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Fighting over politics is healthy, politics as a culture war is not

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  • Fighting over politics is good. Bipartisan “unity” is overrated. “No Labels” centrism is a joke. 
  • But when every political issue is treated like war, we dehumanize each other, and debase even worthwhile arguments. 
  • The “culture war” is more than just arguments about academia, the military, and “Star Wars” movies — it’s about seeing other people as permanently stained.
  • Give your political opponents even the smallest benefit of the doubt that they are not inherently evil. That will allow for fights to happen at a volume and tenor where it’s possible to hear one other.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I’ve got a challenge for you, America: I want you to fight fiercely for your political principles. Punch hard, and punch often. But don’t presume your opponents are inherently evil, which only leads to the shutdown of intelligent argument. 

Use the strength of your ideas to persuade, and try to not debase your worthiest positions of any useful purpose by insinuating that your adversaries, who are still human beings, are permanently stained.

Don’t mistake this for a plea for the mushy “No Labels” centrism of certain New York Times columnists and billionaires with savior complexes. That isn’t the answer to the country’s deep divisions, rather, it’s nothing but its own technocratic ideology that puts a disturbing amount of power in the hands of “top men.” 

Let’s get a few things clear: Arguing about politics is good, bipartisan “unity” is overrated, and necessary societal reforms don’t happen without rancor. A country whose citizens march in firm lockstep is a terrifying prospect. It’s good that we have a right-wing and a left-wing and everything in between, and we need to fight with each other to progress as a nation.  

What we don’t necessarily need is the toxic level of our current political climate. We do not need to assume our political adversaries are always acting in bad faith and to reflexively consider every opinion, idea, or fact uttered by the opposition to be a poisonous lie. 

A culture that fights over politics is good and healthy, a culture that thinks of itself at constant war is dehumanizing.

Everywhere is culture war

Days after President Trump despicably tweeted a video of one of his apparent supporters shouting “White Power!” in Florida’s retirement mecca The Villages, New York Times columnist and Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman tweeted an article with the headline, “Covid-19 Surge Begins Reaching Older, More Vulnerable Floridians.”

Krugman added the comment: “Reality is coming for white supremacists driving golf carts.”

That’s a culture war battlefield in microcosm. 

For Krugman, the older Floridian white supremacist in a golf cart now at increased risk of contracting coronavirus is the story. The fact that thousands of people who are not white supremacists (or even Trump supporters) are likely going to die as a result is of no concern in this culture war salvo, nor is the fact that minority communities have been disproportionately devastated by the virus.

Another culture war front was epitomized in Washington Post Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah’s tweet (since deleted, but apparently not because she regretted expressing the thought) that “White women are lucky we are just calling them ‘Karen’s.’ And not calling for revenge.” 

This is nothing more than preemptively judging a broad swath of people based on their immutable characteristics and declaring that they deserve to face retributive justice for other people’s crimes, or even their votes.

But these are world-class journalists working for vaunted legacy publications, they should know better. 

On the right you’ve got professional victims like conservative activist Brandon Straka — whose only listed credential on his website is that he’s a “former liberal.” 

Straka, the face of the #WalkAway campaign to get people to leave the Democratic Party, performatively got himself kicked off a plane last month and banned from future travel on American Airlines…for refusing to wear a mask. 

This week, Straka tweeted “Fascism is fun” over a video of peaceful protesters dancing outside New York’s City Hall. He also tweeted “If BLM can take over America’s streets, so can #WalkAway. My team & I have had enough of watching leftist thugs act like they own the damn streets. They do NOT,” and has been actively promoting an upcoming event with Lara Trump.

This is the same guy whose “movement” is supposedly built on rejecting the left’s “intolerance and societal discord” and wants to work toward “towards unity, civility, respect.”

It’s just another culture war front: the espousal of a rational, civil discourse that actually mimics and profits off the victim culture it despises, and freely accuses political opponents of “fascism.”

America’s preeminent culture warrior might be Fox News host Tucker Carlson, once a distinguished magazine feature writer and a mainstream conservative TV host who gave Rachel Maddow her big break.

He’s since evolved to an ethno-nationalist populist that refers to immigrants as making our “country poor and dirtier and more divided.”

Through his monologues, Carlson’s not only providing Trump with ready-to-use talking points, he’s building unprecedented cable news audiences. And not just with the typically geriatric Fox News viewer but in the advertiser-coveted 25-54 demo.

The culture war is good for business. 

Turn down the heat, but don’t give up the fight

In 2010, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert staged a tooth-achingly smug response to the Tea Party, “The Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear)” on the National Mall in Washington, DC. In theory, it was supposed to bring people together through awkward live comedy routines and duets between Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock (who I guess were supposed to represent blue and red America coming together?).

Just as “No Labels” is based on a false premise, the “Daily Show” alumni’s feckless attempt to tone down the political divisiveness that was supposedly tearing the country apart in 2010 is still wince-inducing. That’s why I’d never promise a “unity” built on watered-down politics and platitudes.

While there’s rarely ever value in “hearing out” those who preach overt racism or advocate for wanton violence, there’s great value in vigorous disagreement. Not that it’s required.  

If you so choose, feel free to never speak a civil word to a conservative for the rest of your life. You can also avoid any discussion of racism with a liberal millennial. Never read any books or websites that offend you, and never allow such ideas to be discussed in your home. Assume every registered Democrat is antifa, and that every avowed Trump supporter is a crypto-Nazi. It’s just safer that way. 

It’s also part of your American right of free association put to use, even if it’s totally reductive.  

Every piece of art and entertainment doesn’t have to be a cultural battlefield, but that doesn’t mean art shouldn’t be political nor that such expressions are inherently hostile. Sports can be a diversion from partisan rancor, and they can be some of the most effective venues for addressing injustice. 

What we could use — at any time — is less of an urge to destroy the people we don’t like, for whatever reason. 

Blithely reacting to the possibility that thousands of senior citizens will die because some of them will inevitably be bad people is a poor demonstration of humanity. Calling peaceful protesters “fascists” and “thugs” is as incendiary as mindless political rhetoric gets. Reflexively retweeting every “Karen” video without even checking if the crime is worthy of a human being’s cancellation requires a war-like footing.. 

Refusing to wear a mask in an indoor public space, lest the libs win, is nothing but a vice-signaling tantrum. And parroting the canard that the only “real Americans” are the ones who live in less-populated, less-diverse states is among the laziest bad faith culture war tactics.

A mass attempt by Americans to not immediately jump to the conclusion that the other person wants to hurt them will not end racism, tribalism, or the profound political disagreements among Americans.  

But giving the (even brief) initial benefit of the doubt that the person across from you is not your enemy will at least allow us to have the necessary oxygen to fight at a volume and tenor where it’s possible to hear one other.

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