America would be a more wholesome, more unified, and more decent place if liberals stopped thinking they have a monopoly on compassion and intelligence and conservatives stopped thinking they have a monopoly on patriotism and God.
Warning: This is not a twenty-years-too-late movie review of a loosely-adapted romantic-comedy of The Taming of the Shrew. Instead, it is an essay—actually, a diatribe—that tries to articulate why some Americans, who characterize themselves as neither fiercely rightwing nor leftwing, find little comfort and less welcome in an America that is increasingly polarized by rabid true believers of both extremes. I do not dare suggest that my views are those of all self-proclaimed moderates nor that thoughtful people on both the Left and the Right are guilty of all the extreme views raised in this essay. (And, of course, on some rare issue, the extreme view may be in truth the right one). But most Americans, I suspect, harbor a mix of views toward various issues and are not as mixed up as those who always see everything in sharp contrasts of black and white. I am not even comfortable using the term moderate since it conjures up, in my mind at least, the Gospel admonition about being ye either hot or cold, but not lukewarm. I don’t think those of us who find ourselves in the middle are lukewarm at all, but rather very passionate and tenacious about seeing the nuance and complexity of issues that others on both extremes insist on seeing in more simplistic terms.
- Respect for the Environment
Too often we are stuck between those who worship nature and those who treat it as something to be raped and plundered. Few seem to have a sense of balance and fewer still have an abiding appreciation for nature and understand that we are stewards of this planet. Stewardship requires us to safeguard it, while pragmatically using its resources for the betterment and happiness of mankind. Those who mindlessly rail against every effort to protect the environment and those others who mindlessly attack any attempt to rationalize environmental regulations that strangle enterprise and productivity are equally contemptible.
On the Left, too many fail to consider the impact of stringent environmental codes on the working class (although, bewilderingly, they also fail to consider the impact of mass illegal immigration on the environment), while those on the Right too often fail to recognize that environmental restraints have improved the health of our citizenry and have served as a catalyst for technological innovations and cost savings for consumers in terms of energy consumption. To put it succinctly, we should neither deify nor objectify nature as we work to ensure a healthy environment and a healthy economy for our country.
The most serious issue confronting the United States for the past half century has been our burgeoning budget deficits. For a while, the Right put up a proud pretense of concern—at least during the Clinton and Obama presidencies. However, when Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and now Donald Trump became president, they have conveniently contracted a severe, albeit selective, case of amnesia. Although the two sides seem to argue and disagree on almost everything else, there seems to be a tacit agreement between them that any discussion of deficits is unseemly and inappropriate. Instead, we have almost every major Democratic presidential contender promising huge new outlays for student loan forgiveness or Medicare for all. Not to be outdone, the Republicans, while sanctimoniously chastising these profligate spending proposals, continue with their tax cuts for the wealthiest and for ever-expanding outlays for weaponry and other military hardware. As I have written before, on the deficit issue our choices are quite absurd: “Vote for the ‘tax and spend’ Democrats or the ‘don’t tax and still spend’ Republicans. Do we really need a defense budget that is larger than the defense budgets of the next 20 largest militaries combined? Can we really afford to keep allowing runaway social security benefits without imposing some sort of means test on beneficiaries?”
Like the people of ancient Carthage, we love our children. We adore them. They are what we treasure most in life—except, of course, our own comfort and continued prosperity. We may no longer serve up our children as burnt offerings to Baal and his consort Tanit, but we are already incinerating their hopes for a prosperous future on the altar of our self-indulgence.
Historians don’t agree about when the Roman Republic entered its death throes. Some suggest it started to die when Augustus devised and instituted the Principate (23 and 27 BC), while other historians insist that the Republic was undone when Caesar crossed the Rubicon (49 BC), and still others argue that the death knell sounded for the Republic of free men even earlier when Sulla marched his legions into Rome (88 BC). I suspect they are all mistaken. The death rattle of the Republic can clearly be heard as far back as 123 BC with passage by Gaius Gracchus of the grain dole, a well-meaning, progressive idea that guaranteed the eventual enslavement of the Roman citizenry. Once the state gave economic support and gained economic control over a sizeable segment of the Roman electorate, the Republic was doomed. The grain dole lasted much longer than anyone could have imagined, not really dying out until the empire itself vanished. No emperor, no matter how mad, was ever mad enough to end the “right” to a free lunch. And no people, no matter how proud and self-confident, ever could resist the siren call of slothful indulgence. Not surprisingly, in tandem with the expansion of the Roman grain dole for the poor came massive income disparities as the privileged elite rapidly accumulated great wealth largely unopposed by the poor and middle class who were assuaged by the dole.
