Like myself, most Europeans, especially older ones, have longtime friendships across the political and ideological spectrum. It’s not uncommon to have a dinner gathering where one person has communist sympathies, another is a nationalist conservative, another an atheist, another a churchgoing Catholic, and so on. We talk freely, argue like hell over the dinner table, and even occasionally insult one another: but as heated as it gets, at the end of the evening, everyone hugs and is still friends. Friendship trumps ideology.
Not so in America. Even when I first moved here in 1989, I noticed that people don’t tend to form friendships across ideological and religious lines, and stick in safe little groups where everyone shares the same views and politics. I suspect it’s partly because the US media has always been more dominant and divisive due to the need to cater to the bottom line, and partly because of social divisions that go back to the days of the settlers.
Social media, and now the election of an anti-establishment, insurgent president, have made the situation intolerable. As someone who still has—and always will have—friends across the spectrum, I’m far more horrified and disheartened by the hatred and vitriol I’ve seen explode across social media in particular than I am by the election of Mr. Trump, whom I decidedly dislike (let me state this very clearly: although I won’t touch partisan politics and am apolitical, most of my social views tend to the extremes of liberalism, and I’m a hard agnostic/soft atheist. I’m the son of Italian immigrants to the UK, an immigrant myself in the US, and was brought up in an extremely diverse environment in London).
The thing that shocks me most of all is that the worst of this hatred—and I use the word in its ugliest meaning here—comes from my friends on the liberal left, not the right. My conservative and Christian friends grumbled and feared for their beliefs and values during the eight years of Obama’s (a man I greatly liked and admired) presidency; sometimes they complained. But I never heard them express naked hatred or abandon a friendship over ideologies.
Since before Trump’s election, however, and more than ever now, I’ve seen many of my friends on the left, and some of these are brilliant people I respect enormously, go on a berserker rampage of unfriendings, both on social media and in real life. I’ve watched them cry, shake with rage, hurl ad hominems at anyone on the right, complain of depression and sleeplessness, and all but foam at the mouth over Trump’s presidency. Facebook has become so deeply toxic that I’m taking a sabbatical, possibly a permanent one.
What truly terrifies me is the insistence that anyone who voted for Trump must be a racist and misogynist: this is rather akin to calling all Democrats baby-killers because they believe in funding women’s reproductive health and allowing women choice. The double standard and lack of human empathy on display as these people apply their if-you-voted-Trump-you-can’t-be-my-friend policy is simply mindboggling, because many of these same people voted for Hillary Clinton, often overlooking what they themselves cite as her own lesser qualities and failings. This kind of inability to walk in another’s shoes is how genocides and civil wars begin. (I don’t for a moment believe that’s likely to happen in America, not least because liberals tend to not own guns, thank goodness.)
Here’s the thing: whether or not you think a politician has dirt on their hands or unsavoury views, if you believe in politics and want to vote, you have to hold your nose and accept that the platform may be more important to you than the qualities of the individual leader, especially in a de facto two-party system such as we have in the US. We can dislike Trump, but the man is no Hitler, and America is not post-WWI Germany. Nor are many of the “news” sources my liberal friends follow necessarily more objective than Fox News or Breitbart.
And yet so many good people seem to feel entirely justified screaming abuse at former friends who’ve never done a thing to hurt them; they call them racists and fascists, and cut them out of their lives simply because they don’t agree with the person’s ideology. Friendship is wielded like an axe, a way of shutting down speech. To thus condemn half the nation, judging people and friends by politics and ideology rather than their essential humanity and goodness, is an act of intolerance, of demonization and dehumanization, of the worst kind of tribalism, that, frankly, you won’t find on the right unless you start talking to white supremacists and hate groups.
I have older posts in this blog where I talk about discourse, civility, and building bridges. How is cutting yourself off from everyone who holds a different view from you going to ever result in any good? When you buy into hatred and allow yourself to become so narrowly polarized, the only winners are the media, news and social, who get more clicks and eyeballs, and who are largely responsible for all this in the first place.
As Bob Dylan put it, “you’re only a pawn in their game.” Yeats had it right too: “the center cannot hold” when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Finally, I very strongly recommend picking up a copy of Guareschi’s The Little World of Don Camillo, written in the immediate post-WWII days by Giovanni Guareschi, a popular Italian journalist and satirist. Set in a small village in Northern Italy, it’s hard to imagine anyone of any sensibility not finding these stories funny, thought-provoking, and healing. From the book description:
In story after story, the hot-headed Catholic priest, Don Camillo, and the equally pugnacious Communist mayor, Peppone, confront one another, sometimes in a serious and violent manner.
The clever bit is the way Guareschi engineers a resolution to the conflict and transforms the situation to the great benefit of the local community, so that the two men put their political convictions aside and, however begrudgingly, develop respect for one another.
To enable this, the author creates a third main character, his finest creation and the most surprising. Il Cristo presides over proceedings from above the altar of the town church and counsels Don Camillo, exposing and undermining the stubborn priest’s personal politics and prejudices and, with fascinating insights and gentle humour, suggests paths of action which, with the benefit of hindsight, we come to see make things right.
Guareschi claimed that the voice from above the altar was simply the voice of his own conscience, but in the stories it is a living reality which enables solutions so simple that they are beyond the reach of political minds clouded with ideology and the need to win.
(Note: comments on this blog are moderated.)