How can I love my enemies if I don’t even know them?

How can I love my enemies if I don’t even know them? March 9, 2015

It was Christmas Day. As always, I sat in the living room with my family members, who were ready to exchange gifts. This year, I folded my arms sheepishly. I’d spent my December buried in job applications, and then the week before Christmas (which is when I normally do my shopping) I’d caught the same horrific flu that everyone seems to be catching this winter. For the first time ever, I hadn’t managed to buy a single present. For anyone.

“Don’t worry about it,” my mother said kindly. A devout Catholic who has never been a fan of consumerism, she was not going to let my negligence make any of us forget the reason for the season. “And honestly, there’s only one thing I want from you. I’ve bought you a book for Christmas, and the best present you could give me would be to read it.”

I felt a knot tightening in my stomach. Whatever this book was, she was definitely not giving it to me for my reading pleasure. I knew this gift would be an attempt to convert me to her views on some controversial issue. Probably political, I cringed as I began undoing the ribbons. Nevertheless, I promised her I’d read it. Despite our differences, my mother has always been the most loving and generous parent I could ask for. The least I could do was to read a book that might help me understand her better. A few seconds later, the wrappings were removed and I held a thick hardcover volume entitled Stop the Coming Civil War, by conservative radio commentator Michael Savage, between my hands.

“Ooh,” my mother observed with a slight laugh. “You’re making a face.”

Yes. I was. A quick glance through the chapter headings warned me of what kinds of views I could expect to encounter – fear-mongering about undocumented immigrants in the US, an endorsement of the English-only movement, militarism, homophobia, climate change denial, and a general “my country, right or wrong” nationalism that has long irked me. No, Michael Savage was definitely not my kind of guy. And, as I began to read through the chapters, I soon found that I was not his kind of gal, either. “Let me simplify things. If it’s illegal, Democrats are for it. Period,” he says on page 48. “We live in a society in which our civil rights are being eliminated, even as we must make our way through a leftist-dominated culture that has become even more hedonistic, amoral and degenerate than that of Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s.”

I’m not a registered Democrat, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable being labelled as left-wing. But, admittedly, my opinions generally lean well in that direction, and as I read the book, I found myself feeling more and more defensive. Throw-away lines about “loony leftists” and “greedy socialists” kept making me feel that, despite the book’s title, Savage is not setting out to stop the hypothetical civil war that threatens his beloved nation. He is not trying to heal the wounds that divide right from left. Instead, like so many pundits, he is trying to win the war for those “true patriots” on his side: the Republicans, particularly the Tea Party.

This aggressive, grandstanding, hooray-for-my-side approach is certainly not unique to Savage. I’ve seen it all over the media and especially online – on feminist websites and men’s rights ones, Christian blogs and atheist ones, The Huffington Post and The National Review. It has been argued that instead of uniting us, the age of personalized media divides us further, allowing us to surround ourselves with people who share our views and blocking out the rest. And, of course, the ability to post comments anonymously allows us to give free rein to our most vicious, aggressive selves. (I must take a moment here to express my gratitude to those readers who comment on this website – in my brief blogging experience, I have found you to be incredibly polite and sensitive while still expressing yourselves honestly. Thank you!). 🙂

Psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander has done a great job of summing up the greatest social division that plagues the United States today. Alexander purports that our country consists of two distinct tribes, and he offers us these tongue-in-cheek descriptions:

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country.”

Alexander’s analysis of this tribal divide is textured and complex, well worth reading in its entirety. For my purposes here, though, three points stand out as particularly salient. The first is that members of the Red and Blue Tribe rarely encounter each other. Scanning his social circle, Alexander finds he doesn’t know a single person who holds evangelical religious beliefs or opposes LGBTQ rights. For him, Red Tribe members are like dark matter – he knows they’re nearby, but he never meets them.

The second point is that both sides deny their enmity toward the other. Perhaps they cloak it in a positive value – such as the Red Tribe’s devotion to “true patriotism,” which, in their view, left-leaning sillies like me lack. Meanwhile, Blue Tribe members pride themselves on being open and tolerant to immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ communities, and other marginalized groups…But, as Alexander astutely notes, these “tolerated” groups are generally part of the Blue Tribe anyway. Meanwhile, Blues often give off a sense of disliking America, constantly taking a critical stance toward their home country. But in Alexander’s analysis, it’s not true that they hate their own country. The word “America” is used as a cover for just one half of it – the Red Tribe.

