The Three Opposites of Friendship


“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

—Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

“Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom.”

—Walt Whitman, “Calamus”

If you want to see American democracy through the eyes of a cultivated foreigner, drop everything you are doing and read Democracy in America. But if you want to see it through the eyes of a young child on Christmas morning, read Walt Whitman. In Whitman’s eyes, America never lost its new-country smell, and democracy was always full of possibility and wonder.

For Whitman, democracy was the political expression of human friendship. This is evident throughout his work, but nowhere more than in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass—published the same year that Lincoln won the Presidency and that South Carolina seceded from the Union—which contains this remarkable prophecy of American unity:

There shall from me be a new friendship—
It shall be called after my name,
It shall circulate through The States, indifferent of place,
It shall twist and intertwist them through and around each other—
Compact shall they be, showing new signs,
Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom,
Those who love each other shall be invincible,
They shall finally make America completely victorious, in my name.

Remarkably, the 19th century’s greatest statesman and its greatest poet, during the nation’s darkest hour, arrived at basically the same conclusion: we’ve got to figure out how to be friends—maybe not lifelong BFF, go-to-McDonalds-together friends, but at least partakers in what Aristotle called “civic friendship.” At the very least, we cannot be the opposite.

But what is the opposite of friendship? Lincoln said that “we must not be enemies.” This is true enough, but, as it turns out, enmity is only one of the opposites of friendship. Like most complex ideas, “friendship “can be opposed in several directions, both personally and civically. Each of the following can be understood as the opposite of friendship:

Enemies are the easy opposites of friends—the ones that appear in all of the standardized tests. And it is true enough in the civic sense. Not only does a two-party system reduce every complicated issue to a “for” or an “against.” It reduces every person to an “us” and a “them.” And political enmity has a hard time not becoming personal enmity. This produces a dysfunctional public sphere, in which nearly all public discourse is against things rather than for anything. And it produces horrible personal dynamics in which people cannot even imagine being friends with somebody on the other side. Neither nations nor individuals can thrive when enmity replaces friendship as the primary way that we relate to other people.

When pressed, most people would rather be actively despised than completely ignored. When we hate somebody, we care about them a lot, if only in a negative way. Indifference, or not caring about someone at all, is much crueler. And it is much more dangerous on the large scale. Most of the big social problems that we face are not the result of hatred, but of pure indifference to the suffering of others. We cannot love what we do not notice, and we cannot build a better world until we get in the habit of noticing people.

In much of the classical literature on the subject of friendship, flattery, not enmity, is considered its opposite. When he was not writing the definitive ancient biographies of the noble Greeks and Romans, for example, Plutarch wrote brilliant moral essays, the most famous of which was on the difference between friendship and flattery. It is, Plutarch suggests, the same as the difference between medicine and perfume.

On the personal level, it is much easier to be a flatterer than to be a friend. Flattery requires neither cost nor risk. People love to be told how wonderful they are. None of us like uncomfortable or emotionally intense conversations. It is much, much easier to tell people what they want to hear than to really consider what they need. And it is easier to be flattered too. Most of us force potential friends into the position of flatterers by making the cost of honest conversation too high. Shallow relationships are so much easier.

On the national level, civic flattery is perhaps our biggest problem. By “civic flattery,” I mean a public sphere that never requires us to rethink our views. We now live in a media environment in which we can spend much of our lives watching TV, listening to the radio, reading blogs, and otherwise engaging in public discourse without ever encountering (except as a ridiculous straw-man argument) a position that we disagree with.

We are used to media outlets—and politicians—that confirm our biases. We demand civic flattery rather than civic engagement. When we get it, we think that we are having conversations. And when we meet and interact with people who never challenge our opinions, we think that we are making friends.

I have been thinking about Lincoln and Whitman a lot heading into 2018. Passions have been busy in 2017 straining our bonds of affection. We aren’t 1860-level strained yet—nobody has formally seceded from the Union—but we’ve done better. And we need to do better again. 2018 would be an excellent time for some of those better angels to make an appearance.

If we work on the assumption that the best way to fix our nation is to fix ourselves (always a good bet in a democracy), then the most important civic question we face today may very well be, ”how do we do a better job of being friends?” We all need to learn how to do friendship better. As New Year’s resolutions go, we could do a lot worse.



  1. Trump sent a good part of a year demonizing people, and won. People were glad when Congressmen from the opposite aisle were murdered on a baseball field. Apparently it’s just fine punching anyone wearing a MAGA hat now? People know who Steve Bannon is.

    As a nation we are FAR from friendship. Entire movements are based solely on making sure the other guys fail, because like it or not, our ideals/motives/desires ARE opposed. We can’t even agree on respecting our own flag (something that should bring unity) anymore.

    I’m afraid this would be a resolution doomed to fail in week one.

  2. I find this timely and spot on.

  3. I’m not aware of congressmen who were murdered on a baseball field. I’m not aware of any congressmen “from the opposite aisle” who were glad when a colleague was shot. So I don’t have any idea what the hell you’re talking about.

