Tribes & Tipping Points
A Writer's Take on Politics, Friendship and the War in Iraq
I have two best friends in this world, and while they are both kind, decent, loyal, strong people, they otherwise could not be more different. One is a Christian conservative Republican, former Marine and staunch supporter of President Bush who has outspokenly supported the war in Iraq. The other is an agnostic liberal Democrat and college professor who despises the president and is adamantly against the war. Me? I'm the one who invariably finds myself in the middle, keeping these two from coming to blows.
As oxymoronic as it sounds, I am a fervent centrist, a passionate moderate. I have strong views and can argue with the best of them, but I don't follow any party or ideological lines. I don't identify myself as either Conservative, capital C, or Liberal, capital L.
For example, I irritate my liberal friend by suggesting that in this dangerous post-9/11 world, we need the Patriot Act and that honest, law-abiding Americans should not feel threatened by it. But I infuriate my conservative friend by insisting that President Bush just doesn't care about poor folks and his latest, post-Katrina outreach to our suffering classes is too-little/too-late.
I'd like to think and in my heart I know that there are lots of people in this country like me who are shades of both blue and red, but in the contentious and polarized political climate in which we now live, I sometimes feel like I'm the last American standing who isn't a knee-jerk partisan. Which makes what happened this week all the more remarkable: My best friend on the conservative side sent me an email declaring that, after many nights of anguished reflection, he has come to the conclusion that the war in Iraq is a mistake and that we never should have gone.
"This is the hardest change of position I have ever come to," my friend wrote. "I've been up nights, literally, doing soul-searching, reflecting, etc. I wanted to be man enough to come out and make this position known to you, my best friend. I am a conservative and a Republican, a patriot and a veteran. I have totally supported our troops since they first went over there. But I now think they should never have gone. You have to know, bro', this is harder for me to admit than almost anything I have ever done."
He continued, "That this war is a mistake is my own independent conclusion, but if I as a super-patriot and former United States Marine feel this way, there must be a lot of people who also feel this way but are not admitting it."
I never expected to read such an e-mail from a guy who I've known since high school to be a dyed-in-the-wool Republican hawk. But as a loyal friend, not to mention someone who continues to harbor mixed emotions about the war in Iraq and who thinks both Howard Dean and Donald Rumsfeld are megalomaniacs, I've neither the right nor the desire to tell my old buddy, "I told you so."
On the contrary, I write this column only in praise of my friend. Not for his newfound opposition to the war, but for his rare ability to re-carve a personal political view that seemed cut so deeply in stone. He, like most of us, I guess, typically sees the world through a narrow political prism. But this week, to my amazement and his credit, his courage and common sense overcame his stubborn inner machinery and he adjusted his sights.
I'm not sure what the tipping point was for him. It may have been the relentless but reasoned pleas of Cindy Sheehan, mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, outside President Bush's home in Crawford, Texas. He is a proud father, after all. Or it may have been a more cumulative thing. Whatever the reasons for the stunning change of heart, he didn't say much, other than he had simply seen "one too many of my brothers come home in body bags."
I only wish more people had the ability to be objective and challenge their own beliefs like my friend. It's far too easy these days to find otherwise smart, decent, fair-minded folks turning coldly biased and closed-minded when the context turns political. Regrettably, an ever-increasing number of liberals truly thinks conservatives are evil and an ever-increasing number of conservatives sincerely believes liberals are idiots.
It has always been thus to some degree, but it's getting worse. Things are getting ugly out there, folks. And for this, we can largely thank the pundits, those absurdly unbending media loudmouths on the right and the left who are blindly, ridiculously partisan and mean-spirited and have set the shrill tone for our political discourse. Where are the impassioned-but-reasonable, squeaky-wheeled-but-moderate, charismatic-but-not-cookoo leaders when we need them?
Historically, political scientists have attributed such rigid political loyalty to the way we are raised and by our experiences. More recent research suggests there may be a genetic component to why we cling so tightly to our views. Whatever the case, the truth is once we pick and join a "tribe," most of us permanently subscribe to the tenets of that tribe and find it very difficult to outwardly question it. I suspect this behavior has everything to do with our most primal instinct for survival. Don't step out of the herd and risk the chance of getting eaten by a T-Rex.
That's why my friend's revelation to me this week is so surprising, so commendable, so hopeful. Now, if I could only get my best friend on the liberal side to recognize and admit that the Patriot Act is a good thing. But two miracles in one week, that's probably asking too much.
Published September 2005