Lessons from the Cold War: understanding ideologies

One of my colleagues today recounted a very telling discussion he recently had with his daughter. Apparently his in-laws are rabid Democrats who hate McCain and said so out loud in front of one of his kids. The kid took the statement of hatred to mean that McCain was evil. He (my colleague) had to tell his kid that, no, McCain is not an evil man; the kid’s grandparents simply disagreed with his politics. After recounting this incident, my colleague then wondered aloud when respectful disagreement had turned into pure hatred. He recalls that, while people often disagreed with Reagan, even vehemently, very few people felt an intense hatred of him. There probably were a few people who intensely hated Nixon, but was the rhetoric as bad? I don’t know because I was in diapers when Nixon resigned. Nonetheless, it appears as if, sometime during the Clinton administration respectful disagreement turned into pure hatred for partisans on both sides of the aisle. It has gotten so bad that true independents such as myself are automatically lumped into the “left” or “right” categories depending on who is doing the talking.

But where does this hatred come from? I’m presently reading what is turning out to be one of the best – perhaps the best – spy novels I have ever read, John LeCarré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The novel achieves something I have long looked for, and that is the combination of good literature with a good spy story. Set amidst the turbulent Cold War period (the book was written in 1964), it involves a British agent named Leamas who operates primarily in West Berlin. One scene that I just read through this morning involves a long, heartfelt discussion he has with an East German nemesis named Fiedler. At one point Fiedler asks Leamas about the West’s philosophy. Leamas responds, “What do you mean philosophy? … We’re not Marxists, we’re nothing. Just people.” Fiedler persists, asking “Are you Christians then?” Leamas responds, “Not many, I shouldn’t think. I don’t know many.” (Remember, this was 1964 and Leamas was British.) Fiedler continues to belabor the point, insisting that they must have a philosophy. Leamas points out that not everyone has a philosophy. Finally Fiedler asks, somewhat rhetorically, “If they do not know what they want, how can they be so certain they are right?” Leams shoots back, “Who the hell said they were?” That, of course, can be interpreted in two different ways: 1) “who said they were right?” or 2) “who said they’re so certain that they’re right?” I have not gotten to the point at which, from the context, I know what the character Leamas means, but that is irrelevant to the present discussion.

What I got from this passage was the inability of the character Fiedler to comprehend the West’s motivation for opposing Marxism. He truly did not understand it. To that end, I believe the hatred that has slowly taken the place of respectful disagreement between the “left” and “right” has its origins in the inability of either side to comprehend the other side’s motivation. Some might say it is an unwillingness rather than an inability and the truth is likely a mixture of both. But, quite clearly, there are times when there is simply an inability, for whatever reason, to grasp a motivating principle if it is so entirely foreign to us. On the larger global scale this is of course a major problem in relations between the Middle East and the West (and the problem runs both ways!). Do not be tempted to read moral or cultural relativism into my observation, however.

It seems pretty clear that base human emotion and evolutionary tendencies give us some moral absolutes, e.g. the brutal repression of any particular group (for instance the brutal repression of women in many strict religions). In particular, there seems to be a strong, innate human need for a certain amount of freedom and independence. While we need to realize that western style democracies may not ever work for some cultures, there certainly is some level of independence and freedom from oppression that human beings generally desire. What most certainly is clear, however, simply from observing the conversation between Leamas and Fiedler, is that allowing that inability to comprehend others’ motivations to spiral into hatred only seems to heighten the effect.

While it may be painful for many liberals to admit, the recent surge in Iraq seems to have had some positive results. But many of those results can be directly traced back to Gen. Petraeus’ emphasis on communicating directly with the people. While he may not have fully understood their motivations, he at least attempted to learn what those motivations were, i.e. he figured out what made them tick. If only the “left” and “right” in this country would do the same.

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