The third point that stands out from Alexander’s observation is that these two groups, despite being socially isolated from each other and perhaps despising each other, actually have a lot in common. They drive on the same roads, send their children to the same schools, and eat in the same restaurants (I have managed to order arugula salads in steakhouses). And from here comes Alexander’s most chilling observation. Our worst enemies are generally not people who live on the other side of the world. Rather, they are our neighbors – the same neighbors we’ve been commanded to love:

Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.” Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.

In 1930’s Germany, Nazis and Jews lived in the same communities and moved through the same social spaces; the same was true of Hutus and Tutsis in 1990’s Rwanda. While I am quite dismissive of Michael Savage’s alarmist stance, I concede that he does have a point. The polarization in today’s US does indeed contain the seeds of civil war.

As Christians, we have been called to love our enemies. It’s easy to care for those people who love us in return. It’s easy to “tolerate” people whom we already empathize with to begin with. But our enemies? That’s a different story. Both Alexander and Savage reveal that we rarely know people who are different – I mean truly different – from us. We may think we know what they stand for. It may repulse us. But, have we ever sat down to talk with them, to find out where they are coming from?

With these thoughts in mind, I gritted my teeth and struggled to suspend judgment while reading Savage. And – believe me – it was a struggle (by this point my flu had taken on asthmatic overtones, and I found that every diatribe against amnesty for illegal migrants threw me into another coughing fit). But, eventually I discovered that Savage had some fair points to make. President Obama’s overconsolidation of power, the scandals around the 2012 Benghazi murders, and the threat to medical and military personnell’s right to practice freedom of conscience with regard to their religion are concerns of mine as well as his. He also touches on some points that leftists might actually agree with, such as the corruption of Wall Street executives and the injustice of NSA spying.

I also gained some insights into why a man like Savage – who was born during World War II and thus lived through the entire Cold War – might fear the left more generally. He views socialism as an international plot to create a totalitarian one-world government and consolidate all wealth and power into the hands of a global elite. At first glance this idea sounds absurd to me (how could such a one-world government even function?), but when I think back on 20th century history or reread Orwell’s 1984, his fears do seem plausible. Overall, I disagree with Savage, and I doubt that he and I could become close friends. But, I can at least try to understand where he is coming from.

As Catholics, we are in a fortuitous position to bridge this gap between Red and Blue. We walk under a big umbrella alongside pacifists and just war proponents, socialists and capitalists, reformers who’d like to have the Mass said in Latin and other reformers who’d like to see women’s ordination and marriage equality for LGBTQ couples. Looking at my mother and me, it’s not too hard to see how we ended up in different political tribes while remaining within the same Church. For her, abortion is one of the most serious wrongs plaguing the modern world, and she has devoted a fair amount of her energy to the pro-life movement. Given the US political climate, should I be so surprised that this work has led her toward a close affinity with the capitalism-endorsing, immigration-fearing Reds? Meanwhile, my education in Latin American studies has led me to care deeply about the pursuit of peace and social justice – causes like closing the School of the Americas resonate with me in a personal way. Is it really surprising, then, that over the years I’ve become more and more Blue?

For me, it is extremely hard to approach people in the Red Tribe – including my own family members – without fear, contempt, resentment, or judgment. Even within the Church, I am often scared to ask questions or voice my views. Will I be judged? Will I offend someone? What if my friend turns out to be an enemy? And yet, these difficult, uncomfortable conversations are just what we need if we’re going to heal the divisions that plague our world.

Many years ago, I attended a lecture by Frank Meeink, a former skinhead who travels around the US speaking about his personal journey from hatred to compassion. “It’s so easy to focus on how we are different,” he said. “Instead, we need to look at how we’re the same.” Those of us who identify with the Catholic Church are united by our faith in a God who loves us, who loved us so much as to assume our form and live among us, who called us to create a kingdom of justice and goodness that begins on earth and has its fulfillment in the realm beyond. Outside the Church, we are united by something even more basic: our common humanity. If we want to prevent a civil war, if we want to create a culture of compassion, I’d say that the first step is to turn inward. We must recognize that we all have enemies and ask ourselves just who they are. The next step – and this is the hard one – is to reach out and get to know them. This knowledge is the starting point for love.

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  • Reblogged this on Arlin Report and commented:
    A well thought out well written blog. I believe it is likely I am on the otherside of the authors views closer to the right as she is to the left. Her words are written in away she made me listen.

  • Bjonz

    “For me, it is extremely hard to approach people in the Red Tribe – including my own family members – without fear, contempt, resentment, or judgment. … What if my friend turns out to be an enemy?

