. George, a lot of people will tell you they know how badly you feel. George, they don’t, but I do.”
Mike Mansfield, Democrat of Montana, was the longest serving Majority Leader of the United States Senate in history (1961-77); he would go on to become the longest serving American Ambassador to Japan (1977-88).
George Aiken, Republican of Vermont, served six years as Lt. Governor and Governor of his state before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1940. He would subsequently serve 34-years in the Senate. He was a moderate Republican who became famous during the Vietnams War for saying, “We should just say we won and get out.”
Every day the Senate was in session, Senator Mansfield and Senator Aiken would start their day over breakfast in the Senate Dining Room of the Capitol. The friendship they formed would last their lifetime.
Before his election as Vice President, Joe Biden served 36-years in the U.S. Senate from Delaware. He was at various times chairman of two of its most important committees, Foreign Relations and Judiciary (when Democrats controlled the Senate).
Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, would become the Senate’s longest serving member, 48-years and 10-months. When his party controlled the Senate, he too chaired Judiciary. Before his death in 2003 he requested Senator Biden to be one of the principal eulogists at his funeral.
I want you to reflect on that: Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 as the nominee of a racist political party, the State Rights Democratic Party, and a liberal, northern Democrat, Joe Biden, had formed the bonds of friendship, and Senator Thurmond wanted his pal, Senator Biden to eulogize him when he passed from this life.
When Senator Ted Kennedy died, a great memorial service was held in his honor at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston.
Many came to celebrate the senator’s life, including his former Harvard roommate and fellow U.S. Senator, John Culver of Iowa, as well as Vice President Joe Biden.
Orin Hatch, Republican of Utah, also came and paid tribute to Senator Kennedy.
Senator Hatch, the conservative Mormon from the west and Senator Kennedy, liberal Catholic from Massachusetts, had a special relationship. Senator Hatch took immense pride in that friendship and spoke with admiration about his friend that night.
He told a very touching story. When Senator Hatch’s mother died, a funeral service was set in Salt Lake City at what the Senator said was a small ward (or branch) of the Mormon Church. When the day came and the family had gathered before the service a car drove up and out stepped Senator Kennedy and his wife, Vicki. He had not told Senator Hatch they were coming, they just did.
These bonds of friendship and respect were formed despite profound ideological and political differences. If that can happen at the highest levels of our government. I submit it can happen here, in your life and mine – and we share a common responsibility to ensure it does.
Bill Bradley, Princeton All-American, NBA star with the New York Knicks, Rhodes Scholar, was elected to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey three times, and in 2000 he ran for president.
Senator Bradley tells a story about he and Senator Jessie Helms, Republican of North Carolina, and one of the Senate’s most conservative members. Senator Bradley said he didn’t know Senator Helms, had no particular interest in knowing him, and considered him unredeemable in political terms. Yet, one day on the floor of the Senate, Senator Helms came up to Senator Bradley and told him he had a granddaughter who wanted to play basketball and would Senator Bradley be willing to help her? He said he would. They agreed to meet in the Congressional gym.
Senator Bradley waited for the arrival of Jessie Helms and his wife and their granddaughter. When that moment arrived and introductions were made, Senator Bradley began coaching the young woman in the fundamentals of basketball. While he did so he would catch, out of the corer of his eye, the proud grandparents seated along the sideline. It was obvious this was a special moment for them, watching the legendary basketball All-American and their granddaughter.
Afterwards Senator Bradley said that no matter the political differences between he and Senator Helms, he would no longer be able to see him as he once had. He had come to understand and appreciate the senator’s humanity.
Barney Frank, the then Congressman from Massachusetts came to The City Club of San Diego to speak. I don’t recall exactly how that happened, but it did, and he came at a very tough time in his life.
A story had broken outing the Congressman as a homosexual, and told of a relationship he had had with a male member of his staff, who was his partner. It was a very big story. Barney Frank was in personal agony.
Before he spoke that night he told me, learning of my friendship with Senator Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, that when the story broke one of the first calls he received was from Senator Simpson, who he did not know.
Congressman Frank related the circumstances of the Senator’s telephone call. “We hadn’t met but he told me, ‘I know you’re going through a difficult time and if I can be of any help, I’m happy to come over and visit.’”
Barney Frank said he would be forever indebted to Alan Simpson for his act of kindness.