Know Thine Enemy

I try to read a lot of different things.  I’m a pretty liberal guy so I gravitate toward sources that present events in a somewhat more liberal light.   I also try to branch out from those sources and read some conservative writers as well.

Most recently I’ve started reading a book called The Fractured Republic by National Review contributor Yuval Levin.  I have his author pageon National Review as well as those of conservative columnists David Frum(The Atlantic), Michael Gerson (The Washington Post) and Ross Douthat(The New York Times) and libertarian Conor Friedersdorf (The Atlantic) bookmarked on my computer and read them regularly.  In the last year I’ve read Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, David Boaz’s The Libertarian Mind, and canonical libertarian forebears Henry David Thoreau and John Stuart Mill.

I agree with a some of what these writers say but I disagree with much much more; regardless, that's not really the point.  I believe unequivocally, however, that their writing (though of course with the occasional exception) is of immense value.  When I am caught by some of my more liberal friends reading these authors, they almost always ask me why I would waste my time.  I usually reply simply; “know thine enemy.”

This response is, of course, both laden with sarcasm and meant to defuse the situation quickly (usually so that I can return to whatever I’m reading), but there’s a certain grain of truth to it that people are inclined to accept unquestioningly.  It suggests that I’m not simply wasting my time but also affirms a superficially adversarial relationship between those people who believe the things that I believe and those people who believe things that are different.  By responding that way, I’ve likely been doing a disservice to everyone involved.

That’s not to say that there aren’t ideological enemies out there.  It’s important to know what Breitbart News posts on its website, not in spite of its revolting ideology and hateful rhetoric, but because of it.  In those narrow situations, it is important to “know thine enemy.”  It’s both easy and comforting to imagine that people couldn’t possibly think that “birth control makes women unattractive and crazy” or that conservative commentator Bill Kristol is a “renegade jew.”  But people do believe that, and the man that signed off on that content will be in the White House with high level security clearance and an office down the hall from The Oval starting on January 21.  It is crucially important that we know (not accept, understand, tolerate, grow accustomed to the stench of, or excuse; but know) that enemy and fight it unceasingly.

The conservative world, however, is filled with people of varying degrees of integrity.  Men and women that think.  Conservatives with whom I disagree on a profound level.  Conservatives with ideas of the role of government that made them slow to come around on issues like same sex marriage, for which I will never forgive them (nor will I forgive those liberals who were only marginally faster).  But there are conservatives who don’t want to see those rights rolled back or immigrants racially profiled or assaulted or Muslims punished for their religion or country of origin.

There a great many people with whom I disagree on nearly every issue of policy and philosophy who nonetheless share my belief in inclusion, diversity of faith and ethnicity and language, protection of civil liberties, free exchange of ideas, and both democratic and republican (small “d” and small “r”) ideals.  These are opponents on tax policy, the mechanism of immigration reform, the nature of foreign policy, and many other issues, but they are potential allies in the fight against the regressive and destructive political forces moving into the White House right now and the host of Republican politicians and ideologues who accommodate them.

Knowing who these people are and understanding their ideas is of genuine value.  Knowing what’s important to them and what's not; identifying their strengths and their faults.  It's genuinely valuable because sometimes the person with distance offers the most effective criticism.  It's genuinely valuable to learn about them and know what they believe not only for the sake of understanding their ideas but for the sake of maintaining our ability to communicate our own ideas to people who could help advance them.  Adding to the ranks of people who oppose the racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and potential corruption of the incoming administration is genuinely valuable.  We need everyone we can get.