    Your sense of “enemy” is adolescent to say the least. Your ideology isolates you from anyone with whom it is not shared, including fellow Christians and your own family.

    Modern liberal progressive ideology has become dogmatic, by virtue of which, contrary thought and often provable fact, is disallowed. Don’t you see that your beliefs have engendered such hubris as to alienate you from even your family?

    The source of your angst is your identification with ideas and ideals that often masquerade as Christian principles while at the same time they have put you at enmity with fellow Christians; a house divided.

    Christ’s antidote to obsessing on what divides us is this, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

    • Bjonz, I fear you may have misunderstood my post. I’m not trying to make anyone out as the enemy. Certainly not my family members! That is the whole point – the fact that people disagree on certain issues does not mean they need to be enemies. Somehow the message you got from my post is the exact opposite of the one I meant to convey. I’m not sure where I went wrong in my communication, but I’m sorry in any case.

      I was raised with the idea that politics was an off-limits topic for polite conversation. Over the years, I’ve gathered that my extended family contains equal parts Red and Blue. We generally get along well, but we avoid talking about controversial issues. The question is, can we talk about these issues and state our beliefs and still get along? I believe we can, and ultimately my conclusion is the same as yours. We are called to love.

    • Ronald King

      Bjonz. I suggest you reread the post and your comment once again. Please explain how her sense of “enemy is adolescent” when she clearly exhibits a sensitivity to the beliefs which divide us and seeks a way to bridge the gap of those divisions. What were your feelings about the post and author which influenced you to comment as you did?

      • Bjonz

        Belief that people with whom you disagree are your enemies is usually replaced by a more rational understanding of human interaction somewhere between the ages of 15 and 20, ergo, adolescent.
        I have no idea of what you mean by “… a sensitivity to the beliefs which divide us…” Are you speaking of easily offended or upset? Or do you mean the divisive beliefs were quickly detected?
        Either way, she has not come close to suggesting a way to bridge gaps. She has merely condescendingly suggested that reading a book or two written by a member of the opposing tribe might yield some points of mutual agreement, read, “ Wow! Those guys are actually human.”
        The self-centered nature of this blog is far from atypical. We have a generation coming into its own, who feel nothing but umbrage when confronted with any ideology foreign to them. Rather than dealing with differences on the merits, they now believe difference = enemy, the result of which is hopeless polarization, bloated sensitivities and no forward progress. If science, business and technology were to start resolving conflicts in this way we will be living in mud huts in less than 50 years.

        • Bjonz, your vehemence and passion on this issue makes me curious to know more about you. Do you have a blog of your own? How have you found your way to Vox Nova? Also, how do you go about bridging the gaps and connecting with those who hold beliefs and values different from yours?

        • Ronald King

          Bjonz, I asked about your feelings and not your thoughts which are influenced by your feelings.

      • Bjonz

        Belief that people with whom you disagree are your enemies is usually replaced by a more rational understanding of human interaction somewhere between the ages of 15 and 20, ergo, adolescent.

        • Brian Martin

          Then the US seems to be stuck in a perpetual state of adolescence in terms of how we communicate and perceive people.
          As far as this blog being self centered…I supposed at it’s basis, the idea that I or you or anyone else’s opinion might resonate with other people, or prompt discussion could be seen as self centered..but then I guess that makes your comments just as self centered as her post.
          I believe that you are misreading her post, however, because what I see is someone who is saying that understanding the other, or where they might be coming from is the key to bridging the divides.
          Asking her to clarify something is more likely to bridge divides than engaging in subtle or not so subtle insults.

  • Melody

    Thank you for a thoughtful post which certainly speaks to me. I think I am a good deal older than you (I was a child in the ’50s and ’60s) but your mother sounds a lot like mine. She was more of a traditional conservative than a tea-partier; she passed away well before the tea-part movement. I miss her every day of my life, I never knew a kinder or more generous person. But I don’t miss the politics. Even though the political views are still there with the rest of my family, whom I also love dearly. I used to be just like them. But in the past 10 years I have undergone a sea change. There are those who think political views are in our DNA, but I think I am proof that they are not. I am still figuring out how to deal with respecting my family’s views, and also respecting my own. It helps that my husband and adult children know where I am coming from. Mostly I’m a moderate, and hate arguments. So I am trying to be very zen about the whole thing.

    Bjonz, be careful about being too hard on others. You may find after a lot of years that your views have changed.

