Left v. Right

Why can’t we just get along?

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Joseph Rosen

Why can’t we just get along?

Curtis Stone, a stranger from Kelowna, Bri­tish Columbia, is sit­ting on the couch in my Mile End apart­ment. It’s a cold March evening, and we’re drink­ing lo­cal beer, eat­ing Saint-an­dré cheese, and talk­ing mu­sic pref­er­ences. Stone — a Barr Broth­ers fan — is wear­ing de­signer glasses and has a hip­ster hair­cut. He men­tions that, while he now works out west as an or­ganic ur­ban farmer, he used to live in this Mon­treal neigh­bour­hood — in fact, he played in a band here.

Stone, who, at thirty-eight, is a cou­ple of years younger than me, looks as though he could fit in with my group of friends. He seems like a nice enough guy — he’s spent hun­dreds of hours vol­un­teer­ing at com­mu­nity gar­dens, and he once in­vited a Syr­ian refugee to tour his farm. He’s even a staunch en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist who re­fuses to use dis­pos­able di­a­pers on his new­born daugh­ter. Still, there is a ten­sion be­tween us. At one point in our con­ver­sa­tion, he yells out, de­fen­sively, “I’m a good per­son!” I won­der if he’s as sure about that as he in­sists.

Un­like any­one else who has ever stepped foot in my apart­ment, Stone is glad that Don­ald Trump was elected pres­i­dent of the United States. Though he re­fuses to iden­tify as alt-right (he says that he re­jects white supremacy), he does share many po­si­tions with the far right. Stone loves the same thought lead­ers — Milo Yiannopou­los, Gavin Mcinnes, and, his favourite, Jor­dan Peter­son — who are pop­u­lar with that camp. He doesn’t like the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, rages against “white, up­per-class fem­i­nists,” and ar­gues that po­lit­i­cally cor­rect left­ies are noth­ing more than au­thor­i­tar­i­ans.

Even though Stone cham­pi­ons the US pres­i­dent, he is can­did in his as­sess­ment of the man. “Trump is an ego­cen­tric, mega­lo­ma­niac ass­hole,” he says — some­thing we ac­tu­ally agree on. But Stone also notes that he’s nev­er­the­less a Trump fan be­cause the “glob­al­ist elites” hate the pres­i­dent. “For me, it’s like the en­emy of my en­emy is my friend,” he ex­plains. I’m not sure if he con­sid­ers me to be an en­emy as well, but I must ad­mit that even be­fore he stepped foot into my home, I thought that he might be mine.

Af­ter the shock of Trump’s elec­tion vic­tory a few months ear­lier, I, like al­most ev­ery­one else in North Amer­ica, went on­line. So­cial me­dia was a tor­rent of post- elec­tion

rage — a lot of peo­ple call­ing other peo­ple racist. Posts al­ter­nated be­tween mock­ing Trump sup­port­ers and at­tack­ing them for be­ing ig­no­rant big­ots. News re­ports de­scribed a groundswell of ha­tred: an al­tright con­fer­ence fea­tured Sieg heil- ing white su­prem­a­cists who saluted Trump, and David Duke, for­mer leader of the Ku Klux Klan, called the elec­tion one of the most ex­cit­ing nights of his life. “Make no mis­take about it, our peo­ple have played a HUGE role in elect­ing Trump,” he wrote on Twit­ter. I read post af­ter post and won­dered, Is this how war be­gins?

As a Jew raised in the shadow of the Holo­caust, I was trained to be vig­i­lant about the resur­gence of fas­cism. I thought about 1920s Ber­lin, when left- and rightwing groups fought in the streets. Even though I had a cozy life in Canada, I felt a grow­ing ha­tred for the peo­ple today com­mit­ting hor­ri­ble acts. While I rec­og­nized that the alt-right con­fer­ence at­ten­dees and David Duke are mem­bers of fringe groups, I thought about all the other Trump vot­ers who, with­out tak­ing part in vi­o­lence them­selves, had will­ingly joined ranks with these white su­prem­a­cists. Were Trump sup­port­ers — all 63 mil­lion of them, as well as their co­horts on this side of the bor­der — also my en­e­mies?