  4. Sorry.. that was supposed to be “almost murdered”. And ANTIFA tweeted a pic in response saying that the only good fascist is a dead one. They were praising the shooting from someone from the “opposite aisle” As far as I know no Congressmen praised the shooter, but I said “people were glad”, not colleagues.

    But point holds true that while this would be a worthwhile resolution for us to achieve, it is doomed to fail. Why? Perhaps because a person can’t even have a typing error on a blogsite without coming under fire. How will we ever be friends when we treat strangers as enemies?

    Seems I remember a post on here during this past year, and it dealt with friends/friendship. I don’t remember the author, but they gave a list of people who basically “need not apply” for friendship with them. The list had things like “watches Fox News” “shares Matt Walsh posts” “Owns a MAGA hat”… etc.

    So how do two people have a civil friendship with those barriers?

  5. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    It’s really hard to have a civil friendship with people who vociferously espouse a point of view that declares vast swaths of the population to be second-class citizens at best and subhuman at worst, especially if you’re in one of those swaths! And make no mistake: that is the essence of Trumpism. It is the politics of those who want to return to 1950 or so, when everyone was a “white” Christian (except those pesky, problematic Negroes who kept ruining nice white neighborhoods), immigration was virtually nonexistent, and there were no “hyphenated Americans.”

    If there were prominent Democratic voices advocating for the disenfranchisement of anyone without a bachelor’s degree or a ban on the display of Christian symbols even on private property, that’d be one thing–but there aren’t. The LDS Church has recently opened large facilities in prominent locations in two of the nation’s most liberal cities (Chicago and Philadelphia), even though these cities have sizable LGBT populations that could have pushed for these to be blocked on the basis of the Church’s support for Prop 8 and the Policy of Exclusion. (In retrospect, when I was consulted by my old stake’s leadership in early 2009 about the feasibility of getting another meetinghouse built somewhere in the non-San Fernando Valley part of the City of Los Angeles to address the facilities crisis in the Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Huntington Park Stakes, I was far too pessimistic in saying that it just wasn’t going to happen.) Compare that to the way that conservative cities throughout the US routinely make the construction of pretty much any non-Christian religious edifice a pain in the rear.

  6. Left Field says:

    Whatever this “ANTIFA” is, that some people are all up in arms about, I’m confident that they’re not important enough to merit thirty seconds of my time to find out. The literal or metaphorical aisle generally refers to members of congress or some other legislature. And if there is some person or group that cheers Congressman Scalise’s shooting, I’m sure they’re not affiliated with anyone on either side of that aisle.

  7. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    The Right has inflated the importance of antifa groups to a ludicrous degree. They’re the same old professional left-wing activists, the way that the “Tea Party” was by and large the same old conservative activists with a new brand. Six years ago they were calling themselves “Occupy.”

    And anyway, given the willingness of neo-Nazi groups to attack peaceful protests, I kinda don’t mind if the black bloc types are around to kick their skulls in.

  8. I think the biggest barrier we have is the tendency to see and proclaim only the worst of what someone decrees is the “other side”. Hyperbole is taken as reality, being much more salacious and fun to spread than mundane reality. We cut off the possibility of conversation based on a single point we believe someone has, related or not. I wish I could say this is new or worse now than ever, but I recently watched the documentary of the 18th amendment and was reminded that it’s not at all new, just flowing much more freely.

    So what do we do? How do we improve this? Shall we try to make more forays into FMH and M*, deplorables and antifa, HuffPo and Breitbart, our hope glimmering, struggling to share what brings us together rather than what drives us apart? Or shall we hunker down in our shells, our domes of fear and selfishness, writing posts and comments that quibble about deck chairs, confident in the unsinkableness of the logic of the people packed in tightly around us?

    We should absolutely be reaching out, even to those we find the most abhorrent. The Pharisees and the Samaritans and even the Romans. Not to grind our heel or bite our thumb at them, but to share our commonality. Disagreement need not drive us apart when we we remember that, at the least, we share humanity. And, for those not convinced of the humanity of the “other”, start with just listening and watching, looking for anything with which you might relate.

    I agree very much with the sentiments and quotes of the post. No matter how much we disagree, we -cannot- be enemies. We may not be friends, we may even be rivals or “the opposition”, but in the end, we are all in this together, bound together as inhabitants of this planet.

  9. Fully agree. These early “skull-kicking” comments suggest potential barriers to success . . .

  10. Let it begin with me. Thanks Michael.

  11. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    And, for those not convinced of the humanity of the “other”, start with just listening and watching, looking for anything with which you might relate.

    Uh, yeah, I’m pretty sure there’s one side of the current US political divide that needs to do an awful lot more of this than the other. It is very difficult to say “let’s put aside our differences and sing ‘Kumbaya’ and love our enemies” when one of the groups is defined by its hostility to ethnic and religious diversity. If you need any proof of this, the fact that the serial scofflaw Roy Moore (whose contempt for the pluralism that is America’s greatest achievement was very much a matter of public record, even before his ephebophile past came out) was nominated for a US Senate Seat by the Republican voters of Alabama, primarily because he would annoy “The Establishment,” should be enough to show you that contemporary American conservative partisans hate their perceived enemies much more than they love their own supposed principles. Anyone who’s read Mormon knows how this turns out.