    • Melody, I’d say I also identify as a moderate, and I also hate arguments, especially when they become heated. I think some strategies for finding common ground involve asking people why they hold the beliefs and values they do and trying to validate their opinions. (It is definitely possible to validate someone’s views even if you don’t agree with them). The other thing to do is to find those areas where you actually do agree. When I read the Michael Savage book, I didn’t expect to agree with any of it, but I did end up agreeing with some of his points. This can be the start of a conversation that is interesting and productive.

  • Andrew

    Thank you for a thoughtful post. I am a fairly Blue Tribe Catholic who is happily married to a fairly Red Tribe Catholic. It works well for us as neither of us is all that passionate about politics. Usually on Election Day, we kiss each other good-bye in the morning before work and say to each other, “Have a good day, Dear — have fun ruining the country!”

    I do feel that the debates we have had about political issues have broadened my perspective on politics in general, and have given me better appreciation for the concerns of the other tribe. I would like to think that these debates have had the same effect on my wife as myself.

  • Mike Drabik

    Actually with those on the Red List I oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, contraception, human embryonic stem-cell research, in vitro fertilization and divorce and socialism,

    As for those on the Blue list: I believe absolutely in global warming, support everything Pope Francis has been teaching on economics; believe libertarianism and being Catholic are incompatible, reject “boot-strapism” believe free market capitalism is evil; love Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, I drive a Fiat 500; read lot, have a college degree, do not believe in creationism, want gun control – esp. banning of assault weapons. I also do not believe in rugged individualism or American exceptionalism which I see as arrogance at best and hubris at worst

    I do not like the Tea Party at all.

    But almost all my friends and my family fall on the Red List – that’s my origins. Some are unabashed supporters of the Tea Party.

    Nobody really wants me on their camp. The Blue list folks are the kindest and most tolerant of me; the Red List folks – well they’ll say: “There he goes again” and then smile. If I say too much they, figuratively, put their fingers in their ears and hum real loud until I stop.

    I reach to you, Jeannine – well for the most part… It seems like I’ve nowhere to really lay my head, though.

    • Mike, I can relate to you saying that you have nowhere to lay your head. I may be more Blue than Red, but on some issues I’m on the Red side, and I can also find the Blue Tribe annoying when they become dogmatic. I know that I have never felt 100% in agreement with ANY social group I’ve been part of – and I tend to be part of many social groups! Sometimes I think it’s just part of the human condition – we are all individual beings, and as much as we need one another for our flourishing and very survival, we can find it so hard to empathize and relate to one another. But we need to keep trying! The world is full of wonderful people, some just like us, some very different, and we can learn something from all of them.

    • Julia Smucker

      Mike, I too can relate to much of what you are saying. If you have nowhere to lay your head you are undoubtedly in good company, and I don’t necessarily mean me! Your allusion here perfectly illustrates why I take political homelessness as a positive sign for Christian discipleship. In fact, my problem is that it’s too easy to become self-righteous about this vis-à-vis other Christians who demonstrate a strongly partisan identification with either “tribe”.

      • I agree. Political homelessness is a true sign of discipleship. Excellent post to start this off, BTW. Either Savage (Michael or Dan) is a great example of the extremes of our present polarization.

  • Daisy Milton

    I found your commentary to be very thoughtful and the comments it elicited were interesting. Having just retired to northern Florida from San Francisco, the polarity of the red tribe and the blue tribe is obvious in every way Alexander states, and more.

    Open minds and open hearts, a desire to love and understand….hard to maintain if one is stubbornly stuck “in the narcissism of small differences”, as Freud puts it.

    In fact, the differences between them and the stubborn mindset each tribe holds is (yawn), what makes them exactly the same to me.

    Small steps of understanding from each individual, such as you took in reading that book, showing respect and honor; these are huge steps towards peace on earth for all mankind.

    Very hopeful and inspiring!

  • Brian Martin

    If more people, including myself, would take this approach more often, the world would be a much more sane place. I turn on the radio, I read the paper, I watch TV, I read blog posts….and what I see is anger, and behind the anger…fear. The question you ask, “What am I afraid of, and why” and “What is the other person afraid of, and why?” is a very important one. It is all too easy to get caught up in the us vs. them mentality.
    The whole culture war mentality is filled with fear. In my reading of scriptures, it seems that God is very aware of our fear..and we are repeatedly reminded “do not fear, do not be afraid”. We should also be reminded of the injunctions to love our neighbors as ourselves. To pray for those who curse us. etc. I was reminded of this when my 15 year old daughter asked that we as a family pray for the 20 Egyptian Christians killed by Isis…and more for the people who killed them.

    • Agellius


      You are one person whom I have always found to do a fine job of trying to understand people on both sides of the blue/red divide.