Then one day, I walked into class and found that a stu­dent had placed a Make Amer­ica Great Again hat on my desk. She was teas­ing me, as I’d spent the term trashtalk­ing Trump. But, af­ter putting on the cap as a joke, I started think­ing. Were the peo­ple who put on this hat in earnest re­ally that dif­fer­ent from me? If I were to meet some of them, might we un­der­stand each other a lit­tle bet­ter and start to undo the an­gry po­lar­iza­tion that seemed to be con­sum­ing our so­ci­ety? I de­cided to try an ex­per­i­ment: I’d spend the next year find­ing men around my own age who sup­port the US pres­i­dent or have right-wing pol­i­tics. I didn’t want to de­bate them or set out to prove them wrong. In­stead, I’d lis­ten as they ex­plained why they be­lieve what they be­lieve. I rea­soned that the new Trumpian brand of pol­i­tics seemed to be here to stay, and I hoped that, if I could come to un­der­stand my right-wing dop­pel­gängers, maybe one day I could change their minds.

But find­ing Trump sup­port­ers in Canada proved to be dif­fi­cult, be­cause I live in a bub­ble. As a fem­i­nist and a so­cial­ist who sup­ports the wel­fare state, I feel at home in down­town Mon­treal. I am vo­cal in my sup­port of LGBTQ, Indige­nous, and im­mi­grant rights, and in my cir­cles, this is pretty much the norm. My friends are other lib­eral artists, ac­tivists, and mem­bers of the me­dia, and my job, teach­ing at a col­lege, has me sur­rounded with like-minded humanities pro­fes­sors. It took weeks of out­reach, plus an on­line call for vol­un­teers made by The Wal­rus, be­fore I was able to con­nect with a Cana­dian fan of Trump will­ing to par­tic­i­pate. And, one cross-coun­try flight later, that’s how Curtis Stone came to be on my couch.

As we get to know each other a lit­tle bet­ter, Stone ex­plains that he con­sid­ered him­self a lib­eral up un­til about six years ago. His pol­i­tics be­gan to change, how­ever, when he left the mu­si­cian life be­hind and be­came a farmer. He met a lot of the peo­ple he and his friends had of­ten de­rided — “the Chris­tian, Repub­li­can, gun-tot­ing red­necks that all of us lib­er­als make fun of.” But he found these con­ser­va­tives to be ac­cept­ing, rather than hos­tile, peo­ple who gave to char­ity and helped oth­ers in their com­mu­nity. “That was sort of a trig­ger to a greater cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance to what my lib­eral val­ues were,” he says. Stone con­tin­ued his right­ward drift af­ter he be­came in­flu­enced by lib­er­tar­ian icon Ron Paul, and he later started be­liev­ing that tax­a­tion was theft. But his jour­ney to con­ser­vatism came at a price: cer­tain friends cut off con­tact, and Stone claims that one even sought out his farm’s cus­tomers to in­form them of his new-found pol­i­tics in an at­tempt to start a boy­cott. “I don’t want to de­mean the term, but I feel like I have come out of the closet,” Stone says (he quickly adds that his brother, broth­erin-law, and best friend are all gay).

Two hours into our time to­gether, I am sur­prised to find that speak­ing with my ide­o­log­i­cal en­emy has be­come easy. Though we have our dis­agree­ments, we find ways to

laugh at our dis­putes. Then, not long af­ter we switch from beer to Scotch, we move on to the con­cept of white priv­i­lege. That’s when we get into the sub­ject of “the Jews.”