    Imagine if a Democratic presidential candidate advocated for the forced removal (and perhaps deportation back to the Anglo-Scots borderlands) of the population of Appalachia, on the grounds that the region is nothing but a bunch of welfare leeches and opioid fiends whose sole major industry is digging flammable dirt out of the ground that needs Rube Goldberg devices to keep it from producing toxic pollution when burned (to say nothing of greenhouse gas emissions). Some of them, I suppose, are good people, he might say. If you find this difficult to conceive, there’s a very good reason.

  12. nobody, really says:

    I’m reminded of a scene from Season 1 of “Farscape”. An Earth astronaut finds himself on the opposite side of the galaxy, taking refuge in a transport ship filled with escaped prisoners. He asks one of the aliens he meets if they can be friends – this alien warrior suggests that “friends” is perhaps too strong of a word, and perhaps they can be “allies”.

    I’m about as conservative as they come, but I’ve found common ground with all sorts of people in the past seven years or so as I’ve tried to join some other community groups. We’ve now got a family friend who marched with the communists in New York and Washington DC in the early 70s. She considers herself to be a Trotsky communist, not a Leninist. She’s been a regular guest at our Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving dinners. Another person I’ve come to know ran as a Green candidate for the US Senate. He specializes in teaching people how to build giant puppets and use them in protest marches.

    There are some topics we don’t discuss, because we know how they are going to turn out. Instead, we can find some of those basic universal truths on which we can agree – work hard, take risks, be kind, and learn where you came from. We agree on the goal, we disagree on the path, but we can cheer each other on from whatever path we take.

  13. Heptaparaparshinokh (thank goodness for copy-paste) – The most successful person to being people out of the KKK did it individually, working with patience to show how much more alike they were than different. Your belief that only one side is so awful that it’s not worth dealing with makes me think of a room full or people yelling about how everyone else has a bean in their eye while wondering why everyone around them is getting knocked down.

    There is plenty to fix in ourselves.

  14. Thing #1: The problem of one side being actively hostile to diversity is not something that Lincoln failed to consider in his initial call for civic friendship. Nor did he sacrifice any of his principles in order to sing Kumbaya. The initial plea–“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies”–was made by somebody fully aware of the difficulties involved.

    Thing #2: Those who think that getting along with liberals/conservatives is just too hard are going to be really surprised about what it takes to be part of the Kingdom of God.

  15. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    rd: Hugging Nazis does not work and has never worked, and when they engage in violence, they should be met with an overwhelming and violent response.

    Nobody just sorta ignorantly stumbles into carrying a torch and yelling “blood and soil!” It might have been the case 90 years ago, but it sure isn’t now, after 20+ years of History Channel documentaries on Nazi atrocities. There are a lot of deliberate decisions that have gone into this, to the extent that I believe it can and should be called evil.

  16. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Frank: I fully believe that there’s a lot of improvement that affluent, educated white folks in major metropolitan areas can make in the way they view people from less privileged backgrounds and less prosperous places than their own. However, do remember that the former group includes an awful lot of people (such as myself) who emerged from the latter’s milieu and are very familiar with the ways of thinking that prevail there, and have rejected them with good reason. I think that we as Latter-day Saints tend to forget that the fact that the areas where we are numerically dominant are outliers: whereas with a few exceptions the Jell-O Belt is a really happy, healthy, prosperous, and remarkably egalitarian place, most of the conservative parts of the United States are unhappy, unhealthy, not especially wealthy, and profoundly unequal both before and after redistributive measures.

  17. nobody, really says:

    I agree that hugging Nazis has never worked and will never work.

    Who gets to define who is a Nazi?

  18. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Michael: I don’t think Lincoln really grasped the depth of the divide that had emerged. The most forceful advocates of secession had come to believe that their own freedom depended almost entirely not on the principles extolled in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but on the ownership of other human beings and the necessary rejection of the notion that all men are created equal. William T. Sherman knew full well what he was doing when he annihilated the plantations from Atlanta to Savannah and then up through South Carolina. His vision of mass land ownership by freedmen (40 acres and a mule) was effectively identical to the yeoman farming society of the North, but couldn’t have been more different from the aristocratic model of highly concentrated land ownership that existed in the Southern states–a model deliberately erected, BTW, by the English Royalist aristocrats who founded the Carolinas and Georgia.

    The best thing the North could have done after the Civil War would have been to liquidate the entire slaveholding class that was the backbone of the Confederacy: perhaps by revoking the citizenship of anyone in the Confederate Army above the rank of captain, or anyone who served in the Confederate government, exiling them (say, to Australia or maybe Alaska), and redistributing their land both to the slaves who worked it and the white overseer class. Instead, in an understandable but misguided desire to close up the wound without properly sterilizing it, the North allowed the exact same power structure to emerge from the war, and the disease of white supremacism to fester beneath.