      • Brian Martin

        Thank Agellius, I have my days. Generally when I react with emotion rather than Faith.

    • Julia Smucker

      Important point, Brian – and I agree with Agellius that you’ve often been a model of putting this into practice.

      I keep thinking more and more that most if not all human sin is ultimately rooted in fear. So we must constantly pray for the love that casts out fear. Your daughter nailed it.

  • I should like someone here to tell me how I should attempt to empathize with this:

    Brian Martin insists that I should attempt to empathize with the “fear” of a person like this, but, instead of empathizing with it, I feel an almost nausea-making repulsion from it. and I think that the thing that sickens me the most about it is what I take to be the almost total lack of “faith” that this person is exemplifying. There is no “substance of the things hoped for,” “evidence of the things not seen” here–no “trust” that “all will be well” in the universe, as Huston Smith, the great scholar of comparative religion describes the “faith” of all the major world religions. All I can do is pity, but I definitely cannot empathize.

    • Agellius


      Maybe it’s because you don’t know him. : )

    • Mark VA

      Thank you, Dismas, for providing this link.

      I think we should be able to intellectually engage with the substance of an argument, even if it evokes strong feelings in us. This also seems to be the point of Jeannine’s post. Thus, let’s put the feelings aside, for a while.

      I see this statement as a genre of “speaking truth to power”. We should agree that from the point of view of the conservatives and the traditionalists in the Church, Pope Francis has been pushing the envelope.

      • I do not agree that Pope Francis has been “pushing the envelope,” at all. I think that you and I have, heretofore, agreed to disagree, and I think that I have sufficiently explained to you, before now, that, to me, “conservatism” in the Catholic Church signifies what John Henry Newman called “development of doctrine.” Everything else is, in my opinion, a DEVIATION from “orthodoxy” toward Biblical Fundamentalism, which would tend to deny the Petrine Commission, i.e. “what you shall bind on earth, I shall bind in heaven, and what you shall loose on earth, I shall loose in heaven.” Pope Francis is the legitimate Successor to Peter, and if he changes doctrine on marriage, it is changed, just as your “Saint” John Paul II (whom I always accepted as the legitimate Supreme Pontiff) changed doctrine on capital punishment.

        • Mark VA


          Are you thinking of a Pope changing a doctrine, or an opinion/discipline of the Catholic Church?

          If the former, then some future googly Pope may declare that God does not exist, for “the string theory tells me so”, or some such. HOWZAT?

          The latter is no problem if new compelling evidence, or serious Church wide needs exist. For example, changing the view on heliocentrism, allowing married clergy in the Roman rite, or tightening the criteria for capital punishment (see below):

      • MarkVA, you are confusing dogma with doctrine. “Moral theology” belongs in the area of “doctrine,” not “dogma,” and it should be informed by human knowledge. That is the area in which the popes and councils have full latitude to change the practice of the Church–as they have changed it, regarding priestly celibacy, regarding slavery, regarding capital punishment, regarding the applicability of “just war” theology to modern military practices and situations, and regarding prohibitions of usury. As science develops much greater understanding of gender formation and affective orientations of certain psychologies, they have every right to adjust Church teaching regarding “same sex attraction”–but not, I would agree, regarding sacramental marriage. The “civil marriage” of so-called “gays,” and the serially monogamous marriages of the Protestants have nothing to do with “sacramental marriage,” and the Church may legitimately recuse herself from what goes on in those sectors of the society, because it’s actually none of her business, as regarding THEIR definition of “marriage.”

    • Dismas, listening to this letter, the main thing I hear is FEAR. The person who wrote the letter and the person reading it here sound absolutely terrified. “It is quite possible for a master deceiver to fool the Catholic faithful.” This person is afraid of the loss of tradition, the breakdown of society, and ultimately, evil in its purest form, represented by the a false prophet, the Antichrist, and the devil himself. You may not agree with what is being said here – I don’t either – but I will admit that I have felt this same level of fear (about other issues, such as environmental destruction, war and the runaway growth of technology) and have often believed that “we live in dark and dangerous times.” What do you think?

      • Also, I agree with Mark VA that traditionalists and conservatives in the Church need to be listened to. Their fears and concerns are not invalid or unfounded.