The Cato Institute estimates that annual outlays for welfare now exceed one trillion dollars, nearly 700 billion from the federal government alone. This figure is open to some debate by those on the Left since more than a third of these outlays are for Medicaid and health insurance—not strictly welfare in the sense of cash or cash-like (e.g., food stamps) giveaways. But even a stricter definition of welfare still exceeds 200 billion dollars annually. We have created and are expanding a large underclass of citizens who are dependent upon government largesse for much of their lives.
Conservatives legitimately complain about this situation, but they also contribute to it. Farmers, a traditional conservative voting bloc, benefit enormously from the 75-billion-dollar food stamp program, as do retail grocery establishments. More damning, Congress persists in providing over 20 billion dollars in direct farm subsidies annually, a significant portion of which goes to wealthy farmers. The naïve conceit that small, independent, calloused-hand farmers are the backbone of our country is well past its expiration date. And beyond this welfare for farmers are the huge tax breaks—welfare that dares not speak its name—that the Right persists in providing to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.
- Freedom: In the Eye of the Beholder?
Sometimes I wonder if those on the extremes really have any idea what freedom means. A core concept of freedom is to just be left the hell alone, especially from government oversight. For this reason, I was appalled when the Supreme Court back in 1986 (Bowers v. Hardwick) ruled as constitutional anti-sodomy laws. How, I wondered, could any sane men and women think that in a free land you can dictate to adult citizens what kind of sex they have or with whom they have it? But I was equally appalled more recently when those same liberals who would criticize the Court for trying to tell people whom they can sleep with fervently believe that that same government should tell a baker whom he must bake a cake for, regardless of his deep-seated religious beliefs. The hypocrisy on both sides is stunning. We see this same nonsense played out over and over again.
Certain conservatives are outraged that the government should try to tell them what they can do or not do with their property or what weapons they can and cannot own, yet at the same time salivate at the prospect of a Constitutional Amendment that would deny protesters the legal ability to burn the American flag—as if the flag were more important than the freedom it symbolizes. As if it is not obvious that the only flag a free people should ever honor and embrace is one that can be burned and desecrated.
The Left is no better. When leftist student fascists block conservative speakers from giving lectures and when citizens are told they have no right to speak on certain issues or wear certain items or use certain words because they are not the right gender or the right complexion, how can the Left ever be respected, trusted, or even taken seriously?
- Reverence for Life
There is no issue today that is more politically and morally charged than abortion. On this issue I stand firmly with a foot in both camps. Abortion is a moral abomination, something that is intrinsically evil. But it is beyond the ability of a government of free people to legislate so deeply into a person’s autonomy as to criminalize it in all circumstances. The callous and wanton destruction of life on such a grand scale should shock our collective conscience, but the notion that government can compel and coerce unwanted births without some limitations is simply unfathomable.
To effectively enforce expansive laws against abortion would require expansive enforcement powers, i.e., a police state. I am in wonder of conservatives who understand the value of freedom and the dangers of government but are blind to this danger.
In the Right’s strenuous and narrow focus on the rights of unborn life and the Left’s unflinching and often unfeeling absolute defense of a woman’s right over her body, I see stale formulaic and strident positions and very little genuine concern for life writ large. The late Albert Schweitzer’s maxim on cultivating a “reverence for life” might serve both sides better. There is some merit to the Left’s argument that it is nonsensical to advocate so tenaciously for the rights of unborn life and then to callously ignore life once it is born. Our expenditures to support destitute children pale before the huge outlays for high-tech weaponry and a bloated military bureaucracy. There is more than a little truth to the old Chinese aphorism that one is responsible for any life one saves. We cannot compel births and then wash our hands of supporting those lives that come into the world.
There is also merit to the Right’s assertion that strident abortion advocates show disturbing historical parallels to other discredited groups. This is nowhere more apparent than in the adamant insistence on describing a life destroyed even in a late-term pregnancy as just a fetus, in much the same way that slave-owners adamantly insisted on characterizing other human beings as just property to avoid any moral qualms. Or how soldiers everywhere learn early to characterize the enemy in terms of slurs—Krauts, Gooks, etc.—to lessen the guilt and ease the conscience. It’s far easier to end life when the life being ended is in any manner dehumanized. Fetus, property, gook, they all serve a similar purpose. Distance is a special gift we bestow on ourselves to avoid conscience: the distance of just following orders, the distance of causing mayhem from 20,000 feet above, never seeing the slaughtered children in the city beneath our Top Gun heroics, and the distance offered by an antiseptic cleanliness and soft-spoken professionalism, so the baby limbs are quickly ushered away in tightly packaged bags so that no telltale signs of blood and goo disturb the patient’s conscience.