    It’s important to remember that Nazism ended mostly because most of the significant Nazis either died from Soviet gunfire or US and British bombs, with a large portion of the survivors imprisoned after the war. This is sobering, as it should be.

  19. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Who gets to define who is a Nazi?

    Maybe we can start with the guys who define themselves that way, and broaden to the people who declare that some of those are “very fine people?”

  20. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    BTW I am aware that there also were financial considerations in the North that prevented a more thorough Reconstruction: namely, the gigantic sums owed to Northern bankers by Southern planters, who wanted to rebuild the Southern economy as close to its previous form as possible in order to recover their investments. Heaven forbid that the rentier class might have to sacrifice for the good of the nation!

  21. Your faith in the ability to solve problems with force, the moral superiority of those who wield it, and in the advantages of liquidating whole classes of people who disagree with you is not at all unfamiliar, but it is definitely disturbing. And these are not policy options that I have any interest in pursuing, no matter how much I fundamentally disagree with Roy Moore and Donald Trump.

  22. For anyone interested, Heptaparaparshinokh is a shining example of why this resolution won’t materialize into reality. For him and many others (on both sides) they think of their political opponents as enemies indeed and that they “should be called evil” and advocates that somebody should “kick their skulls in.” This resolution has failed online well before the new year began.

  23. jaxjensen, one can only make resolutions for oneself. Any time a resolution requires other people to behave in any certain way, it is going to fail. The question is not, “what are we as a country going to collectively do?” It is, “what are you going to do?” For me, it is, “what am I going to do?” How we talk to each other matters. How we disagree with each other matters–and we have to disagree with each other. In a democracy, it is part of our job description as citizens. I have to decide to do better even if other people don’t reciprocate. So do you. So does everybody.

  24. On politics, Lincoln, the politician, is better than Whitman, the poet. Lincoln’s greatness as a writer is in his ability to temper idealism without compromising it, whereas Whitman’s greatness is in his willingness to be carried away by idealism. In spite of his hope, Lincoln is a tragic writer, and we need the darker side of his vision as much as we need his light.

    Whitman was wrong when he wrote that “Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom.” Well, he wasn’t entirely wrong; that sounds like a pretty good description of Zion. But we are mistaken if we believe that only affection can solve the problems of freedom. As Michael’s OP acknowledges, true friendship is not really necessary for our politics to thrive: instead, we must be “at least partakers in what Aristotle called ‘civic friendship.’ At the very least, we cannot be the opposite.” This more modest goal is attainable, but only if we are willing to be unflinching about what civic friendship, as opposed to personal friendship, really entails.

    There is a very hard balance to strike between striving for friendship and striving for justice. Lincoln is tragic because although he expressed the hope for peace as eloquently as any politician we know of, yet he was ruthless in his violent struggle for justice. I’m not at all predicting violence in our current political situation. I’m just pointing out that this opposition between friendship and justice can be a terrible conundrum.

    I think Michael is right that we can’t solve our current problems without deepening our ability to find personal friendship with our opponents. As Christians, we bear that sacred duty. Side by side with that work, we must also be unyielding in succoring the weak, strengthening the feeble knees, and bringing justice to the downtrodden.

  25. Good Point Michael… Your comment at the end… “we could do a lot worse” had me thinking collectively. But you do point out in the OP that it is an “I” mentality that we need to fix, and that if enough do it, that it will have a good effect on the collective.

  26. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    I don’t like it, but unfortunately the transformative alternatives to violent upheaval historically have not proven super-viable. That supposed great triumph of nonviolent activism, the independence of India, came about as much because of Britain’s bankruptcy at the end of WWII (and its consequent inability to maintain its empire) as from the righteous efforts of peaceful Indian nationalists–one group of whom, BTW, ended up creating the Indo-Pakistani conflict. The end of the Cold War came about because the Soviet economy collapsed after years of low global commodities prices, not because the Communist bloc’s various ruling classes gave up in the face of nonviolent opposition. (And sometimes it turned violent, as in the case of Romania and Lithuania.) In the US, the end of Jim Crow came to a significant extent at gunpoint, and one justifiably could argue that it never really ended for the vast majority of American blacks. China’s brief democratic flowering of 1988-89 ended in the blood of 10,000 students in Tiananmen Square. (If you want to meet some truly disenchanted people, talk to Chinese graduate students in the US who finally learn the truth about the events of June 4, and the devil’s bargain their country has made to become rich.)

