Tuesday, February 20, 2018


The group Better Angels, which is praised by David Brooks in his latest column, operates on the naive belief that if liberals and conservatives engage in dialogue, we'll be able to break partisan gridlock and solve America's problems. It's possible that the dialogue sessions Better Angels conducts make the participants better able to listen and more empathetic. But even if the Better Angels diagnosis is correct, how would we compel every partisan American, or even a critical mass, to participate in such sessions? And if we did, how long would it be before the empathy wore off? And is partisan lack of empathy evenly distributed? Gallup tells us every year that there are far more self-described conservatives than liberals in America. (The rest of Gallup's respondents call themselves moderates.) This suggests that there are probably more angry, intransigent voters on the right. Our politics since 1980 suggests the same thing, as do cable-news and talk-radio ratings.

But Brooks is so determined to blame liberals for the lack of gun control in America that he misses the bothsiderist point of Better Angels. In his soft-spoken, concern-trollish way, he's part of what Better Angels sees as America's major problem -- he's an angry, blaming partisan.

Here's a description of a Better Angels dialogue session, from a link Brooks provides:
We sat in two concentric circles; the Democrats in the outer ring listening as Republicans shared their experience in the township after the election. Then we switched roles. The rules are simple, the inner ring speaks and the outer ring listens. Those in the outer ring are not to respond: no sighs, no eye rolls, and definitely no rebuttals.
Better Angels believes that both sides demonize and stereotype, and that both sides need to listen more, so both sides are treated equally in the sessions. Now here's the lesson Brooks draws from the work of Better Angels:
We greet tragedies like the school shooting in Florida with shock, sadness, mourning and grief that turns into indignation and rage. The anger inevitably gets directed at the N.R.A., those who support gun rights, and the politicians who refuse to do anything while children die.

... The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.

So if you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.
Better Angels says: Both sides are at fault. Brooks says: Liberals are at fault. Better Angels is handing him a bothesiderist take on the gun impasse, and he won't take it because he'd rather bash the left. I'm not even sure he realizes that he's distorting the message of the group he praises. If you're David Brooks, I guess the corollary of "both sides do it" is always "but liberals are worse."

On the issue of guns, Republicans have had uncontested control at the national level, and in most states, for decades. Conservatives complain about hurt feelings. Liberals complain about the actual laws on the books and the actual practices of gun owners. If Better Angels thinks every problem in America has a bothsides solution, that's naive. But Brooks believes that our gun problem is the fault not of the side that regularly pounds its opponents into submission, but of the side that's being pounded.

Pure bothsiderism would be less offensive than what Brooks writes.

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