Her first mistake is a suggestion that those who identify with one extreme of the political spectrum necessarily disdain those at the other end. Sharpless’ parents may couple their liberal beliefs with a “hatred of Republicans,” but I know many fiery liberals who do not. I was raised by parents as conservative as Sharpless’ are liberal. While her parents were warning her about “conservative pig dogs,” mine were taking me to Paul Ryan fundraisers. The political dialogue in my home was never balanced, but neither was it hateful. Our dinner table was a marketplace of ideas, one to which politically dissenting friends were often invited and always encouraged to speak.
We should never hate our political opponents, but rage toward ideas or institutions is sometimes justified. Let me be clear: by ‘rage,’ I do not mean name-calling or ad hominem attacks. We all agree that these have no role in politics or in any substantive conversation. I mean forceful arguments stemming from a conviction in the superiority of one’s position.
When Ronald Reagan was president he relentlessly condemned communism as a system that is barbaric and laughable. Frederick Douglass argued against slavery with moral — as well as political — vitriol. Their rage was righteous and, I would argue, right. Reagan did not hate communists and Douglass did not hate slave owners. Their rage was directed at the institutions of communism and slavery, respectively.
Sometimes mulch needs to be metaphorically slung, and some issues are black and white. The question is discerning when to speak with righteous anger, when to debate with nuanced precision and when to let sleeping dogs lie. Recently, President Barack Obama was criticized by those on the left and the right for a lack of rage: for his initial failure to call the burning of the American embassy in Libya what it was — a terrorist attack.
One of the many things I love about Princeton is that it trains us to argue ideas. Sharpless wisely emphasizes that our political beliefs are influenced by social and cultural factors. However, she forgets they are also personal and intellectual. I resent her simplistic analysis that conservatives “aren’t all that soulless or fascist or even really that racist; they’re just Midwesterners with Midwestern values and a Midwestern stubbornness .” I lived in Wisconsin for seven years and can affirm that we are not all conservatives. Wisconsin hasn’t even voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. Those of us who are conservative claim a variety of reasons more meaningful than our birthplace and should not be thought of as a homogenous group.
Given that Sharpless notices rampant “political discontent” in our generation, it is interesting that she does not advocate increased political participation. Political independence does not entail indifference but is compatible with the “righteous political rage” I defined above. If you are convinced the left and the right are equally wrong, then by all means argue for your position and persuade others to join you in the middle.
We live in a country at war, in dire financial straits and with high unemployment. Our country faces big questions about marriage, health care and the proper scope of government power. Some issues — such as Mitt Romney’s tax returns — might not warrant rage, but others — like terrorism — surely do. Sharpless praises our generation as one “comfortable with the word ‘maybe.’” This is great, but let us not become so comfortable that we forget how to say “yes” and “no.” All ideas are not created equally, and the right ones will never rise if we answer the toughest questions with “maybe.”
Of course, our rage must always stem from intelligent arguments. If we think our beliefs are too culturally influenced, then our years at Princeton are the perfect time to bolster our political opinions with intellectual depth or perhaps even change them after interacting with those from different backgrounds. What we should never do is apologize for our ideas or temper them because political independence is suddenly cool.
Margaret Fortney is a computer science major from Winston-Salem, N.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/10/31446/