It starts when Stone talks about how he grew up work­ing-class and how he be­lieves that the idea of white priv­i­lege is noth­ing more than “re­verse racism.” Stone agrees that gen­der priv­i­lege and race priv­i­lege ex­ist but ar­gues that con­cerns about them are overblown. “It’s class. To me, it’s all class,” he says, sound­ing like an old-school Marx­ist. “And it just so hap­pens that the ma­jor­ity of the wealthy peo­ple in the world are white. In fact, they’re Jews.” Oh shit, I think. Stone is com­pletely wrong, but he goes on to tell me that the top banks and the top me­dia com­pa­nies are all run by Jews. My eye­brows arch, and Stone ex­plains that he doesn’t think it’s a ne­far­i­ous con­spir­acy but rather a con­se­quence of cen­turies of per­se­cu­tion against Jewish peo­ple, such as when we were de­nied the right to own real es­tate. “You can be a so­cial-jus­tice war­rior who stands for equal­ity, and you can talk shit about white peo­ple un­til you’re blue in the face, but then as soon as some­body points out that no, ac­tu­ally, the top dogs in the world are all Jews — yes they’re white, but they’re Jews — then now all of a sudden you’re a racist,” Stone says.

Hear­ing a right-wing guy spout these old, in­cor­rect anti-semitic tropes makes me un­com­fort­able — ha­tred di­rected to­ward Jews is on the rise, and the Anti-defama­tion League found that the num­ber of re­ported in­ci­dents of anti-semitism in the US was ap­prox­i­mately 60 per­cent higher in 2017 com­pared to 2016. But, even so, I don’t feel right as­sum­ing that Stone is be­ing ma­li­cious.

Stone and I spend the fol­low­ing day to­gether. We go for break­fast and then wan­der through the Musée d’art con­tem­po­rain de Mon­tréal. Through­out these ac­tiv­i­ties, we never stop dis­cussing pol­i­tics. I dis­agree with al­most all of Stone’s opin­ions on fem­i­nism and trans rights and Indige­nous is­sues and the im­por­tance of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. But some­thing hap­pens that I find dis­tress­ing. Some of his ar­gu­ments con­tain ker­nels of opin­ion that I can’t im­me­di­ately dis­miss — such as when he points out that he thinks that iden­tity pol­i­tics di­vide us by race and priv­i­lege into “the op­pres­sor and the op­pressed” and laments how this can af­fect his sense of shared com­mu­nity. I un­der­stand his stated de­sire for con­nec­tion, and a new thought en­ters my mind: What if my po­lit­i­cal op­po­site isn’t mo­ti­vated purely by hate? What if I think that he has some fair points af­ter all? W hen I told friends that I was set­ting out to find my right-wing dop­pel­gängers, they didn’t ap­prove. Xeno­pho­bic pol­i­tics in Canada may not have reached the lev­els seen in the US and Europe, but their ar­rival seems im­mi­nent. In these seem­ingly war­like con­di­tions, know­ing the en­emy — and, es­pe­cially, hu­man­iz­ing them — feels tan­ta­mount to trea­son.

Stephen Jones of Ge­orge­town, On­tario, de­scribes the mes­sage he re­ceives from con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian so­ci­ety this way: “What side are you on? The side of good, cool, smart, so­phis­ti­cated, un­der­stand­ing, sen­si­tive pro­gres­sives? Or are you a back­wards, neo-con, so-con, big­oted, evan­gel­i­cal, hate-fu­elled con­ser­va­tive?”

I spent nine months in email cor­re­spon­dence with Jones, a forty-year- old Con­ser­va­tive-vot­ing born-again Chris­tian who works in mar­ket­ing. I was sur­prised to dis­cover that Jones doesn’t ac­tu­ally like the US pres­i­dent, be­cause he doesn’t think that he em­bod­ies Chris­tian val­ues. Jones, how­ever, tells me that he can un­der­stand why Trump has been so suc­cess­ful. He says that many peo­ple — him­self in­cluded — find the im­po­si­tion of po­lit­i­cally cor­rect val­ues ag­gres­sive. “Many con­ser­va­tives have tried to have an el­e­vated de­bate about these emo­tional is­sues and have been screamed down at cam­puses and po­lit­i­cal ral­lies,” Jones says. But then, he says, Trump came along and outscreamed the lib­er­als.