    • Brian Martin

      I don’t recall insisting you do anything. I do know that my Faith demands that I love my neighbor, that I actually forgive my enemies…damnably radical thought…and damnably hard to do. My point is often when we understand where someone is coming from, it is easier to see them as a hated “other”, as an “enemy”, or as an “idiot”. An example – I once was was accosted by a man when I was a teen..and he offered to pay me for sex. He was intoxicated and pushy. This freaked me out. For quite some time i “Hated” homosexuals…until I realized as a mature adult that one drunken individual does not represent the totality of homosexuals. My point being-fear often drives people’s hateful behavior, including our own. My Catholic Faith calls me to more than dividing lines and “us/them” thinking. It is often easier to see the faults of the other than our own.

      • You might be interested to know that I don’t believe that there is any such thing as a “homosexual,” and also believe that anybody is capable of loving a member of the same sex passionately and/or romantically. One hundred years from now these categories of pigeon-holing an “orientation” that is much more than physical are going to be considered as barbaric as they actually are–and also the result of too arbitrary and wholly an adoption of the atheistic and positivist thinking of him whom Nabakov called “the Viennese witchdoctor.”Human sexual/romantic preferences are fluid, oft-times within a given lifetime, and the apostolic and orthodox Church was absolutely correct in thinking that ANYONE was capable of committing ALL the “sins of concupiscence” (except that I don’t consider “same-sex-attraction” to be “intrinsically disordered” or a violation of something called “natural law”; instead, it’s quite normal, and, indeed, if properly used, virtuous and civilized). “Same-sex marriage,” however, is a whole different kettle of fish, and needs to be discussed separately from whatever is the most “sanctified” lifestyle for those who are EXCLUSIVELY attracted to their same sex.

        • Brian Martin

          Dismas, I don’t disagree with you here. We label things, and those labels tend to become all encompassing when they are not.
          As words are symbolic constructs that represent something for the purpose of communication, we are always limited.
          Perhaps that is the greatest loss of “the Fall”, if we lost the ability to understand and communicate at a higher level

    • Ronald King

      Dismas, I understand your feelings of revulsion for this letter and pity for the man who read it. I also feel the same feelings and it does not mean that I reject this man. The feeling of repulsion for me is a signal that what I have heard and seen is not the result of love and it is what we are wired to feel in response to an environment or experience which lacks love. My response of pity relates to my sense of intense suffering which this man seems to be experiencing as a result of his core beliefs about God, Church and others which I would guess are the foundation of his identity which as with all of us is formed in a state of extreme vulnerability with the threat of not being accepted into our social environment if we do not conform. We are wired to conform or be rejected and face the crisis of death alone.

  • Agellius

    Excellent. I had read Alexander’s post too, a while back. I found it very insightful and am glad that it’s apparently making the rounds. I admire your determination to read Savage all the way through (not that I necessarily agree with him) and eventually find some things you can agree with, and your effort to arrive at a modicum of understanding of where he’s coming from.

    I have long considered Vox Nova to be a place where people on opposite sides of Church and secular politics can get to know each other in an atmosphere of civility if not always charity. My experiences here have helped to convince me that progressive/liberal Catholics really do mean well, and I hope it has worked both ways.

  • Mark VA


    I agree with your sentiment that we need to “…reach out and get to know…” those with whom we disagree. In this vein, I would like to make a few points:

    I think that sometimes it may be better to research the opposing position first, since this can reduce the possibility of the issue becoming emotionally entangled with a strong personality;

    It is my experience that not an insignificant number of people resist hearing opposing views, especially if these views are backed by evidence and reason. I’ve noticed that both the “reds” and the “blues” may do this, but the “blues”, being somewhat better educated, do it with more nuanced panache;

    I believe that education is one of the few ways out of this divide, but education is not as flashy as passionate arguments in front of cameras. Education, in turn, leads to more interesting questions than the world of “‘reds” and “blues” could ever muster;

    Let me close with a question:

    You’ve mentioned George Orwell’s “1984” – have you read the book that inspired it, “We”, by Yevgeny Zamyatin?

    • Mark, I haven’t read “We.” I’ll have to check it out. I’m thinking of perhaps teaching a class on utopian/dystopian literature one of these years (I’m starting a new teaching job in the fall). We’ll see.

      In the meantime, I wanted to say that thus far I really enjoy your comments on my posts and on this blog more generally. I’m curious to know more about you. Do you have a blog of your own?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I have read and taught We as part of a course on utopian/dystopian literature, so I would be happy to chat about it with you privately. For Catholics, it is a cautionary tale about enforced conformity and the desire/will to suppress all dissent.

        • Mark VA


          Thank you for your kind words, and congratulations on the new position!

          I too truly enjoy your posts, but to keep things interesting, will take “dialectical” positions now and then – please reciprocate! I don’t have a blog, so I’ll mention this or that about myself here, at Vox Nova.


