Zorn and Byrne at it again

This is the latest in a series of dialogues conducted between Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn (from the left) and Dennis Byrne (from the right). Problem is, left and right isn't all that clear cut. This exchange and comments also can be found posted on Zorn's blog, Change of Subject.  

The art of political improvements

Maybe liberals and conservatives can work it out

From Eric

to Dennis

may shock you, but I want to start today with a sarcasm-free
acknowledgment of what I admire about conservatism.

It seems to me
that conservatives are generally more attuned than liberals to the
value of personal responsibility -- the notion that hard work and
integrity should be rewarded, and that sloth and venality should be

I also admire conservative skepticism about government
and the animating idea that new laws, regulations and state-sponsored
programs should be the last resort for problem-solving rather than the

Similarly, I share what I consider to be the basically
conservative belief that peace -- everywhere from in our neighborhoods to
on our planet -- is fundamental to liberty and possible only through
strength. Accommodation and appeasement of bad people and bad countries
has a lousy track record.

When it comes to public vulgarity,
single parenthood and cultures of dependency, I'm identifiably right of

Finally, at least for this round, I believe it's
indisputable that capitalism -- competition in the market -- has been a
great engine of human achievement and happiness, and is indispensable to
our future prosperity.

What's my angle? Advancing the contention
that political foes should resist demonization through exaggeration,
hugely popular though that now is. As Americans we share many common
goals and even, in some places, common ideas on how to reach those

Can any good come of dwelling on this instead of engaging
in name-calling, finger-pointing and towel-snapping? And, as a fallen
lefty yourself, can you compose an olive-branch concession to

From Dennis to

Ack, kaff. I'm exposed -- a fallen
liberal who voted for every Democratic presidential candidate from LBJ
to Michael Dukakis.

I supported the Great Society, lunch counter
sit-ins, civil rights legislation and President Dwight Eisenhower's
deployment of airborne troops to integrate Little Rock Central High
School in Arkansas in 1957 (yes, I was around then). I taught government
in a Deep South high school equivalency program serving predominantly
black and poor students. As a member of the Marquette (University)
Tribune's editorial board, I successfully pushed for an unprecedented
activist role for the newspaper by, for example, endorsing a Milwaukee
open-housing ordinance in a city even more racially segregated than

You could say that my liberal credentials were in order,
when being a lefty arguably was more onerous than now. I thought -- and
still do think -- that civil and human rights applied equally to all
people, regardless of race, religion, sex or ethnicity, a hallmark of
liberal politics. In those days of Jim Crow and sexual discrimination,
liberals fought to expand those human rights and the reach of the
meaning of personhood, even at the expense of someone else's property or
other rights.

So, even as a conservative today, I still
understand and respect those honorable views. Liberals keep us focused
on equality and social justice, even though we have sharp differences
about how to attain them. As a once-liberal, I know what it is to have
my motives, loyalty and intelligence rudely and frightfully questioned
from the right.

Sure, we can always be more civil. But let's not
delude ourselves: When it comes to nastiness, we haven't reached a
historic low. Rough and tumble is the hallmark of American democracy;
there are worse things than shouting and screaming at each other, aren't

From Eric to

I recall exposing your political
conversion in the late '90s when your column was in the Chicago
. Back then I wrote of your political conversion, "He once
was found but now is lost."

You might write the same of me when
you learn that I voted for Richard
in 1972 (or would have if I'd been old enough to vote) and
was a big admirer of smarty-pants conservative icon William
F. Buckley
Jr., mostly for his certitude and oozy grandiloquence.

yes, speaking of history, spirited, even irresponsible rhetoric has
been one of the hallmarks of our democracy going all the way back. But
not a particularly proud or beneficial hallmark. The leaders and
thinkers we admire most in retrospect weren't ranting demagogues. And to
the extent they were, we don't remember or honor them for it.

we in an era of unprecedented nastiness? I don't know how you'd measure
such a thing for comparison purposes, but the volume seems higher than
ever in these days of increasingly partisan cable news channels and
ferocious, often brilliant instant punditry on ideologically strident
Web sites.

