No Man’s Land

Sometimes it is just a fight. Sometimes, regrettably, it is just us and them, good and bad. It’s never good and evil–I can’t think of a less helpful term for characterizing the people you disagree with than evil–but sometimes it’s not possible to characterize the struggle over the future of the place we live and of the lives of the people with whom we live in it as anything other than a battle.

Flander’s Fields, Belgium, 1919

I’m thinking this now because I watched the January 6 hearings yesterday and because I’ve just read a couple of excellent pieces about Yascha Mounk and other anti-woke warriors from the right and the center. There are those who attack people in politics and in higher education who value and work for diversity and the rights of the marginalized from a position that is explicitly against those things, and there are those who do the same from a position they describe as less extreme, claiming to support those ideals but against what they call the extremes on the left.

Of the former group, John Warner writes:

These are people who are actively hostile to education and to the larger democratic ideal of a diverse society. (The telos to which Warner refers is the pursuit of truth in higher ed, but it’s not hard to see that it’s about more than that, that it’s about everything.) Then there are the Mounks, who flatter themselves by thinking of their discomfort with the angry left as a sensible bid to save democracy rather than a both-sidesing staking out of a middle ground that doesn’t exist, between two positions whose extremism can only falsely be called equivalent. As Ian Beacock writes of Mounk’s new book:

Sometimes you just are on the side of the good cause. Addressing the history of how people in power in this country have treated groups with less power–addressing it in education and in politics–is the good cause. Fighting against these things in a way that allows you to convince yourself that you are on the side of what’s right, even when you are simply helping right wing extremists who may not be as far to the right of you as you think (and not because you don’t understand them)–this is being on the wrong side.

The other reason I’m thinking about this this morning is because I’m starting to see friends and internet acquaintances (and strangers) stating their aversion to voting for members of this administration who might be running for president in the next election. You might think seeing this would lead me to make an argument for compromise, for finding a sensible position between two extremes–for just the thing I’m arguing sometimes doesn’t exist–but that’s not what I’m thinking. Instead it leads me to want to argue for voting with an understanding of how voting works and of what the good causes are up against. There’s nothing wrong with finding some Democratic politicians distasteful for their failure to stand up for the good causes as resolutely as you’d like. What you do in this situation is fight to elevate other candidates who stand up straighter and stronger. But you do this understanding that there’s a difference between thinking about things and getting things done, and you vote for whichever candidate emerges as the nominee.

There are, again, some ideas and causes between which there’s no sensible middle ground. But elections and legislation happen on the battleground in the middle, between the good and the bad. If you want someone to fight for the good, you might have to vote for someone who is not your ideal candidate. Not doing so shows nothing but your failure to understand that between good and bad, allowing the bad to win is an infinitely, painfully, disastrously worse outcome than allowing someone less than ideal to win. They might not fight as hard as you’d like for these causes; they may be better positioned to scratch out some wins for those causes. It’s hard to know. What’s not hard to know is that the guy on the other side will be actively fighting against those causes.

Not the good cause

So all I want to say this morning is that sometimes it really does come down to a fight between good and bad. If you think of yourself as on the side of the good but less extreme and hysterical than some of its champions, criticize the way some people conceive of the good and the way they fight for it, and the bad will win. If you think of yourself as on the side of the good and won’t support people who conceive of it and fight for it in ways different from yours, don’t support them and the bad will win. I’m putting this in simple terms because it’s simple. Like yesterday’s hearing was simple. You don’t have to think in terms of evil or of moral character: you just have to see the plain truth that there are people who for whatever reason don’t currently value democracy, diversity, equality, the rights that in this place we live have always been an ideal fallen well short of. You just have to know who’s trying to achieve this ideal and who’s not. And figure out which side you want to be on.

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