          Ha, a mathematician teaching “We” – somehow, it’s very appropriate, D-503!


  • Bjonz

    @JMD, not sure this site is designed for much back n forth. Not that long ago the fact that we are all surrounded by people who hold differing values and beliefs was simply axiomatic. Readily identifiable groups ran along the lines of, racial/ethnic, political and religious. Workplaces served as the crucibles in which differences were worked out or put aside as tangential to the objective of accomplishing the task at hand. After work, people would discuss their differences, even to the point of heated arguments, then finish their beer/cocktail, shake hands or hug and go home without feelings of indignation or offense. They both walked away knowing more about the “other.”
    The most open and notorious exemplar of the aforementioned is probably Congress. The differences between all of the diverse political philosophies were, in actuality, its strength. The whole was often much greater than the sum of its parts. The era of bi-partisanship seems to have ended with the nonsensically vicious attack on Clinton. Hubris squared.
    We now seem to be locked-in to a narcissistic degenerative feedback loop of obsession with personal offense, fairness and equality, the effect of which subdivides us into ever-smaller “tribes”. It is not so much “divide and conquer” as it is divide and destroy.
    Bridging gaps is a decision. There is one tribe, humankind, made in God’s likeness whether you see that or not. None of your tribe-mates owe you anything including loving you as they love themselves, they owe that to God; none of them will do it well. Plan to give more than you receive, always and everywhere. Enemies are mostly obvious, they are the ones who want to hurt you rather than hurt your feelings; pray for them. When your ideas are challenged or attacked, understand that it is an opportunity to examine the depth of your beliefs and to hone your reasoned defense of them.
    We are all perfectly free leave the feedback loop and ignore whatever derision comes our way for so doing. Neither our creator nor our constitution has endowed us with the right to fairness, equality of outcome, or a life free from offense. We used to know that.

    • Ronald King

      I wish you would be clear and open about the hostility which drives your comments. I am certainly aware of my hostility with this comment directed towards you.

      • I’d be curious to know why both of you have been driven by hostility in commenting on this article! Bjonz’s earlier comments (not this most recent one) and Ronald’s most recent comment contain hostility, and I really don’t know why. What’s it all about?

        Bjonz, I agree with most of what you’re saying, but I do wonder what era you’re speaking of when you say, “Readily identifiable groups ran along the lines of, racial/ethnic, political and religious. Workplaces served as the crucibles in which differences were worked out or put aside as tangential to the objective of accomplishing the task at hand. After work, people would discuss their differences, even to the point of heated arguments, then finish their beer/cocktail, shake hands or hug and go home without feelings of indignation or offense. They both walked away knowing more about the ‘other.'”

        This sounds like a wonderful situation, and I can believe it existed (and still exists now) in some places. But was it ever universal? Not that long ago, race-based segregation was a norm in the US South. When my father was growing up in a small, mostly Protestant US Northern town in the 40’s and 50’s, his only friends were Catholic kids – the Protestant kids wouldn’t play with him. When my mother was working in the 70’s, she had to deal with an insensitive boss who regularly told “Polak jokes” – even though my mother had a long, obviously Polish surname. Until fairly recently, interracial marriage was taboo; marrying someone of a different religion was almost as rare. To me it seems like we are getting better, not worse, at bridging these gaps. The point of my post is to show that some serious gaps still remain; we have a lot farther to go. But I just don’t believe that the current situation is as bad as you seem to be suggesting.

        • Bjonz

          It is almost humorous, but not quite, that you detect hostility in my previous posts and in Ron’s latest post, but you are perfectly blind to the hostility in your own blog.
          I was foolish enough once to try to explain color to a friend of mine who sees only a few shades of grey – the far spectrum of colorblindness. I tried every analogy I could think of and was actually shocked when he told me to give it up. “I am profoundly colorblind” he said, “you can’t help me.” The noteworthy postscript is that he lived in this world of color for 10 years before realizing he had a problem. Imagine that.

        • Bjonz, I did not feel any hostility while writing this post. I did feel some hostility when I first encountered both Michael Savage’s and Scott Alexander’s writings, but by the time I sat down to write this post, I no longer felt that way. And I certainly did not set out to stir up hostility in others when writing it. So I’m afraid I still don’t know what I’ve done to provoke you so.

          What I feel now is not so much hostility as frustration that I’ve not managed to communicate to you what I’ve intended to, and I’m not sure why. It’s even more perplexing given that we seem to hold the same core values and have similar desires, so I’m really not sure how things have gone wrong.

