I’m compelled to respond to Bernstein’s broadside against what he calls “absolutism,” because he implies that the preferred alternative (embodied in his column by Buddhism) is “relativism.”
Relativism is never the answer – literally. What Bernstein calls “absolutism” is really partisanship or factionalism. Those are ancient and altogether banal forces that divide societies.
Bernstein’s willingness to assault “absolutism” is just an old populist rant against the perceived perniciousness of confrontational debate. He is the feckless friend who prefers angst-ridden silence among his acquaintances to an honest fight over the future of the gang.
I don’t mean to suggest that Bernstein’s positions are wrong, per se, but his premise is that fighting is bad, and we should all coalesce around a warm, if ultimately false, center.
There are very real disagreements in American society about these topics Bernstein touches most pithily. A civil engagement means presuming that the other side’s points may be incorrect but not inherently invalid, and also presuming that the other side will give us the same consideration.
(I am skeptical that there are many honest interlocutors on the right, but I am not so cynical as to dismiss their existence.)
Allow me to restructure Bernstein’s positions via co-equal engagement, rather than “Buddhist” disengagement.
1. Diplomacy’s role. The division between left and right should not be between “talking” versus “not talking,” respectively. Rather, the division is more subtly placed on a continuum of approachability. No one suggests “talking” to Osama bin Laden – he sits on one end of the approachability scale. At the other end, some blockheads seriously wish to cut off our less malleable European allies, like the French, something even Rumsfeld was not silly enough to propose. In between, somewhere lies a line that determines whether a given international leader may be approached diplomatically. The right puts this line closer to France; the left puts in closer to al Qaeda. Its proper placement is something we’ll have to determine with a good ol’ fashioned shoutin’ match.
2. Neo-socialism. Generally, Bernstein is correct to assail the right’s unwillingness to regulate industries that are important to society. (Of course, the right is happy to provide government funding and oversight of the military-industrial complex while calling for the death of the Department of Education.) Unfortunately, what he’s really complaining about is Americans’ distaste for government-managed healthcare. Perhaps he’s correct to lament, but the U.S. has never known socialism or autarky. In our social contract, basic welfare from the state is not something we have negotiated in exchange for our complacency. For Americans, tyranny hurts more than toothaches.
3. Death and taxes. Taxes have always been verboten in the U.S. As a nation, we have never come to grips with sovereign wealth because we’ve never really accepted national sovereignty. Of course, as the adage goes, taxes visited us as surely as the cold kiss of death. Americans, however, have never felt compelled to accept the inevitability of inevitable things. Even the “right to die” is something many of us feel disgusted by. In my view, Americans can be convinced of the value of their government, but I’d be loathe to try and convince them of its goodness. (Of course, we’ve most accepted government when we have participated in it, especially through the New Deal and World War II. Again, government is not what’s good; the American people are what’s good.)
I believe that Bernstein does the left a disservice by pretending that we (the left) can bring Americans away from conflict to a place of comity and consensus. We won’t win Americans’ hearts by wooing them with our gentle philosophy. We will sweep them off their feet by giving their less honorable suitors a little chin music.
What do you think? Are you ready to wrassle?