An Invitation to Real Dialogue: Letter to the Editor, Slate Magazine

by Jeffrey Weiner

I am responding to Mark Joseph Stern’s article in Slate last week, “The Federalist Says Steve Bannon Isn’t Anti-Semitic Because Jewish Girls Really Are Whiny.” Stern calls Ben Domenech’s blog a  nasty little far-right propaganda outlet. If you click “nasty little” it takes you to a piece on “transgenderism” as “mass hysteria.” The second hyperlink connects to an article by the daughter of a same-sex couple, discussing why such unions do not work as well as heterosexual childrearing and, consequently, why she is against gay marriage.

Stern’s denunciation of The Federalist ends with an injunction to his readers:   “Keep an eye on the Federalist and its ilk as they traffic more and more in this kind of alt-right bigotry. Their job is to expand the outer edges of what mainstream conservativism will tolerate.”

I disagree with most of what is said in both the hyperlinked articles, and for that matter, the initial piece that offended Mr. Stern about Jewish women. But it is incumbent on all of us to attempt to open up a dialogue with writers whom we vehemently disagree with rather than to excoriate them from afar. The idea of “keep[ing] an eye” on them does not suggest productive conversation, but fear and loathing.

I get it. When you feel denigrated to the degree those articles may have made him and others feel, anger is a natural reaction. But underneath that emotion is the sadness of not being appreciated as fully human and equal to the same rights and respect as the majority.

I have published twice in The Federalist, in spite of the fact that I am not “alt-right” and, frankly, if The Federalist were a group of alt-right bigots, I doubt they would have given me the time of day, let alone published me. In fact, in my own experience, I have found publications that lean left much more resistant to any kind of cross-partisan exchange of ideas.

As an example, an editor from Dissent did not reject an article of mine because of weak writing, but was unwilling to publish it because he was ideologically against some of what was written: he claimed that I did not go far enough in calling out Trump’s paranoia—that his rhetoric was not, as I had argued, persuasive to the electorate because of his masterful use of doubt and skepticism, but rather had crossed the threshold into paranoid delusions. He ended his letter: “I’d also take issue with a few of your statements about immigration that seem to agree with Trump’s position or are, at least, sympathetic with it. I hope you are able to place the piece elsewhere.”

Never mind that after their spectacular loss, the tables have turned and now 42% of Democrats are now the paranoid ones thinking that the election was rigged. There was a time when editors were gatekeepers of literary quality not ideological purity. The Federalist has published writers who are frankly grappling with how to start a conversation between liberals and conservatives. I am by no means defending everything they publish, nor should I have to even though I have been a contributor. The important thing is the conversation. A bifurcated media where people throw bombs at the other side in cyber space, aided by social media logarithms that only show you material just like what you are already reading, has the potential to create an irreversible impasse in this nation.

When I was a graduate student studying theology, my Christian Ethics professor assigned Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament. In one chapter, he depicts the remorse and repentance of a friend who had AIDS. He suggests the illness was punishment for his homosexuality.

I didn’t want to dignify the book by writing the required response, but my professor demanded I submit a response regardless of how it made me feel. I did, and I tried to be thoughtful and honest about my feelings. At the end of the term, I ended up using his interpretive paradigm—his methodology not his ideas—for my seminar paper. When I found out that he was doing a lecture series at Cambridge, I attended them.

I disagree with some of what Hays believes, but he has enriched my life even though I find some of his opinions repugnant. However, it’s good for me to hear him and for people who may think like him to hear me. That dialogue is how society changes and moves forward.

It’s not about “keeping” an eye on the opposition. This has been what has caused such a big failure in our university system the last few decades. In Trump’s America, as Mr. Stern calls it, there is equal-opportunity uncertainty and anxiety about the policies that may be put on the table because he is not a real conservative.  Guy Benson, a golden boy in the conservative movement, claims on his Twitter profile, “I oppose Trump & Hillary because I’m a conservative.” Nobody really has the power to “keep an eye” on the other any longer nor to try and corral off ideas which they find objectionable because we are all, possibly for the first time, in the same Trump boat.

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