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Blue Star: Where Angels Tread

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By Scott Sullivan, Editor

Where Angels Tread

“If there’s one word,” wrote British author Kingsley Amis, “that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop.”

Amis died in 1995, living long enough to hear the noun turned into a verb, as in, “We need to workshop this …” It may have been what killed him.

So speculates Andrew Ferguson in The Atlantic. He too takes a dim view of workshops “used to impose smiley-faced uniformity, mandatory sharing and ostentatious empathy. The sight of easels, flip charts and fat Sharpies has the power,” he says, “to induce feelings of deep trauma.”

So he attended one, put on by the citizens’ group Better Angels, designed to depolarize America. “Start a conversation, not a fight,” BA organizers say.

I hate people who try to force love on me. We must fight these efforts to restore civility, starting with “restore.” Have people ever been civil?

I was in a Great Books group years ago. Outwardly we were literate, well-behaved, skilled at sublimation. Then we’d exercise savagely, attack essays or sonatas, compose angry letters never meant to be sent, just cathartic and deleted.

I don’t need those letters much anymore. No one’s reaped the savagery of 64 years of exercise more than me now. Those practices kept me out of jail and made me the weenie I am today.

Among challenges Better Angels face is their workshops tend to skew blue: i.e. bring liberals into dialog with other liberals. Conservatives look on in puzzlement, even horror. It’s a matter of self-selection.

To address this, BA co-founder David Blankenhorn makes sure workshops are made up equally. “If you don’t insist on the presence of reds,” he says, “it turns into blue BS quickly.”

“If reds, suspicious by nature, fancy that Better Angels is a subtle exercise in political indoctrination, they should come see for themselves,” writes Ferguson.

“The first thing the Angels would have you know is this: They don’t want to change your mind — they want to change you. If you’re a crypto-monarchist or an anarcho-capitalist, a neo-Trotskyite or a committed syndicalist — even if you’re a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican — the Angels assume an official indifference toward your political beliefs, no matter how idiotic they are.

“The great enemy of national comity, in their view, isn’t the conflict of ideas but the mutual contempt with which the contest is waged,” he says.

BA workshops start with gathering self-identified reds and blues in separate groups, each with their own monitors. Out come the easels, flip charts and Sharpies. Each is asked to list untrue things the other side thinks about them.

“This brings out the worst stuff anyone can think of,” says Bill Doherty, the other BA co-founder, “but it comes from one’s own side. So it’s all out in the open, but curated, as it were.”

“Reds,” writes Ferguson, “routinely say blues think of them as racist, homophobic, anti-government. Blues say reds believe they’re elitist, socialist, unpatriotic.

“Next, each group volunteers what they see as the truth about themselves: ‘We’re not socialists,’ the blues will say; ‘we just believe that government has a responsibility to help the needy.’ ‘Far from being heartless,’ say the reds, ‘we favor capitalism precisely because it lifts people from poverty.’”

Both groups are encouraged to concede the other’s views contain kernels of truth. Blues, say, might concede that they can be condescending in arguments. Reds might say blues misconstrue their professions of color blindness as racism — but concede some racists do lurk on the right side of the political divide.

“Most participants,” says Ferguson, “come to believe that they have much more in common than they’d realized. Blues seem less statist and more pragmatic than reds thought. Reds seem more tolerant and less coldhearted than blues imagined.

“Nearly everyone,” he goes on, “believes in helping the needy. No one thinks we should encourage dependency on government. All of us favor taking the long view and condemn shortsightedness. We must live within our means, never encourage bad behavior, and think objectively and rationally rather than subjectively and emotionally.

“We shall overcome. As long as we don’t get too specific,” the writer says.

Having never identified with reds or blues, does that make me yellow? I do see how contempt has a withering effect on all sides.

Replace contempt with respect and what happens to Rodney Dangerfield? Don’t ask me to go to a workshop about it, though.