Jones thinks that Trump-style pol­i­tics are com­ing to Canada for this very rea­son. “Many folks are fine with try­ing to keep up with the lat­est cul­tural evo­lu­tion,” he says. But he ar­gues that it’s dif­fi­cult to stay on top of chang­ing ter­mi­nolo­gies, such as switch­ing from “gay” to acronyms such as “LGBTQ.” Jones also com­plains that he went from be­ing asked to ac­cept same-sex mar­riage to be­ing asked to ac­knowl­edge trans youth in quick suc­ces­sion. “Most peo­ple on any side of the spec­trum don’t have an is­sue with ac­cept­ing peo­ple or how they want to be re­ferred to,” he tells me. “They just some­times le­git­i­mately get lost in the speed of the changes. And as soon as that hap­pens, they are treated like they are evil for not know­ing any bet­ter.”

No one should have to wait to get equal rights, but I feel some sym­pa­thy for Jones’s con­fu­sion. I also find it in­ter­est­ing that his con­cern is one I’ve heard be­fore: Stone also said he thinks that lib­er­als are quick to dis­miss the right by la­belling right wingers evil. Both men also de­scribe feel­ing that, if they ques­tion or dis­agree with cer­tain so­cial po­si­tions, they will be ex­com­mu­ni­cated by some groups. They may sound para­noid, but they aren’t en­tirely wrong: as early as 2015, the Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported on ser­vices and web­sites that ad­vised peo­ple on how to de­tect and un­friend all Trump sup­port­ers on Face­book, “so you can ex­pel them from your so­cial cir­cles more ef­fi­ciently.”

This kind of un­will­ing­ness to com­mu­ni­cate across the po­lit­i­cal di­vide is some­thing that danah boyd (whose name is spelled in all lower case let­ters), prin­ci­pal re­searcher at Mi­crosoft, ad­vo­cates against. “You can love some­one and dis­agree with their world view,” says boyd, who is also a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity’s In­ter­ac­tive Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Pro­gram and has writ­ten about how self-seg­re­ga­tion and po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion are harm­ing democ­ra­cies. I ask her if there’s any point in talk­ing to peo­ple who are set in their be­liefs if we can’t change each other’s opin­ions. She says that rather than pros­e­ly­tiz­ing, peo­ple need to seek out com­mon ground — where it does ex­ist — and iden­tify where dif­fer­ences come from. Ac­tions like these, she says, help cre­ate a healthy so­ci­ety in which dis­agree­ments can be ex­pressed re­spect­fully rather than ad­ver­sar­i­ally. “It’s the love that builds the so­cial fab­ric, not the shared world view,” she says.

Jones and I, un­sur­pris­ingly, dis­agree on most is­sues. He be­lieves that a per­son’s gen­der is only bi­o­log­i­cally de­ter­mined, and he is against same-sex mar­riage, and I think the op­po­site. But, to his credit, he never dis­misses me or my opin­ions. “If Iavoided ev­ery­one I have a fun­da­men­tal moral dif­fer­ence with, I would be pretty lonely,” he ad­mits. I ap­pre­ci­ate his will­ing­ness to talk pol­i­tics, but I can’t help but won­der if I’d be as re­cep­tive if I were a mem­ber of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity, a woman, or both. It’s not my life he’s judg­ing or my rights that he’s ques­tion­ing.

The in­con­sis­tency of Jones’s ethics comes into clearer fo­cus when he tells me about his re­la­tion­ship with two of his friends, who are a same-sex cou­ple.

While he be­lieves they are liv­ing in sin, he adds that “they are our friends, and we watch each other’s pets, have each other over for din­ner, and in­clude each other in par­ties. My wife and I love them.” Even though he dis­agrees with their re­la­tion­ship, Jones also tells me that “judg­ing is not some­thing the Bi­ble calls any­one to do.” I find my­self struck by his per­spec­tive, which comes down to rec­og­niz­ing that “we are all sin­ners,” him­self in­cluded. Ul­ti­mately, Jones hopes to con­vert these friends, spread the gospel, and save their souls. Then an­other thought hits me: a sim­i­lar kind of evan­ge­liza­tion could be said to ex­ist on the left. We hope to con­vert those on the right to the re­li­gion of lib­er­al­ism.