  • Ronald King

    Jeannine, I revealed my hostility because I believe it is important to be open and honest with one another. If hostility is not verbally expressed in a direct and respectful way then being vulnerable with one another is avoided and communication occurs through the use of defense mechanisms with each person attempting to gain power over the other. When he stated that your comment about people who disagree with you are your enemies was adolescent, or something like that, what was your emotional response?
    Buddha stated something like we must know our hate before we can love. We have two primitive survival mechanisms which influence our interpersonal relationships in a harmful way, fear and anger. If we do not openly admit to their influence then our relationships are built around defense mechanisms in order to protect oneself from potential harm.

    • Ronald, you sound like a cognitive behavioural therapist! I definitely felt hostility/defensiveness when my comments were described as “adolescent.” I did my best to wait for the feeling to pass before replying, however. In general I agree that it’s important to acknowledge hostility, but it may not be so productive to express it. I think it can be better to step aside, wait for the hostility to pass, and then resume the conversation.

      • Ronald King

        Jeannine, I would say that I am eclectic with a strong desire to understand human relationships as they emerge over time through the interpersonal neurobiological history in which our sense of self and others is formed to adapt to the existential crises we all must confront each day we exist with the reality of believing we are nothing and always threatened with the possibility of that truth being revealed. One warning signal which attempts to defend us from that possibility is anger/hostility which can be used to incorporate our thinking processes to intellectualize, rationalize, project, etc. that threat and prevent us from feeling vulnerable.
        The core pain in human vulnerability is being nothing and it begins the moment love is lost within the deepest layers of our particular families’ histories’ It is like we are born into an environment in which the symptoms of post traumatic stress become the foundation from which our attachments and development begin to form and we as human beings are constantly seeking the truth and validation of who we are and the value we might have. Too much in my head to put down in a comment. Thanks for the opportunity.

  • I’m arriving a little late to this discussion. I have been working on a presentation to give about recognizing and embracing a group’s identity. In my case the purpose is to help candidates discern our (Secular Franciscan) Order’s salient characteristics that form its identity. One of the great stumbling blocks in living the vocation (actually any Christian vocation) is the tendency to cling to ‘Red or Blue tribe’ identities, especially since our members are mostly laity. It’s an ongoing problem and it leads to occasional division among fraternity (community) members who otherwise strive to be united in gospel living. The problem is diminished when members focus on dialogue and work through controversial issues together in the spirit of the gospel. For many members the red/blue tribe identity eventually recedes (though admittedly a few leave) as it must in order for us to take on the life of the gospel more fully.

  • Mark VA

    Since today is March 14th, perhaps this should be mentioned ; )

    The “Reds” and the “Blues” are just the two groups that get the most play in the infotainment media. In my ears, it often sounds like an endless Orc battle.

    Now, rhetorically speaking, how much media play the higher cognitive exchanges between the Nerds and the Geeks do get?

    (For those who may not have reflected on such things, Nerds design things, for example, the algorithms for computer games, and the Geeks test/use/play, etc. these things – the relationship is symbiotic and hierarchical)

    But I digress – so, if you’ve ever made a pi from an n-gon, programmed its equation on a graphic calculator, wondered at its ever more elegant lines and ratios as n increases, here is a link you may enjoy (also check out the MIT video link – funny!):

  • Austin Ruse

    Savage is also viciously anti-Catholic. I am a political conservative and cannot stand listening to Savage.

    • Bjonz

      Austin, Just came back from the Catholic RE Congress in Anaheim which is where I first heard you speak in 2004. Sr. Helen Prejean spoke that same weekend. I assumed you would be back often but have missed you if you have been. Thank you for your ongoing battle on behalf of the most innocent of all.

      Michael Weiner aka Michael Savage, is anti-Catholic mostly on political grounds vis a vis, immigration. He put himself on record in his book, “Trickle Down Tyranny” when he said, “…I’m not religious. Do I believe in God? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.” Eternal condemnation is individually volitional. Since Michael is still breathing we must pray for him, kooky as he is.

  • Bjonz

    @JMD. Read this PBS interview with Daniel (Pat) Moynihan. I would be interested to know what you THINK about it.

    • I don’t think I can comment much on Moynihan without having read his writings. I certainly think he is correct in pointing to out-of-wedlock births as a serious social problem and indicator of other problems. He also makes a good comment critiquing the “secular optimism” that an improved economy means a completely improved society. But I still think that in a lot of ways our social relationships are getting better (even as our economy continues to struggle).