    And yet, I recognize the utter horror of all war, even if it ends in beneficial transformation. Most of the Confederate dead were tradesmen and yeoman farmers little different from their Union counterparts, many of whom signed up because they were told that the Northerners were going to come and make them slaves of the Negro, and that they could only assure their freedom if they took up arms in the name of Virginia or Georgia. (It’s worth noting, though, that the areas least economically dependent on slavery–namely, the Appalachian portions of Virginia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas–had the highest rates of desertion from the Confederate armies; West Virginia of course seceded from Virginia entirely and rejoined the Union.) What do you tell a man who’s just lost four years fighting for a wicked cause, and held his friends in his arms as they died? How many ordinary soldiers of the Wehrmacht were there to build the Thousand-Year Reich, and how many were there because they didn’t want to get their families in trouble? (I have a good friend whose father was in the Hitlerjugend because, well, that’s what you did when you were a boy born in Germany in 1933. At 18, he left Germany, and eventually bought a farm in western Illinois a stone’s throw from Nauvoo, in the process becoming a notably devout and decent Catholic.) Stalin knew full well that most ordinary Russian peasants and proles weren’t going to lay down their lives to beat Nazism, let alone to promote Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, and so brought religious nationalism back out of mothballs because nothing else could motivate his subjects to beat back the Germans. (And here’s where I mention the guy from eastern Ukraine in my folks’ old ward who, after the end of his service in the Great Patriotic War, moved to South America–possibly to keep tabs on various exiled Nazis for the KGB, which was in a position to make such requests of Soviet citizens–where he joined the Church and eventually moved to Chicagoland.)

    I don’t think we’re going to have a civil war in the United States, and I sincerely hope and pray that we don’t, but the bellicosity of Trumpist culture-warrior rhetoric makes me aware that it’s a very real possibility. Have you seen those NRA videos with Dana Loesch? Declaring “We must love each other!” without addressing the underlying sources of conflict is ultimately a meaningless gesture. Christ asked us to go another mile for the centurion, but he did not ask us to go twenty.

  27. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    BTW I think that the fundamental thrust of the OP is misguided. Ask some black folks how they feel about “we must be friends.” How can you be friends with someone who thinks you’re subhuman, and is willing to hurt themselves for the sake of that belief?

    I am on cordial social terms with plenty of people who voted for Trump in the general, and with whom I disagree on any number of political issues. They did so mostly because their brains short-circuit when the issue of abortion is brought up. Many of them would have voted for a Democrat who said “safe, legal, and rare.”

    But I also am friends with many, many conservatives with whom I got in angry Facebook arguments over health care reform–something that’s important, but ultimately isn’t a question of eternal salvation–but with whom I rekindled friendship after Trump’s nomination, when they realized that they loved their principles more than being on the winning team. Friendship is eminently possible with this group.

    What am I supposed to do, though, with people who voted for Trump in the primaries above all other Republican candidates, because he would smite their perceived enemies? Many of these people are doing quite well, I should add. (White folks in Inland SoCal are, by and large, not poor–not at all–but man, they are angry.) These are not “forgotten men.” What they want and value is fundamentally incompatible with what I want and value. Beyond basic courtesy, what can I do with them?

  28. nobody, really says:

    >>Who gets to define who is a Nazi?

    >Maybe we can start with the guys who define themselves that way, and broaden to the people >who declare that some of those are “very fine people?”

    I think I’m starting to see how this works. I select the person or group I want to target, then adjust my definition of “them” to cover my target.

    As long as everyone understands the rules, we can all play, right?

  29. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Fine, fine, stick with the guys cosplaying as brownshirts. If in 2017 you are deliberately endorsing the rhetoric and policies of the Third Reich, not just winking and nodding in that general direction, you might as well be a son of perdition.

    I’m not saying we should all go perform prophylactic blood atonement on our local alt-right edgelord, but allowing him to be a member of society in any meaningful way without truly massive repentance and sincere change on his part strikes me as folly.

  30. Thinking about the idea of “civic friendship” and what it would really entail seems productive and useful. That said, I find it…. interesting…. that the discussion immediately turns to the issue of displaying friendship specifically to Trump voters (or to anyone whose votes are motivated by racism, sexism, and the general desire to oppress others, or have that as a significant effect).

    At this point pretty much everybody (I hope) realizes that in an abusive relationship, it is actually impossible to remain friends with both parties. If a friend of mine says she has to leave her husband because he abused or raped her, and I say that I’m her friend but I will remain his friend too, I think we can all see through that–it’s a choice to support the abuser over the victim. “Friendship” with both isn’t friendship and isn’t even handed treatment of both of them, it is in fact taking sides and will generally result in the victim losing their friendships and social circle as a price of leaving the abuse. It’s wrong.

    I think in addition to talking about what “civic friendship” means, we have to prioritize: display civic friendship towards WHO? What does it mean to always remember that immigrants to this country are my (civic) friends? What real actions to do we need to take to treat the poor as our “civic friends”? What does it mean to truly treat the descendants of slaves, or children of undocumented immigrants, or people suffering from intense racial segregation in housing, education, and jobs, or transgender people denied medical care, or gay people denied equal treatment in public accommodations, or women who are kept down in or forced out of the workplace by sexism and harassment, as “civic friends”? It seems fair to say that Jesus/Lincoln/Socrates/whoever would want us to treat everyone as civic friends– but I’m pretty sure that Jesus *primarily* means that we need to be friends to the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. And sometimes that will mean prioritizing those people over others. Sometimes comforting the afflicted means afflicting the comfortable.