Moreover, there is a good deal of hypocrisy in the Left’s insistence that the government has no role in determining what a woman does with her own body and then also demanding that the government must fund whatever a woman chooses to do with her body. Like petulant children, they demand both to be left alone and to be cared for. This is akin to arguing that the government has no right to criminalize suicide, and then also insisting that the government must adequately fund all suicides in order to ensure that the poor and clumsy have as comfortable and efficient a death as the rich and skilled.
No right is absolute except that of thought and belief. The government can and does limit our rights, from unbridled speech to regulating gun ownership to requiring compulsory vaccinations. Yet, when it comes to abortion both sides see absolutes that if enforced would have shocking consequences for the nation. If a woman takes a “morning after” pill, should she be sentenced to life imprisonment for murder? If a woman has an abortion moments before birth, is her “absolute” control over her body paramount to the life that is just seconds from taking a breath? Too few on either extreme seem to have a true commitment to life, to what Schweitzer would characterize as “awe before an overwhelming force.” This imperative to revere life is, in a sense, akin to the old Biblical admonition to “fear the Lord”—to be so overwhelmed with the magnitude and beauty of something as to be breathless and transported. It is a fundamental principle of morality that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing human life and dignity, and that destroying, injuring, or limiting life and dignity are evil.
- Affirmative Action: Right Idea; Wrong Premise
Dissenting in the scandalous “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson case, the late Justice Harlan boldly declared that “our Constitution is color-blind.” Neither the white racists of that era nor the liberal racists of this era agree. Instead, we have the extreme Left insisting that because of past transgressions against various races and a bizarre belief—unsubstantiated by any concrete evidence—that racial diversity is intrinsically beneficial, we must embrace perpetual reverse discrimination to ensure that individual talent and intellect are subordinated to a rote proportionality of races, genders, and ethnicities.
But the Right is really no better. As was once wryly observed about a certain member of the Bush family: “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Many on the Right are deluded if they think employment and education opportunity are based solely on intellect, talent, and hard work. One significant example is the policy of legacy admissions (which unfairly benefit as many on the Left as on the Right) which remain shamefully and unjustifiably high among America’s top universities. And beyond legacies is the glaringly obvious unfairness that those students of any race and gender who come from wealthier backgrounds and live in better school districts will generally have better grades and higher test scores. A poorer applicant, regardless of race or gender, who comes from a broken home, or who goes to an underserved school, or who has an after-school job, or who takes care of younger siblings, deserves some affirmative action to level the playing field. But there is no sense in—and no moral or legal basis for—giving the children of wealthy minority parents any preference over poor children. The diversity argument lacks credibility: The wealthy have far more in common with the wealthy of other races than they have in common with the less well-off of their own race. Leveling the playing field by basing admissions on socio-economic factors, rather than race or gender, would be much fairer and probably would achieve similar outcomes.
The only thing worse than the petty, vicious partisan bickering among our elected officials is when they decide to join forces to do good. We have become so concerned about the antagonism between the Left and the Right, we too often forget just how dangerous it can be when they actually work together to cause greater mischief.
Sometimes the problems caused are relatively minor, such as the 13.6-billion-dollar National School Lunch Program, which at least fills the bellies of many poor and undernourished children. This allows many of the Left to feel good about their beneficence, even if the cost is bloated and the food itself not as healthy as it might be. And those of the Right can pat themselves on the back for subsidizing the milk and agricultural lobbies who make a tidy and easy profit from the same program.
But other times, the damage done to our society and economy is far more devastating. This is best illustrated by two examples: first, the current homeless crisis, engineered by conservatives who wanted to save money on the cost of institutionalizing the mentally incompetent and the liberals who wanted to expand the horizons of freedom and thus allow those incapable of choosing to choose to liberate themselves from bondage.
Silly novels such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest no doubt contributed immensely to this conceit. I confess that when I first read the book, I was enthralled. Reading it confirmed my suspicions about how sinister and nefarious it was to incarcerate the mentally unbalanced. But I was young. I would add that I was also foolish, but that would be redundant.
The other great, more recent act of bipartisanship, of course, was the great economic crisis of 2008-2009 triggered at least in part by the desire on the Left to allow people with as much fiscal sense as our government to get housing loans to expand the American Dream, while many on the Right eagerly enabled reckless banks and other institutions to make profits loaning money to those who would, in a saner world, never qualify.
