What's Tony Thinking

An Alternative to Annihilation


I’m sitting in the outdoor dining area of the Lyle Hotel (Lyle, Washington). For the last three days I’ve been painting a downstairs apartment into which our daughter, Laura, is moving as she begins her ministry at Bethel Congregational, UCC, in White Salmon, Washington, 10 miles west of here.

With me in the dining area are a mix of characters — a guy who makes his living picking mushrooms, a couple with two blue-eyed little girls, and several musicians, one of whom is singing a satirical ballad called, “In the Land of Subaru.”

It is, let’s say, an “ecumenical” environment.

Which was a good place to read about Yuval Levin’s recent address to the conservative Niskanen Center, in defense an open society.

There was a time when “defending an open society” was pretty much carrying coals to Newcastle. No longer.

Trump provokes his base to chant “Send Her Back.” If we can just get rid of “them,” things will be fine. Some of us remember an earlier slogan, “Love it or leave it,” directed at 60’s dissent.

Yuval Levin, a self-described conservative and author of the excellent book, The Fractured Republic, defends pluralism (living together with different takes on reality/ experience/ politics), and what he calls the “anti-annihilationist” impulse.

The annihilationists believe that everything will be fine if we just get rid of (fill in the blank). Trump is exhibit A, “Go back where they came from.” But those on the left also get sucked into believing that if we can just get rid of (again, fill in the blank) everything will be fine.

Here’s Levin:

“Those with whom we disagree in our society are not our enemies; they are our neighbors. They are not out to do harm to our country; they differ with us about what would be good for it. To love our country is to love them too—even when they do not show us the same regard, even when they are illiberal and we have to quarrel with them in the public square.

“We should not allow ourselves to fall into hysterical fear of the supposed advances and victories of these ideological adversaries. They are a minority as we are. They are mostly failing too. And their task, no less than ours, is to persuade a larger society that is not so sure that either side of our politics has got its head on straight.”

Somewhere along the line I came upon this thought about the nature of actual (as opposed to idealized/ romanticized) community: “Community is where the person you least want to be with always is.”  So much for the joys of being with the like-minded and calling that “community.”

Honestly, I don’t totally like that thought. I’ve sure wished, at times, that such-and-so would go away (“Send her home”). My version of that was, “There are other churches in which you might feel more at home.”

But in my better, or best, moments, I take and share Levin’s point. “Those with whom we disagree in our society are not our enemies; they are our neighbors.”

That’s a high standard. In the time of Trump we are tempted to abandon it. To mirror his annihilationist impulse with one of our own. To adopt that impulse is to betray our own best, our own soul.

Thomas Friedman had a terrific column the other day. In arguing for a Democratic candidate who promotes national unity and is focused on creating good jobs, he profiled Rhode Island Governor, Gini Raimondo. A Democrat, Raimondo, refused to focus on polarizing culture war issues in her campaign. Instead, she spoke to the economic anxiety people felt. Here’s Friedman:

“‘When I ran in 2014, there was a temptation to appeal to particular constituencies — gun safety, choice, all things that I believe in,’ Raimondo recalled. ‘I resisted that temptation because I felt the single greatest issue was economic insecurity and people who were afraid they were never going to get a job. So I said there are not three or four issues, there’s one issue: jobs.’ Unemployment in Rhode Island today is about 3.6 percent.

“Concluded Raimondo: ‘I am no apologist for a brand of capitalism that leads to unsustainable inequality. But I do believe a more responsible capitalism is necessary for growth. We need to redivide the pie and grow the pie. I am a ‘pro-growth Democrat.’ I am for growing the pie as long as everyone has a shot at getting their slice.’

“That’s a simple message that can connect with enough Democrats — as well as independents, moderate Republicans and suburban women — to win the White House.”

Raimondo didn’t need an enemy to unify her supporters. She needed, and offered, realistic hope.

Yuval Levin reminds us that what is really basic about America, at its best, is that we understand we must figure out a way to live with those with whom we disagree.


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