    If a person who I am friends with (actual friends, or perhaps a family member) says horribly racist things, or casts a vote with the primary effect of casting out immigrants and making life worse for the poor, what does true civic friendship to all require? If I say nothing, then I am treating those who are harmed with indifference, and refusing to see or acknowledge their suffering, while I am also treating the speaker with indifference at best (not bothering to engage with them) or flattery at worst (allowing them to believe their ideas are good or even acceptable). If I speak out, then I am treating those who truly need friendship as friends, while also doing the person speaking the courtesy of engaging with them and taking them seriously enough to acknowledge that they can do real harm.

    How funny, though, that the comments are all about how it’s the *racists* who need to be the subject of friendship and whose needs take primary consideration. Of course, a post advocating friendship for all immediately turns into a discussion that amounts to “screw the brown people, befriend the racist whites!” That is making a decision about who to center in the discussion and who to care about. That’s picking sides.

  31. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Amen, J. I should add that the original sentiments of Whitman–and Lincoln at the time–essentially ignored the black men, women, and children whose bodies were at the root of the conflict. Lincoln, through his acquaintance with Frederick Douglass and the noble efforts of freedman soldiers, grew to understand blacks as the equals of whites as the war dragged on, but this was in no way universal. These people were thrown under the bus in the name of “healing the nation” as quickly as possible, damn the consequences. In that light, Michael Austin ought to ask himself whether the mass removal of a few thousand treasonous planters and their families from the contiguous United States really would have been a greater evil than allowing the slavers to regain power and put their former chattel into a state not an awful lot better than slavery, as characterized the Jim Crow South.

    One of the most lucid descriptions of slavery you’ll ever read comes from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who deems it “continuous warfare against black bodies and black families.” Slavery as practiced in the South in 1861 was an extraordinarily violent institution, even more so than had been the case a century earlier, and there was no reason to believe that it would become less so with time. (Indeed, some of the nation’s land best suited to labor-intensive agriculture–namely, the San Joaquin Valley in California, the savannas of central and southern Florida, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas–was almost completely uncultivated at the Civil War’s end; there’s no reason to think that slavery would have ended with mechanization, as I’ve seen some Confederate apologists argue.) In that light, calls to extend friendship and charity not merely to ordinary Southerners, but to the Southern political class that initiated this bloodbath in the name of continuing violence against black bodies for profit, were naive at best.

  32. “Michael Austin ought to ask himself whether the mass removal of a few thousand treasonous planters and their families from the contiguous United States really would have been a greater evil than . . . .”

    Oh, I have. Nobody who seriously advocates social reform can go very far without entertaining the Shigalyev fantasy–that utopia, or, at least a much better society can be achieved if only we got rid of ______. It is a very old idea, and it has been tried multiple times, rarely without ending up in genocide.

    The problem with using fundamentally illiberal means to achieve liberal ends is that it turns you into exactly what you think you are against. It works fine in blog post comment sections, of course. That is exactly where Shigalyev would have plied his trade if Dostoyevsky were writing today. In actual practice, though, societies that try to improve themselves by “mass removal” don’t stop with a few thousand planters and their families, and they don’t set them up with forty acres and a mule in Australia. They kill them. Lots of them.

    And human nature just isn’t moral enough to give any person or set of people the ability to decide who has to die (or go to “Australia”) in order for society to thrive. It is inconceivable that we could destroy enough of the rule of law to allow this sort of targeted ideological cleansing without it ending up primarily hurting the most vulnerable people in society. Even actual deportation to Australia in England in the 18-19th centuries primarily affected the lowest classes. The efficacy of your argument requires a government competent, moral, and restrained enough to limit itself to a single, surgical suspension of the rule of law.

    Civic friendship is not signing Kumbaya. It is vigorous, rhetorical truth telling. It does not require us to accept what is unacceptable. it requires us to denounce it and work hard, within the rule of law, to change it. It is, though, fundamentally liberal. It does not co-opt the coercive mechanism of the state to sidestep the hard work of engagement, persuasion, and compromise. Those short cuts are always tempting. They never work.

  33. J – ” That said, I find it…. interesting…. that the discussion immediately turns to the issue of displaying friendship specifically to Trump voters (or to anyone whose votes are motivated by racism, sexism, and the general desire to oppress others, or have that as a significant effect)”

    Funny, it looks to me like the discussion immediately turned to who we should -not- display friendship. The same argument is used on both sides – “When Jesus said everyone, surely he didn’t mean -them-”

    When you reduce a group to being a single thing, -any- thing, you dehumanize them. This can be done even with a group you are a part of. Limiting people in this way is limiting yourself, which in turn you either use to limit and distance yourself from them or use as armor to prove your rightness. It makes no difference which group, “rednecks”, “gays”, “nerds”, “jocks”, “whites”, “evangelicals”, etc., the one who loses the most is you.

