Healing the Divisions in Our Country

Published April 3, 2019

The New York Times


Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt 
By Arthur C. Brooks
242 pp. Broadside Books.

Arthur C. Brooks begins “Love Your Enemies” with a scene, a moment of grace, that occurred on the National Mall in Washington on Sept. 16, 2017, during a rally of Trump supporters. A counter-demonstrator from Black Lives Matter, a man named Hawk Newsome, was, quite unexpectedly, invited to address the Trump supporters. Quite unexpectedly, he won them over — a little bit, anyway. Newsome ended by saying, “If we really want to make America great, we do it together!” The Trumpers cheered, and the better angels of our nature flapped about the Mall for a little while. The mystic chords of memory reverberated from one side of the American divide to the other.

Was that moment a model for the future? Or just an accident?

Love your enemies? In this America? “Maybe this seems impossible to you,” Brooks writes. “You might say: ‘There are some people who are simply beyond the pale. There are millions of awful people in this country who advocate ideas we cannot tolerate. They deserve our contempt, not our love!’ I have heard this sentiment from serious journalists, respected academics and mainstream politicians. I have thought it myself.

“That attitude is both wrong and dangerously radical. Anyone who can’t tell the difference between an ordinary Bernie Sanders supporter and a Stalinist revolutionary, or between Donald Trump’s average voter and a Nazi, is either willfully ignorant or needs to get out of the house more.”

Brooks beholds America’s 21st-century tribal feuds — which on a national scale add up to nothing less than a religious war, a clash of faiths and value systems — with a clear, intelligent eye and a hospitable attitude that is rightly focused on the spiritual dimensions of the problem: Only transcendence can open the way to better solutions down the road. The real swamp just now is in the American mind.

As for Brooks’s mind, it is filled with unusual ingredients. He is the rational first mate Starbuck to the Ahab of American political looniness — a voice of civic urbanity. The outgoing head of the American Enterprise Institute, an influential conservative think tank in Washington, he is an advocate for free enterprise and a serious Catholic (a convert in his midteens) who has gone up into the foothills of the Himalayas to seek counsel from his friend the Dalai Lama. He draws not only upon neurology and behavioral science but also upon the ideas of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” A policy analyst with a Ph.D. who has studied applied microeconomics and mathematical modeling, he spent years of his somewhat hippie/lefty youth playing the French horn with, among others, the Barcelona Symphony.

The essence of our woes, according to Brooks, is that ours is a “culture of contempt.” “My point is simple: Love and warmheartedness might not change every heart and mind, but they are always worth trying, and they will always make you better off.” Brooks cites the interesting friendship of two professors at Princeton, the white conservative Robert George and the black socialist Cornel West. Their mutual respect and affection, despite their disagreement on practically everything, embodies, to Brooks, the answer to the culture of contempt. George says of West: “When I call Brother Cornel ‘Brother Cornel,’ I mean he’s my brother.” As with these two professors, Brooks suggests, America’s path forward lies in its learning to transcend self-destructive, obsessive politics in order to think clearly and to use the intelligent competition of ideas to advance the country.

“Love Your Enemies” can be seen as an informal handbook of attitudes and behaviors: Castiglione for the Twitter age. The reader may be left torn between admiring it as an example of Kafka’s “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us,” or dismissing it with Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

That this is an age of contempt and ridicule is certainly true — Donald Trump vs. “Saturday Night Live,” and a lot that is far more scurrilous than that. But contempt and ridicule are ancient American political art forms — ones now brought to ferocious intensity by the internet and social media. The smartphone paradoxically engenders new levels of mindlessness.

It may be that American contempt and ridicule had their most entertaining expression a century ago in the work of H. L. Mencken, a master of bracing satirical bombast who was disgracefully unjust and cruel in many of his opinions. Mencken would probably have dismissed Brooks as a sentimentalist — “an evangelist,” in Mencken’s scornful term. A useful and welcome evangelist, I’d say.

Lance Morrow, a journalist and essayist, is the Henry Grunwald senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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