- Foreign Affairs
Since the end of World War II there has been a broad consensus among foreign policy makers on the Left and the Right that American leadership—often leading to American intervention and interference—is our proper role in the world. The disasters that generally accompany our good intentions are made manifest every few years, but we obstinately refuse to see the messes we leave behind in broken countries and civilian casualties. One would have thought that after the Bush fiasco in Iraq, the Obama administration would have known better than to precipitate chaos and slaughter in Libya. But Bush’s infantile fetish with spreading “freedom” throughout the world was easily rivaled on the idiocy-meter by Obama’s cavalier use of the concept of “responsibility to protect” (more generally referred to as R2P) in Libya and elsewhere—R2P is a well-intentioned Samaritan-like concept that has led to thousands of deaths that continue to accumulate.
I had hoped (foolishly) for a more sensible approach to foreign policy by the Trump Administration, but old habits are hard to break. President Trump likes to use the right words about not interfering in another country’s internal affairs, but that only extends to countries that he likes. When it comes to ones he doesn’t like—Cuba, Venezuela, Iran—he is in lockstep with all his predecessors. Even more disappointing, however, has been his canine adulation of Israel. I still find it incomprehensible how those on the Right, who claim to be so patriotic, repeatedly place the interests of a different country ahead of our own interests. Here’s a newsflash for those rabid Israeli supporters on both sides of the aisle: Israel is not our 51st state.
Yet, Israel, which has a higher per capita GDP than many of our major allies, including the UK, France, Italy, and Japan, is consistently given upwards of four billion dollars in assistance each year—over 135 billion dollars since its founding. Those on the extreme Left, at least, have awakened to the dangers of unquestioning support for Israel, but they have faltered as well in their inane sympathy for much of the Islamic World, which seethes with hatred for this country. But because the Arabs are weak, they must be supported. As is too often the case, in the liberal lexicon weakness is a synonym for goodness.
There is probably no issue today that is so contentious and yet so easily solvable as the immigration problem. Unlike abortion, gun control, and other issues upon which the populace is strongly divided, on immigration there are large majorities who want a reasonable and compassionate compromise that will benefit America. Instead, we have the extremes on the Left and the Right using immigration as a club to batter the opposing side. The moronic Left keeps jabbering about the cruelty of ICE and the compassionate heroism of sanctuary cities, and swearing eternal vigilance against any who would try to secure our borders from illegal immigration, while those on the imbecilic Right keep slandering decent, law-abiding immigrants and equating any who seek middle ground as treasonous.
As I have written elsewhere, “When it comes to the current controversy over immigration, the instincts of the American people are laudably sensible and decent. On the one hand, the vast majority of Americans are concerned for the welfare of the so-called ‘dreamers’…. On the other hand, a solid majority of Americans also sense that our current immigration system is broken and is in need of an urgent overhaul.” The solution, which only the extremes on both sides would object to, would be to give the dreamers a path toward citizenship, while severely curtailing illegal immigration through tighter border security, requiring use of E-Verify, limiting asylum seekers to established points of entry, and modifying, but not ending, our family-centric immigration policy. But both sides, fearful of their extremes, posture, postulate, and prevaricate about how it is all the other side’s fault.
This essay came about when a close friend suggested that my views are inconsistent and replete with hypocrisy. This may actually be true—I suspect that I am quite capable of self-deception—but in an effort to assuage my own doubts about my beliefs, I started to jot down things that trouble me about so-called liberals and so-called conservatives, which soon grew into two distinct lists of ten issues each, aptly labeled “Ten Things I Hate about Pseudo-Liberals” and “Ten Things I Hate about Pseudo-Conservatives.” Beyond their views on various issues, perhaps of even greater concern is their attitude toward one another and the world. Frankly, it is a toss-up which is worse: the self-flagellation of some liberals or the self-promotion of some conservatives. But I do know this: America would be a more wholesome, more unified, and more decent place if liberals stopped thinking they have a monopoly on compassion and intelligence and conservatives stopped thinking they have a monopoly on patriotism and God. With apologies to the late senator Barry Goldwater: Extremism in defense of moderation is no vice; intolerance of opposing views is no virtue. In other words, I shop at Home Depot, drink coffee at Starbucks, eat at Chick-fil-A and at Ben and Jerry’s, watch both CNN and Fox News, as well as drink Pepsi Cola and Yuengling beer, all without any pangs of conscience.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Mutual accusation” (1774) by British Cartoon Prints Collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.