  34. I truly wish I were better at handling these kinds of conversations. I occasionally have to have this kind of conversation with other friends and family, and it always turns out with my not convincing them and my always feeling like I want to shake them and ask why they don’t understand. I try to understand what got them to their opinion, but their choices on what to believe baffle me.

    I’m going to try and step away for a bit. We’ll see how that goes.

  35. Frank:

    Thank you for that patronizing reply. The questions I actually asked in my post were “What does it mean to always remember that immigrants to this country are my (civic) friends? What real actions to do we need to take to treat the poor as our “civic friends”? What does it mean to truly treat the descendants of slaves, or children of undocumented immigrants, or people suffering from intense racial segregation in housing, education, and jobs, or transgender people denied medical care, or gay people denied equal treatment in public accommodations, or women who are kept down in or forced out of the workplace by sexism and harassment, as “civic friends”?”

    Do you have any thoughts on those? Because, you see, you immediately turned the conversation back to… the importance of being nice to the people who voted to oppress others. It’s good to be reassured once again that no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we speak up on behalf of those who have been harmed or targeted, somebody will always come along to make sure that the racist white dudes’ feelings remain at the center of the conversation. But my answer to the questions above is that, in order to actually display civic friendship towards *all* members of my community, I am absolutely morally required to speak out against racism and other forms of targeting and oppressing the least powerful among us.


    “Civic friendship is not singing Kumbaya. It is vigorous, rhetorical truth telling. It does not require us to accept what is unacceptable, it requires us to denounce it and work hard, within the rule of law, to change it.”

    Amen. And while removing any class of people from the community (whether Muslims or immigrants now or slaveholders 150 years ago) is not only not required but unacceptable, what *is* required as part of working to change it is ensuring that those who exercise power unjustly to harm others are deprived of that power. Despite Lincoln’s wonderful words, we failed abominably after the Civil War, in returning exactly the same people to power in only a slightly altered power structure. What does it look like now, to ensure that those who abused their power to harm others will no longer have the power to do that? I suspect it looks like fighting gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts, ensuring accurate census counting, restoring voting rights to those who have been stripped of them, ensuring that the undocumented are properly viewed as members of our community with a voice and ability to become fully equal citizens, doing everything we can to reform lobbying and campaign finance, fighting segregation, moving toward greater equality of wealth and income… I can think of other things. And it requires private citizens to speak out, loudly, to ensure that stoking racism and hate as a means of keeping unjust power is utterly unacceptable in our society. The problem is that lectures like this post on being a friend to everyone are generally used to dissuade people from those efforts (because that’s not very friendly to the racists).

  36. J –

    Your point seems to be that it’s more important to be friends with those who are downtrodden in some way than it is to be friends with those who hold opinions you find to be odious. These are not mutually exclusive.

    I’ve been very, very careful to try and show how this is a problem for everyone, but you don’t seem to be willing to listen. You’re merely dismissing me as “somebody [who] will always come along to make sure that the racist white dudes’ feelings remain at the center of the conversation”. Seeing “racist white dudes” as human is something I continually struggle with, but I make the effort because in the past they have been my friends and continue to be my family. I also make the effort for my friends and family who are called “free-love libtards” for the same reasons. No one is clean here, no one is free of the tendency to categorize and dismiss.

    I wasn’t meaning to be patronizing before, but since you asked, I will now – read Matthew 5:43-48. Note the lack of “except”.

  37. “but the bellicosity of Trumpist culture-warrior rhetoric” …

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA… you defining the “other side” as warriors and bellicose (demonstrating aggression and willingness to fight) is remarkably hypocritical and narrow-minded given that you has demonstrated a willingness to have their skulls kicked in.

    Michael… ” At the very least, we cannot be the opposite.” But we are, very much so. Not everyone. But large numbers (majority?) of people from all backgrounds, political persuasions, wealth statuses, races, education achievements, and nationalities are diametrically opposed to the “other” side of their situation. They don’t merely disagree, they HATE each other. As an obvious example we have a commenter on here who would be happy to see the death (that’s what happen when you kick someone’s skull in) of those who have a different political outlook (BTW, how does that not violate protocol for comments and end up in mediation?) For him it is politics, for others it is race, for others wealth, and so on.

    It is no longer the case that we have the same goal(s) and just disagree on the best way to achieve them , there exists now entirely differing and opposing sets of goals.

  38. If it has done nothing else, this post, and its responses, have shown me how much work I am going to have to do in the book I am currently working on (working title: “We Must Not Be Enemies: A Plea for Civic Friendship”) to convince both sides that having a conversation is preferable to entertaining extermination fantasies in the comments section. Rather than call my experiment a failure, I am going to call it, please, “research.”

    My last words on the subject go to Learned Hand and WH Auden. These are the two epigraphs of the book:

    “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten – that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side-by-side with the greatest.”

