An alternative alternate universe
As I read George Rebane’s Other Voices column (Swan Song from an Alternate Universe, Jan. 16, 2016) I found a familiar, well-practiced response welling up in me. He spoke of President Obama and his supporters as inhabiting “an alternate universe” and then went on to list his damning criticisms of this President’s administration.
I began to scroll through my list of rebuttal points. I am a bit of a numbers junky and somewhat a victim of my training as a scientist — I may overvalue objectivity at times. I try to form my understanding of issues from the “raw data” up rather than starting with a preconceived model of how things “should” work.
Reading the historical tables at the back of the federal budget, original climatological studies or reviews in reputable scientific journals, and articles about the complex history of the Middle East seem, to me, the best way to go about understanding the sources budget deficits, the process of climate change or the dynamics of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
So I sat down and began to construct a point-by-point refutation of Mr. Rebane’s accusations. I intended, as I have in many Letters to the Editor and Op-eds to newspapers in the past, to make clear that, “Yes there are two realities and Mr. Rebane’s is the one disconnected from the facts.”
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I’m a fairly competent writer and I believed that I could, once again, build a pretty solid case in support of this position.
I was not prepared for where things went from there.
I got to his statement that our president had “driven mainstreet [sic] Americans further apart than they were in the sixties.” Really? The President had single-handedly done this? And then I recalled Gov. Nikki Haley’s wonderful response to the State of the Union address.
In her calm, articulate fashion she called on Republicans (as well as Democrats) to recognize their own part in the polarization in Washington, identify it, and “fix it.” It seemed to me that this balanced, moderate way of thinking: “I think I am right … but not perfectly … and I think you are wrong … but not entirely” holds real promise for reducing the distance between groups.
I began to realize that, while I had merely read an opinion piece that I disagreed with, my reaction was far beyond an intellectual disagreement.
I discovered that I was not just objectively refuting an argument but had formed in my mind a whole host of notions about Mr. Rebane, a man I don’t even know, regarding his motives, personality, fund of knowledge … you name it.
I found that Mr. Rebane’s somewhat absolutistic style (there is a little bit of “the whole world is falling apart and Obama is to blame” quality there) elicited an oppositional reaction from me that a more balanced challenge to my thinking would not have.
This might have been enhanced by his suggestion that those he disagrees with are somehow in an “alternate universe” which moves his article from a disagreement over issues to a personal attack on others’ (perhaps my?) rationality.
And then the penny dropped.
I was about to return like for like.
It does not heal divisions or promote productive discourse for me to pose Mr. Rebane as some sort of enemy.
I have to own my oppositional streak and be vigilant that I do not let that personal failing distort my assessment of his statements.
I also have to be aware of times when I offer, as I may occasionally do, arguments that I know are not balanced, that criticize failings without acknowledging successes, or that do not respect the positions of those I may disagree with.
Maybe this will be the focus of my Lenten discipline this year.
If I do, perhaps I can live into that conciliatory role to which Gov. Haley called us.
Paul Hauck lives in Penn Valley.
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