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As the Year Closes: Appreciating One’s Political Opponents

(Alex Edelman/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)

“In this spirit I would like to thank all the many individuals who have written or commented on my writing the last year, especially those who have offered sincere and interesting criticisms that have helped me develop my understanding of the world.”

“But if you have an enemy, do not requite him evil with good, for that would put him to shame. Rather prove that he did you some good. And rather be angry than put to shame. And if you are cursed, I do not like that you want to bless. Rather join a little in the cursing.”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The past year has been a gratifying one for me, seeing the publication of my first two books and taking the leap into married life. As I will be taking several weeks off through the holidays, I wanted to present a small article expressing gratitude towards my various interlocutors and intellectual opponents at Merion West and elsewhere. Through the year I engaged in edifying dialogues with writers such as Henry George and Samuel Kronen, while also responding to various critics who have put forward arguments against my positions. Many of these dialogues were highly engaging. Some were just eye-roll inducing. But each encouraged me to think more carefully about the relationship between an author and his or her critics and opponents. This has obvious bearing in our strained political climate, where increasing polarization and the banalization of post-modern culture can make it hard to appreciate those who feel differently than we do.

This is not to say that everyone who holds an opinion worth criticizing is saying something of value. Nazis, racists, and so on may all hold views which should be criticized, but they are not saying much that contributes to the public discourse or adds anything to the world. Their reactionary impulse is to simply negate anything that betters the lives of those they resent. Such individuals can be understood and criticized, but the only thing we can truly learn from them is the root causes of such a distorted mindset. Fortunately, many (lets hope most!) of the people in our society are not creatures of resentment and anger but, rather, morally-committed citizens with strong opinions and aspirations as sincere as our own. Perhaps they are mistaken. Perhaps we are. But there is much to be learnt from hearing their perspectives and trying to incorporate their insights into our own worldview. 

As a progressive, I think there is much that can be learnt from examining the classics of religious and conservative thinking.

As a progressive, I think there is much that can be learnt from examining the classics of religious and conservative thinking. It can make one less driven by purely materialist analysis. It can also make one more willing to take seriously the questions of meaning and community addressed by figures like Jordan Peterson, and it can facilitate an appreciation for continuity with the past. The first set of questions on the nature of meaning are especially pertinent, and this is an area where I think too many contemporary progressives ignore questions of existential meaning in favor of more down-to-earth material concerns. Adorno, Sartre, and De Beauvoir were certainly not guilty of such myopia, and it is important to return to their ambitions. I think much the same is true on the other end of the spectrum. Too many conservative thinkers are guilty of transforming the past into an idol, while neglecting the lived experiences and injustices of the present because dealing with them would involve asking tough questions about the legacy of our communities and their myriad sins. Conservatives could also gain much by looking at the works of radical thinkers, from Marx’s analysis of how capitalism undermines traditional ways of life to Wendy Brown’s pioneering analyses of the psychology of identity politics in the “wounded attachments” of marginalized individuals, as well as sincere experiences of victimization. Such engagements with the other side are unlikely to produce sudden conversions, but they may help make politics less of a bitter and one-sided conflict, driven by the myopic hooligans Jason Brennan criticizes in Against Democracy.

In this spirit I would like to thank all the many individuals who have written or commented on my writing the last year, especially those who have offered sincere and interesting criticisms that have helped me develop my understanding of the world. It may be that we will never reach a consensus on the correct approach to some of the most pressing problems, though the challenge itself has its rewards. But the opportunity to learn and grow is one I appreciate and hope I offered in return.

Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at mattmcmanus300@gmail.com or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof 

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Tony Senatore
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Tony Senatore

I spent from 2008 to 2017 in college, and i have more questions about the way the world works now than i did in 2008.I am a modern day reincarnation of Socrates who, after meeting with the oracle in the ivory tower of academia, has come to the realization that i might be the smartest man in the world, because(unlike my professors) i really know nothing, but at least i am somewhat convinced that i am now asking the right questions. Some of my best moments at Columbia University were the times i engaged in after class coffee shop conversations with young progressive classmates. They always looked at a problem with an idealism that i was incapable of. On the other hand, my #okboomer stories of mistakes made and lessons learned in the course of living my life resonated with them on occasion, and i was successful in getting them to change their intransigent stances. I like where you are coming from in this article, and although i often do… Read more »