Two days after the 2004 US presidential election, I tried to get over my shock, anger and sadness by posting a brief data analysis that helped me understand why I’d been so confident Kerry would defeat Bush. Though the nation was deeply divided with near equal support for Bush and Kerry, my corner of the US was deeply pro-Kerry, and most of the people I knew were not just voting for Kerry, but were actively working to defeat Bush.
Looking at the distribution of voters, I realized that I was largely surrounded by strong Kerry partisans both where I lived and where I worked. So I posted an offer on my blog to buy a beer for any Bush voters who were willing to come to my neck of the woods:
So, my offer: if you voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and you’re willing to come to deep blue Lanesboro, MA, let me buy you a beer. (And if you don’t drink or are underage, let me buy you some other beverage.) November 11th, 7pm, the Old Forge (Rt. 7, just north of the center of town) – email me ethanz AT gmail.com to let me know you’re coming. I promise not to whine, cry or pout – just to talk and drink. See you there.
Dave Winer linked to the post, and it got more response than almost any post I’d offered at that point in my blogging career. A few people who responded or linked to the post were outright hostile, characterizing me as “a liberal who’d never met a conservative”… but most were cordial and anxious to demonstrate that there were thoughtful, contemplative people who’d voted differently than I did. One person who wrote me was a high school classmate of mine – others were conservatives, libertarians and lifelong Republicans from around the world.
But alas, none were in Lanesboro the night of the 11th. I had a few pints with my neighbors, who were still crying into their beers a week after the election.
But Ian Beatty, a physics postdoc in Amherst, MA, wanted to make sure we got the chance to talk. He emailed me on November 4th, 2004, to see if we could meet on neutral ground:
I’d like to take you up on your beer offer. I’m in Amherst, though, and your corner of the Berkshires is a pretty long haul, so any chance we could get together in Northampton sometime when you’re planning on “hanging out” there? (Yeah, I’m one of the maybe six people in Amherst who voted red. I live with three of the others.)
Despite the fact that my parents recently moved to Northhampton, I haven’t found a time to meet Ian there – he’s usually out kayaking down rivers, making me look like a couch potato. (And, more to the point, I’m usually out of the country.) But he was good enough to drive the 80 kilometers from his home town to mine so we could meet for lunch this Saturday. We met at Bob’s Country Kitchen, Lanesboro’s most popular breakfast joint, for brunch, pie and several dozen cups of coffee.
Predictably, Ian’s a great guy. (I thought it was pretty unlikely that he would email me multiple times, then give up his Saturday to drive 160km and gloat.) He’s a long-term Western MA guy, who did his undergraduate and graduate physics at UMass Amherst, and chose to stay in the area – which he loves – rather than looking for jobs around the country. His research focuses on ways of teaching physics at the secondary and tertiary levels. A great deal of his work is international in scope, and he’s about to spend six months in South Africa on a new project.
So we had a lot to talk about before we even got to politics. But we got there eventually. Ian identified three issues he saw as fundamental to his decision to vote for Bush: values, security and economics. We went through them in turn, trying to figure out where we agreed and where we disagreed. Some of the disagreements were fundamental, and not likely to be resolved over a bowl of chili and a slice of pie. For instance, Ian is a devout Catholic, and we’re unlikely to ever see eye to eye on the issue of abortion. But there are other issues where we both saw a great deal of grey area and, while we’re unlikely to found a political party together any time soon, there’s more common ground than I would have thought.
What was so satisfying about the conversation was that there were many issues where one or the other of us didn’t feel especially certain in our position and admitted as much to the other. The adversarial nature of American politics makes it very difficult to do this in a political discussion – if you believe it’s black and you’re from the other political party, I must believe it’s white.
But I’m finding, increasingly, that life is really some shade of grey, and that yelling over whether it’s black or white isn’t particularly helpful. When you’re talking with a friend over a cup of coffee, it’s easy to admit that while you’re sure of your position on the death penalty, you’re less sure on your position on abortion. But if you’re having a political argument, it’s hard to admit uncertainty – weakness – on any front.