We could go several rounds about which side is the most
inflammatory and irresponsible. But for now, what I'm suggesting is
that those of us who recognize how many values and goals we share should
pause every now and then to reflect that reasonable people can and will
differ, and that doesn't mean one of them is a socialist or the other
is a fascist.

So, I'll tell you how I came to see the light if you
tell me how you came to switch it off.

Dennis to Eric:

You're right; no one can win
the debate over which side is worse. But having lived through the
McCarthy era, I think the hand-wringing over today's incivility is a bit
strained. Tribune Publisher Robert
R. McCormick
took insult to a high, albeit entertaining, level.
Worse diatribes characterized much of early American journalism.
Disagreements over the War of 1812 turned into deadly riots in

Today is an age of hyperemotional sensitivities in
which causing offense is the greatest offense. Unless, of course, your
being offended has offended me, in which case we are at a standoff. Yes,
civility is the hallmark of intelligent discourse, but sometimes we
need to grow tougher skins and to stop demanding apologies at every

When Patrick
debated Loyalists in the House of Burgesses, only those
present heard the angry exchanges. Today, electronics deliver venom
instantly and globally. Maybe it's something we just have to get used
to. Like, you'll see, I did, when I switched off the light.

Eric to Dennis:

No one can persuade me
politically unless I first respect him, and the only way to earn my
respect is by showing me a fair and open mind rooted in reality.

one hectored or humiliated me out of my youthful flirtation with
conservatism. It was just that, the more history I read, the more I saw
that it was liberalism that realized the true promise of America by
dragging ruling-class white males into modernity -- into sharing their
prerogatives with women and minorities, into treating workers, the
environment and non-Christians with respect and into creating the social
safety nets that have by and large insulated our least fortunate from
the Third-World-style ravages of grinding poverty.

have resisted nearly every major salutary change in our society and
cultural life with the same sort of wild vehemence with which, today,
they are screeching that our president is a Marxist radical. Why would I
want to identify with that philosophy?

That said, and to end on
the conciliatory note with which I began, no smart reader of history can
deny that conservatives have rightly fought and reined in the daffiest
and most utopian excesses of liberals. Conservatives have curbed what I
concede is liberalism's excessive faith in government and starry-eyed
notions about criminals, sexual license and organized labor, to name
three things.

I continue to listen, in other words. No need to

From Dennis to

My road to (religion alert!) Damascus
began in 1986 when I joined the Sun-Times editorial board. But God
didn't strike me down, like Paul. My drift toward apostasy was gradual,
blooming through daily discourse, some of it heated, most of it civil.

started the day by presenting and then defending four or five
suggestions for editorials that would represent the newspaper's
considered opinion. That experience confirmed John Stuart Mill's
assertion that from the cacophony of conflicting ideas emerges the
clearer pathway.

We couldn't allow personality clashes to blind us
to an argument's merit. Mostly, we were successful. But having your
positions disputed day after day makes you challenge them yourself. And
thus, through self-examination and discourse, did I morph into a
conservative, neocon, troglodyte, blockhead or whatever current
appellation applies.

Actually, I don't feel that I changed that
much, only that I was abandoned by a political philosophy that had been
captured and enraptured by radical individualism. Excesses began to
elbow out the prudential. Safety nets grew into spider webs of
dependency from which there was no escape. Promises to judge people by
the content of their character were corrupted by government-imposed

Eric, we have discovered that we share many values, as I
hope our readers do. You are right that liberalism helped cleanse us of
racism, sexism and other corruptions. But every movement can go too far,
creating its own excesses. And, Eric, be careful. If you keep
criticizing public vulgarity, single parenthood, cultures of dependency
and other liberal excesses, someone might cleverly say of you that you
once were found but now you're lost.


Leave a comment
  • Great column!

  • Excellent, both of you. In quality, this exchange reminds me of the debates the country had in the days Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. Maybe the problem with our politics today is this--the people who should be our political leaders go into journalism instead,

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