De­spite Jones’s pro­fessed love for his gay friends, he men­tions that he isn’t sure what he’d do if they were to get mar­ried. He doesn’t think he could at­tend the cer­e­mony be­cause that could qual­ify as “lead­ing them into sin.” His the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem be­comes real when he re­ceives an in­vi­ta­tion to their wed­ding. A few weeks later, Jones tells me that he’d been stalling to send back his RS VP be­cause he is un­sure which is more lov­ing: writ­ing a let­ter telling his friends that he be­lieves mar­riage should be be­tween a man and a woman or de­clin­ing the in­vi­ta­tion and let­ting them “en­joy their day.”

In the end, Jones didn’t go to the wed­ding be­cause he was on va­ca­tion. In­stead, he sent a gift and a card that quoted from 1 Corinthi­ans. It read, “And now these three re­main: faith, hope and love. But the great­est of these is love.” D avid Burns sus­pects that I, a mem­ber of the so-called lib­eral me­dia, am not to be trusted. There is, he tells me over the phone, a spe­cific rea­son for this: those on the left are quick to dis­miss peo­ple on the right as racist. “[If] you ac­cuse some­body of be­ing a racist, you no longer have to lis­ten to that per­son. You no longer have to take their opin­ions into con­sid­er­a­tion,” he says. I con­nected with Burns, who lives in Cal­gary and works in the oil-and-gas in­dus­try, through a mu­tual friend. Burns is well-ed­u­cated, with a de­gree in his­tory and English, and he worked as a jour­nal­ist for a cou­ple of years af­ter univer­sity. “Ial­ways tell my kids, ‘When you’re watch­ing the news, don’t just look at the in­for­ma­tion they’re telling you,’” he says. “‘Ask your­self why they’re telling you this story in this way.’”

Burns seems an­gry. He talks about how the “glob­al­ist forces” are “try­ing to erode na­tion states,” and he be­lieves that the so-called global 1 per­cent is in ca­hoots with gov­ern­ments and is get­ting in­sanely wealthy by screw­ing over reg­u­lar peo­ple. Burns likes Trump be­cause, he says, the US pres­i­dent has ar­tic­u­lated an op­po­si­tion to glob­al­iza­tion. But Burns is dis­trust­ful of all po­lit­i­cal par­ties. He tells me that Canada’s Lib­er­als and Con­ser­va­tives form “in­ter­change­able gov­ern­ments” that pro­vide the “il­lu­sion of choice.” I’m glad to fi­nally be on the same page — this is ex­actly the sort of thing that I dis­cuss with my left­wing friends.

I ask Burns about all the neg­a­tives that have come with Trump’s pres­i­dency, such as the dis­crim­i­na­tion that in­ten­si­fied across the US. His re­sponse: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are play­ers.” I find this an­swer to be con­fus­ing. Af­ter all, there have been on­go­ing re­ports of al­leged crimes di­rected at racial­ized peo­ple — in Oc­to­ber 2016, for in­stance, three men were ar­rested for al­legedly plan­ning to set ex­plo­sives tar­get­ing So­mali im­mi­grants in Kansas. I send Burns a link to “Ten Days Af­ter,” a re­port on post-elec­tion hate crimes com­piled by the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter. The SPLC found that there were 867 re­ported cases of ha­rass­ment and in­tim­i­da­tion within ten days fol­low­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and that “many ha­rassers in­voked Trump’s name dur­ing as­saults.” The re­port also de­scribed a his­tor­i­cally black church in Mis­sis­sippi that was set on fire and graf­fi­tied with the words “vote Trump” prior to the elec­tion. Burns pounces and de­clares the story to be false. Weeks af­ter the ar­son (and af­ter the SPLC pub­lished its re­port, which was later cor­rected), po­lice dis­cov­ered that a mem­ber of the church, not a Trump sup­porter, had ac­tu­ally done the dam­age. Burns im­me­di­ately goes on the at­tack and uses the in­clu­sion of the ar­son anecdote to dis­miss not only the re­port but also the SPLC it­self. “Ed­u­ca­tors, as you ev­i­denced

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