I’m happy to be an unabashed partisan when I’m rooting for the Green Bay Packers or the Red Sox. But the issues Ian and I spent a few hours talking about on Saturday are too important to reduce to Red Sox versus Yankees. The require multiple perspectives, all of which require some nuance, some grey, some understanding of the other sides.
Ian asked me two difficult questions before we left. One was whether I, like some self-identified liberals he knew, thought George W. Bush was evil. I had to think about this for a little while. I dislike Bush profoundly. I think he’s incompetent, loyal to the point of cronyism, and surrounded by unethical political strategists and passionate ideologues. I think he’s wrong much of the time, and has a hard time admitting when he is wrong. I don’t think he’s evil. Which is to say, I don’t think his intent is to harm individuals or our nation. I think much of what he’s done has been destructive to the poor, to our military, to our international reputation and to the constitution. But I don’t think this damage was done out of malice. (Like I said, I had to think about this for a while.)
He also asked whether the meeting had been what I’d expected when I made my blog post almost a year ago. There the answer is an unambiguous “no”. I’d expected some strife, conflict, tension – there was none. Despite our disagreements on some fundamental issues, it’s clear to me that Ian’s a great guy, thoughful about the positions he’s taking, drawing some different conclusions because he’s operating from some different starting points. This doesn’t mean I’m likely to change how I vote the next time around, or that Ian is… just that I’m likely to be a bit less incredulous that an intelligent, thoughtful person could come to an utterly different conclusion than I did.
Thanks, Ian, for a great conversation. And thanks to everyone else who engaged with my original blog post, and anyone else who takes the opportunity to buy a beer for someone they disagree with.
great post, ethan. i had similar a experience with a good friend of mine who is a devout conservative. our conversations lasted over the course years, constantly moving about the gray area with tact and respect for our friendship.
one day, during a conversation in a french restaurant in jersey city last may, our civil discourse came to an end. speaking about the war, he jumped to “bomb that entire alien culture” and i responded by questioning his humanity. he accused me of being condescending and i told him to run for office or join the marines if he believed in his position that much. with that exchange, our 27 year-long friendship ended.
i don’t know what the moral of that story is…
hey ethan – yep, I also thought you hit the nail on the head with this one. I had a similar conversation last week at a relative’s house. The one outsider in the bunch – an Israeli transplant and new partner of one of the other dinner guests – started up a pro-Bush rant, to which the rest of us responded in disagreement. The thing is, no one actively wanted a fight, but this gentleman’s defense of Bush and his policies was just that – defensive. The Democrats in the bunch all generally agreed with what you’ve just mentioned – that despite Bush’s ineptitude and cronyism, his intentions probably are good. I do believe that he believes he’s helping the country in some way, but I find it difficult to understand how intelligent, compassionate (in the true sense of the word) conservatives can repeatedly excuse him for focusing on Social Security instead of Healthcare, for making unjust and irresponsible tax cuts, and for acting unilaterally on global issues.
I also think that the whole religion issue is frankly somewhat of a red herring these days. Ian may be Catholic, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee his position on Bush or even on abortion. Hell, weren’t there record numbers of American Jews who voted for Bush last year? Yes, “shades of gray” is more prevalent than maybe we thought…
As the other party to that discussion, I’d like to certify that Ethan’s representation is fair, accurate, and embarrassingly complimentary. I don’t blog (yet?), so I’ll have to use this space to say that I’m at least equally impressed by Ethan’s thoughtfulness and fair-mindedness. And he’s incredibly well-informed.
(I promise I’ll never support bombing an “entire alien culture”.)
Does this mean I won’t get my kickback from Halliburton this year?
ian, if i though all conservatives were alike, i wouldn’t be liberal. ;-)
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Isn’t it one of life’s conundrums that evil can be performed by people with the best intentions?
It seems likely that the president’s timidity and (compensating?) arrogance, as well as his awkward affect and difficulty in expressing himself, are caused by some disturbance at a deeper level, so in a real sense he is not responsible for his actions. Such cases are not unusual in the underworld, and obviously they can lead to more acceptable success as well.