Left, Right, and Miscellaneous

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Next time we should invite this guy.

Last Saturday I sat down for an eight-hour conversation with a couple dozen writers and activists from different parts of the political spectrum. We were a diverse bunch, united only by our belief that the U.S. needs -- to borrow a phrase -- a more humble foreign policy. Another attendee, Sam Smith of The Progressive Review, has posted a wrapup of the event on his site. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but for now a few excerpts will do:

The topic was, by itself, depressingly familiar: building an anti-war coalition. What made it so strikingly different was the nature of those at the table. They included progressives, conservatives, traditional liberals and libertarians. Some reached back to the Reagan years or to 1960s activism, some - including an SDS leader from the University of Maryland and several Young Americans for Liberty - were still in college.

In a time when politics is supposed to be hopelessly polarized along the lines proposed by Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, the most heated debate occurred not between left and right but over tactics between Ralph Nader and Bill Greider….

As I sat around that table, I tried to recall those few occasions when I had experienced something close to this….One that worked was the anti-freeway coalition of the 1960s and 70s that kept Washington from becoming another Los Angeles. It was started by among the least likely activists - black and white middle class homeowners whose neighborhood was about to be ruined. It expanded to include those of us in the civil rights group SNCC as well as the all white Georgetown Citizens Association….There was only one qualification to join the anti-freeway movement: opposition to freeways.

Smith calls this "existential politics - in which one defined one's existence by one's actions rather than by one's ethnicity, class, party registration or magazine subscriptions."

I was likewise impressed with the discussion. It was the sort of event that was going to be interesting even if it ended in a great big food fight, and was all the more interesting because it wound up being generally amicable instead. It helped that the folks around the table were, for the most part, more interested in listening than in talking, a rare thing among people professionally engaged in politics. Maybe it was the fact that we all knew going into the room that it would be filled with deep-set philosophical disagreements. When there's little chance of converting someone to your point of view, you just might spend some time focusing on the things you can do, like figuring out ways to work together in the areas where you're already aligned.