    –Learned Hand, “The Spirit of Liberty”

    All I have is a voice
    To undo the folded lie,
    The romantic lie in the brain
    Of the sensual man-in-the-street
    And the lie of Authority
    Whose buildings grope the sky:
    There is no such thing as the State
    And no one exists alone;
    Hunger allows no choice
    To the citizen or the police;
    We must love one another or die.

    –WH Auden, “September 1, 1939”

  39. Frank:

    “Your point seems to be that it is more important to be friends with those who are downtrodden in some way than it is to be friends with those who hold opinions you find to be odious.”

    That feels like it can only be a deliberate misreading. It is more important to support those who are downtrodden in some way than it is to offer the same type of support to *those who are doing the oppressing.* It is more important to speak for those who are harmed than to speak for those who are doing the harming.

    I realize that you have been careful to frame this as a problem for everyone. It’s not that I don’t understand you or are not willing to listen, it’s that I’m trying to discuss the way that exact framing is a problem. In regular interpersonal situations, most people (including you, I assume) are able to understand that when one person is abusing another, framing is as the same problem for everyone, and treating everyone the same, is in fact doing harm. It is choosing sides and contributing to that abuse. There is no virtue in false equivalence where it ignores and enables harm. In this situation, treating this as an equal problem for all sides and insisting on reframing it, over and over, as the need to humanize everyone equally, is allowing that abuse to go unchecked. It is failing in our basic duties to those who need our help most.

    I have no quibble with the idea that all people (including those who use their cultural and political power to harass and dehumanize others and even advocate for their removal from our society) are human. But turning the conversation over and over to the need to humanize them while ignoring questions about what we need to do to support their victims is an absolutely prime illustration of the problem. Who are you prioritizing? Who do you choose to center? This conversation and basically every other conversation in this country in the last year demonstrates that white people (and men and straight people and Christians) will always, always, be prioritized and centered.

  40. Nope, not a deliberate misreading. I probably am that dense.

    I think what keeps throwing me off was that the post had nothing to do with people abusing or being abused. Unfortunately, it’s where the comments immediately went. Despite those trying to get it back on topic (and being called “somebody [who] will always come along to make sure that the racist white dudes’ feelings remain at the center of the conversation”) most seem to want to drive the conversation to supporting those who are hurt.

    One conversation should not be sacrificed to the other.

  41. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    jaxjensen, if you genuinely think that neo-Nazis who attack peaceful protesters deserve anything less than an overwhelming physical response in addition to the most ruthless possible application of the criminal justice system, you are coddling them. One wonders what you think about Islamist terrorists who attack peaceful worshipers at mosques that don’t happen to share their particularly brand of Salafism/Wahabbism. Again: in neo-Nazis, you are talking about people who have deliberately chosen to model themselves on the most evil regime in the history of humanity. I will not apologize for believing that they deserve nothing less than a skull-stomping, and probably something even more brutal.

    I don’t think that every redneck with NRA and Trump bumper stickers above the icthys on the tailgate of his lifted pickup truck (way to show folks what gods you actually worship, dudes) deserves violence. I do wonder at what point, if ever, it is possible to disabuse him of the toxic ideology–based in large part on outright falsehoods–that he has adopted. A very large percentage of conservative voters believes that the 2nd Amendment gives them the right to overthrow a legitimate democratically elected government that they don’t like. (Don’t ask them about Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion.) This is not conducive to a healthy democracy! I am not sure how to talk them down from this stance, and I suspect you don’t know either.

    Michael: I hear you on the Shigalyev issue. You are correct that state violence rarely is precise and surgical in its aims. Would lifetime imprisonment have been better for the class I mention? I don’t think that people who have taken up arms against their own country (or incited/coerced others to do so) for the purpose of defending their right to commit daily violence against an entire race of people for economic gain deserve to breathe free air again so long as they live, and they certainly don’t deserve to keep the wealth they earned from committing this violence–but that is precisely what happened after the Civil War in the name of national healing. “With malice towards none” in practice meant complete amnesty.

  42. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    BTW there are very clear and disturbing parallels between the “one amendment guarantees them all” crowd and those who advocated the enslavement of the Negro as the guarantor of white freedom–not least in the extraordinary ahistoricity of their claims. We’ve just spent a goodly portion of this thread discussing what happened (and what should have happened) to the folks who most vociferously advocated the latter.

  43. Heptaparaparshinokh,

    For what its worth, I did write a small book (a chapter really; a follow-up to my book _That’s Not What They Meant_) specifically addressing both the danger and the ahistoricity of the “Second-Amendmnet-as-the-Constitution’s-Self-Destruct-Clause” argument, which, I agree, is very flawed:

  44. Last Lemming says:

    Ask some black folks how they feel about “we must be friends.” How can you be friends with someone who thinks you’re subhuman, and is willing to hurt themselves for the sake of that belief?

    This is how (a Washington Post Outlook section piece by Daryl Davis entitled “I wanted to understand why racists hated me. So I befriended Klansmen”). And for the record, Mr. Davis is a far better man than I.

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