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I had a friend

Friday, April 11, 2008

I had a friend. We worked together in the greatest harmony. She entertained me in her home. We enjoyed a day-trip together. She's the only person ever to read my major literary effort and actually seem to understand it, and had good things to say about it.

Yes, she was a "card-carrying" liberal. It was no surprise, what with her academic background, and to me it made not the slightest difference. And, yes, I was a mossbacked conservative, which she knew perfectly well from my writings, and it seemed to make not the slightest difference to her either. People are more than their politics, larger and more interesting than their abstract opinions. At least to me, and seemingly to her, too.

She moved away. I reminded her that the regrettable loss of face-to-face interaction might weaken a relationship; but this was a thing to be guarded against, not accepted as inevitable. For friendship (like all else, in the last analysis) essentially is mental. There have been friends who never came face-to-face in their lives. To my mind, our friendship would continue, nay thrive, as long as faithfully nourished by exchanges of ideas.

Unfortunately or no, that required letters, real letters, not electronic blurts of notions and emotions. Only in chunks of discursive prose, dialogue, can ideas be developed and exchanged.

And I'm old-fashioned enough to enjoy swapping such letters. It's a kind of thinking aloud, often a very fruitful aid toward clarifying one's own ideas. There's room to treat serious subjects seriously, but not too seriously, in the playful, often ironic manner of the Platonic dialogues. It's a highclass entertainment, and with a point or purpose, something most entertainments lack.

Naively, perhaps, I assumed all intelligent people relished such intelligent interchange. Such high-level friendship. "Philia," the disinterested form of love. Not, as usually translated, "brotherly love," but rather "two people loving, not each other, but the same things."

To my surprise and dismay, I began to find that my friend and I didn't necessarily love the same things after all, or not all of them; and to her it made a difference indeed. For her, manythings were off the table, not to be taken "seriously, but not too seriously." They were grimly serious from first brush, unpleasant, to be avoided. Far from siding me in my labor to treat issues in the highest possible light, ecJeaeternitatis, she lost herself passionately in the ephemera of the moment, the trivial particulars that make up the day's news.

Politics to me is a dismal science, best touched only with the proverbial ten-foot pole, and then only to distill and organize its particulars into generalities, principles, ideas.

Politics to her, in contrast, seemed to consist, for the time being, of just one monotonous particular: "George W. Bush is the devil. If only we could get rid of him and his ilk, the millennium would have arrived."

So grim was she about it, I worried she'd go so far as the NPR arch-liberal Nina Totenberg, who, in a typical sally of liberal charity, wished a horrendous cancer death on Robert Bork; or as those Hollywood liberals who've wished like fates on Bush. All the while of course decrying the "hate" of any who, perversely, don't hate Bush and Co. enough.

Politics having become epistolary taboo, social and cultural subjects soon followed.

Now taboos are earmarks of religions, not politics. Religions are systems of settled, taken-for-granted doctrines. Politics, in contrast, or at least ideally, consists of matters that can be discussed and dispassionately reasoned about, and on which friends may differ.

What was left to write about? Well, we could have swapped letters like those of my old aunt: "How are you? I'm much worse. This morning I washed my hair. Now I'm going to pop some potatoes in the oven and run down to the market. Isn't this weather awful?"

It was to her credit, I'm sure, that my friend didn't share her days with me in such "kitchenmaid's chatter," as Europeans call it. Yet the lack of such an everyday element impoverished the correspondence almost as badly as the lack of any more elevated dimension. Of her new life my natural curiosity elicited only the barest grudging hints.

Then innocently I asked her advice on a touchy subject, doing so in the usual "politicallyincorrect" vocabulary I grew up with, and which I assumed, knowing me, she'd take in the offhand, half-tongue-in-cheek, harmlessly ornery spirit intended.

But no. Doggedly I'd pose a question, respectfully soliciting a reasoned response. The one I got was invariably the likes of, "It's a shame you're so full of hate." She went on to tell me my town, like me, was full of hate. After all, a "minority" of her acquaintance had had an unpleasant experience here. (Was this the black girl who couldn't find blacks' hair care products in town, that "hate crime" to the local "diversity concerns committee"? This in a world where, e.g., over in Africa children's arms were being chopped off.)

I can find as much fault with my native place as the most cosmopolitan incomer. Still, I can't help bristling a bit when the incomer, whom I've done my best to befriend, scorns the town as such an unfriendly, bigoted place, where life isn't perfect, where one's in constant peril of personal inconvenience and irritation, like every other place on earth.

Well, I was forced to conclude that my friend simply didn't, after all, share my pleasure in exchanges on serious questions. Not, at least, with me. Because seemingly to her, as to all liberals, such questions are all answered and settled. Raising them could only gratuitously unsettle things, threatening angst and "cognitive dissonance" in the true believer's breast.

Isn't it strange that liberals are the ones bound by a creed, sure they have all the answers? Conservative I, on the other hand, at heart am sure of nothing save that I'm unsure. On most controversial subjects I'm "of two minds, at least two." That's why I'm so eager to discuss them, hoping for enlightenment, and at worst "agreeing to disagree agreeably." Liberals are welcome to try and win me over, but in a reasoned debate, not a revivalist harangue.

And what sallies of reason do I get? "It's a shame you're so full of hate."

Liberals are famously tolerant... of liberalism. They dig "diversity" in everything but ideas. And the true liberal definition of "friend," it seems, is "another liberal."

I told my (now problematical) friend she needn't feel obligated to go on subjecting herself to the torture of replying to my seemingly so painfully malevolent letters. She seems to have accepted the invitation. Dum tacit clamant. "Her silence speaks volumes."

One's always sorry to lose a friend. Sneakingly one feels one must be at fault, somehow. I've wracked my brain for that fault, searched for that amorphous, unspecified, generic "hate" of which I'm reportedly so full. But I've yet to find it.