A curious pattern has developed among friends of mine with political views contrary to my own. The conversation starts with some insulting statement by one of us, which is followed by a countering insulting statement by the other. Then, when either one of us makes an effort to discuss the matter rationally, we inevitably find far more agreement than disagreement.
Why does this happen? Why do two rational people have to struggle so much to have a rational discussion of their views? I think it is for two reasons. To do it backwards, the reason why we do end up having a rational conversation is because we both have the same ideals. The American way of governing is based on two self-evident principles: that all human beings are created equal (there are no inherent class differences among people), and all human beings have certain inalienable rights. If you don’t hold those two principles, then you are not an American. So, when I finally do have a rational conversation with my friend, we find that we are both grounded in the same principles, and our discussion is only about the best means of serving those principles.
The second reason, the reason why we struggle in the first place, is that there is a movement in America, and elsewhere, to abandon those principles and commit to what some are calling tribalism. These folks imagine America as grounded, not in the grand principles of the Declaration of Independence, but in a certain cultural identity. Which identity? Well, the identity of the folks who are pushing tribalism. If you abandon principles, then you have also abandoned rationality and replaced it with self-interest, and that makes rational discussion impossible.
All this brings me to a statement made by the present Attorney General, Jeffrey Sessions. Mr. Sessions recently announced that “America is not an idea. It is a nation with borders.” There is no doubt, of course, that America is a nation with borders. If, however, it is not also an idea, it is doomed. If we cannot say that America’s national identity rests on the assertion and protection of inalienable human rights, then we are nothing but a bunch of folks with no commitment to anything but ourselves , and life will soon enough be, as Thomas Hobbes warned, nasty poor, solitary, brutish and short. We will exist, not because of our ideals, but because of our military force.
Let me here denounce, as loudly as I can, the truly hideous view of Jeffrey Sessions. We have fought wars and lost untold numbers of fellow Americans, and we have provided care, at great cost and the great personal sacrifice of fellow Americans, precisely over that idea of the inalienable rights of all humans. We have held the position of first among nations because of our commitment to the inalienable rights of all humans. Abandon that commitment, and you will, as Jeffrey Sessions, obviously has, abandon what it truly is to be an American.
As a test of what I am saying here, I invite you to seek out someone holding political views substantially different from your own. Ask that person to discuss with you some difficult political topic like tax reform or immigration or global warming. Ignore the insults and put your own aside, and seek for that rational discussion. If you get there, you will recognize your interlocutor, and yourself, as true Americans.