My Faults My Own

One's ponens is another's tollens.

Re-Thinking Prejudices

I've decided that this post is retroactively part 1 of ? of a recurring series on approaching debates with a mind toward actually changing minds and the world.

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There's a statue visible from the window of my office, a poem inscribed near its base:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,  
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;  
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand  
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame  
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name  
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand  
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command  
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.  
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,  
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,  
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,  
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Okay, it's a kind of famous statue. One of these days, I'll get over my I'm-not-a-tourist pride and go pay it a visit. But in the mean time, I'll see it in profile across the harbor, and find myself reminded that the city I'm starting to call home-away-from-home-away-from-home has a soul so much older than I realize in my daily rush through its streets. After all, the lady in New York harbor has been standing on her pedestal since well before any New Yorker alive today was born.

aside: Wow, Google Maps has really upped its game. The satelite view of New York renders skyscrapers in 3-D. Yes seriously. I feel like I'm playing SimCity or something.

Anyway. I was reminded of the statue when a curious post crossed my Facebook newsfeed. Apparently, a prominent media celebrity, a pair of politicians, and a number of religious leaders are traveling to Texas, "bringing tractor-trailers full of food, water, teddy bears and soccer balls to McAllen, Texas on July 19 as a way to help care for some of the roughly 60,000 underage refugees who have crossed into America illegally in 2014." A two-minute video from Vox explains a bit about the whole underage-refugee thing. I'll wait while you read up on it:

What was curious about this news? Well, the celebrity traveling to deliver food, water, and media visibility to the illegal immigrants being held in pseudo-legal limbo pending probable deportation is...Glenn Beck. The politicians are Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

If your mental model of the world is anything like mine, your brain stripped a few gears trying to process that fact. The conspiracy theorist with his own show on Fox News (yelling about how progressivism is a disease eating the constitutional foundation of America) wants to do something for illegal immigrants other than ship them back across the border as fast as possible, and it doesn't involve sending some sort of threatening message to other asylum-seekers? What? He wants to give them food. And water. And teddy bears. And soccer balls. (For free, the socialist.)

Politically speaking, I tend more than a little bit left of center. So does a vocal majority of my facebook newsfeed. I'm used to "Fox News" being a synonym for "hateful arch-conservative propoganda lies, with the Glenn Beck show at the center of it all". Maybe that's true; maybe it's not. But my mental model of the world couldn't explain why a star figure of the right-wing media would deign to show compassion to people (I assumed) he and his ilk deemed less than human.

So what's a confused young student of the world to do? I watched an excerpt from The Glenn Beck Program -- for the first time in my life -- and actually tried to understand what this man believes, since apparently I had gotten it badly wrong the first time around. I really wanted to understand this man who I had thought was an enemy to everything I believed. If you're feeling levelheaded, give it a try yourself: (real material begins at 1:30)

I could take a cynical angle here. Mr. Beck, you're just looking to take moral highground from which to take potshots at President Obama. Mr. Beck, you're doing it for the publicity. Mr. Beck, maybe you're right this one time, but you're still psychotic, and your views on that thing you were talking about last week are positively reprehensible.

But I'm tired of taking that side. Cynicism is as exhausting as it is isolating. What's more, a practiced stance of cynical doubt is a practiced habit of refusal to trust. It's a practiced habit of treating strangers as ideological enemies by default, rather than potential allies until demonstrated otherwise. And in today's complicated, interconnected, too-big-to-go-it-alone world, it's debilitating. There's a reason cynics don't join forces and change the world, and changing the world is something I want to do someday, and sooner rather than later.

So instead, I'll give Beck a chance to speak his piece. I'll take note of the things he says that I disagree with, but I won't tune out the things he says that I do think are more or less right, just because they're spoken by a supposedly crazy person. I'll refrain from second-guessing his intentions, and trust that he's trying to be honest until I have reason to believe otherwise. And I'll look for the things on which we agree.

There is, of course, a difference between trusting uncynically and trusting blindly. That I'm willing to believe that people are speaking honestly does not mean that I'll accept their assertions on matters of fact without proof. Nor does it mean that I'll accept their moral assertions and moral stances uncritically. Beck's own past with the very culture of cynicism I'm trying to walk away from is...extensive, to say the least. It's worth mentioning that I'm not holding the man and all of his opinions up as an example of the sort of open-mindedness that I'm seeking, because he's fallen short on that score repeatedly in the past, and likely will do so again.

But I will make the conscious choice not to write him off before he's said his piece on the matter at hand. If said piece includes things that are useful to think about, I'll have the chance to make myself stronger (factually, intellectually, morally) by stealing his good ideas. And if I eventually succeed in stealing lots of good ideas from different (sorts of) people, maybe I'll learn to communicate with different (sorts of) people, in order to distribute the best conglomerations of ideas to everyone, in a win-win-win-win-...

Observant readers will notice that this is not the first time that I've defended the principle of charity, but this was a case where I noticed the opportunity to practice being charitable, so I figured it'd make a good example of what exactly I mean when I talk about it.

There are many things that Beck says in this video that set off alarm bells in my head. There are a few things that he says offhand that make me angry. There are some times in this video where I think he's just wrong. But I'm not going to write about any of those. Instead, I'll conclude with a few of his points with which I found myself agreeing (at least in essence, if not in literality). I'm not going to explain myself here, so I ask you for your charity. If you're interested in discussing any of them, sound off (charitably) in the comments!

A personal exercise in finding points of agreement with people with whom I don't expect to agree follows:

  • "Political games are being played, points are being scored, but 'comprehensive'? I'm not hearing a comprehensive debate; it doesn't even address the root of the problem!" (The root of the problem, as Beck later explains, is the pervasive problem of violent Central-American gangs.)
  • "This is a crisis, and anyone -- left or right -- seeking political gain at the expense of these desperate, vulnerable, poor, and suffering people [is] reprehensible."
  • "We need to talk about the visa program, we need to talk about the border fence... all of that! But first and foremost, we need to do what is right, and help those in need today."
  • "It's easy to play the conspiracy game, but why are people willing to play a real-life spin-off of The Hunger Games just to make it here?" (I don't know whether Beck is consciously poking at his own past "play[ing] the conspiracy game" or not, but it takes some courage to stand up to people who are blaming the rise in immigration on President Obama's secret plans to destroy the US and tell them that they're flat wrong. Even more so if they're supposedly "on your side".)
  • "These children, some of them are bad... Some of them are MS-13 gang members. Some of them are not. Do you know which ones to sort out? Because I don't. Do you know which ones we say 'No food for you, and yes food for you'? Because I don't."
  • "May I suggest we help the children? I know, I know, 'You're part of the problem!' -- I got it. But I will not stand before my Judge and have him say '...and you were doing a debate on what?' ... I've never taken a position more deadly to my career than this -- and I have never, ever taken a position that is more right than this." (Surprised to see the faith of a conservative fundamentalist Christian lead him to do something right? I was. I probably shouldn't shave been.)

edit: Joe Scarborough from MSNBC (they're supposed to be the left-wing media, right?) also has words of praise for Beck:

"I think the fact that he's sending down tractor-trailer-loads full of food and clothes and toys and soccer balls to these poor children despite the fact that he opposes the type of immigration reform the President is pushing right now makes it an even more noble gesture."

epilogue: Reading the comment section on Beck's video is a soul-crushing experience; after about five minutes, I literally put my head in my hands and wept at just how awful people can be. But, on a lighter note, to quote my favorite show about politics: "If they're shooting at you -- you know you're doing something right." I've become convinced that not everything this man says is wrong -- and further, that he's not the man I thought he was.