Mind the Gap

By Hugh D'Andrade

His intent is obviously to create havoc, not make a meaningful contribution to this or any other board. He carefully refrains from cursing but his words are even worse, he lies and distorts by using only those references that suit his purpose. — Bill Talen on Hugh D'Andrade

Beginning in the spring of 2003 I was a participant on one of the many anti-war email lists. This list had a relatively high profile, and inevitably, it was harassed by angry war supporters. We were “traitors”; “assholes”; “fascists”; “commies”; and “liberal scumbags.” In general they were short on analysis but long on passion:


Subject: Re: [No-War-in-Iraq] Why you people are so pathetic

Keep it up! The more you rant and rave against this war the more you are marginalizing yourselves as a completely fringe group. How wrong your prognostications are proving to be about this war. The Iraquis are beginning to welcome us as they realize their long nightmare under Saddam is ending. […] Evidence of WMD is emerging every day and will prove how badly inspections were working and what fools you were to suggest this containment was working.

[…] Our President (legally elected no-less) will emerge as a strong and admired leader throughout the west.

You are scum and over 77% of this country agrees with me!

I always felt a twinge of regret when these writers were instantly banned from our list. Who were these mystery writers? Why did they defend the transparent lies of their leaders with such enthusiasm? What did they know or not know? Their messages lingered in my inbox, taunting representatives from a mystery country — the America I grew up in but still don't truly know or understand.


Re: [No War in Iraq] Death to Sadam


The evil Iraqi regime is dying! Soon they will all be gone.

I m sooooo excited, and I just can't hide it...

Sadam is gonna Die and I think I like it!

Several times, when these literary sniper attacks came in, I answered. Explaining my beliefs to skeptical opponents was more challenging than I had expected. And I liked imagining that I was peering into the mind of the nation. It was like shouting down a well, hoping for a sign of human consciousness.


Subject: question about Iraq

I have a question for you.

Certainly Saddam's regime will be toppled, and Saddam himself will be killed. So will thousands of children, both directly as a result of the bombs, and indirectly as a result of the destruction of civilian infrastructure.

How do you feel about that?


Occasionally, they wrote back, and a conversation developed. Other times it was immediately apparent that further discussion was pointless.


Subject: Re: question about Iraq

Where do you get your evidence that thousands of children will die from bombing and as a result of the destruction of civilian infrastructure? The way I see it, thousands of children will be given a chance to live as life under the regime of Sadam does not sound like any kind of life at all.

Speaking of thousands dying, remember the thousands of Americans that died as a result of the terrorist attacks sponsored by countries like Iraq and their evil American hating dictators? The scary thing is that you people are no different. You hate your country, you hate your president, you hate your government, you hate the people that are for all of the above mentioned items. You are no different and it is the people like you that we should start fearing.

I set several rules for myself: I insisted on trying to keep an even, polite tone of respectful engagement throughout; I tried to face their point of view, acknowledge it and understand it, even as I rejected it; I would avoid trying to “win” an argument, especially by distorting or twisting my opponents words; and I would admit to myself — and to them —when a salient point had been made.

One of my favorites was a former Marine sergeant I talked to off and on for about a year:

WE live in a nation that 80% (conservative estimate) of the people on YOUR EARTH would give their left Callone to be part of. They literally give their lives to get here.

Tell me what nation is better ..in YOUR intellectual opinion? Is it the Islamic nations who live in squalor and practice a religion that preaches death to the infidels and are kept in poverty by their own grossly rich "leaders"?

It was a challenge to keep a level head and not shout back. I asked whether the fact that so many people want to live in America gave us the right to bomb and attack whomever we please. I also patiently reminded him that the regimes he objected to in the Middle East and elsewhere are often supported financially and politically by US policy. The result was rising anger:

You live in a dream world, contribute nothing but minimal taxes and still WHINE!


Nevertheless, I often felt a genuine affection for my Marine buddy. He didn't have much talent for analytical thought, but he was willing to face the challenge of talking to someone with whom he strongly disagreed. And he seemed genuinely concerned about a world full of violence, greed and war. On that point, he and I were pretty much on the same page.

One of these exchanges introduced me to a man I'll call Bill Talen, a right wing columnist who views the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a “clash of civilizations.” I sent a critique to Talen, and was pleased to find that he was somewhat reasonable in conversation, vile opinions aside.

Bill didn't have time to debate, but he did invite me to join a right wing political bulletin board he moderated:



Hugh, I have talked with a few of our members and they are happy to enter a meaningful dialogue with you. One of them is a former officer in the Special Forces of the US. Another is a retired teacher who is now a prison guard, a third is a college student in Texas and the fourth is the owner of a trucking company in Ohio. I think you will be pleased at the quality of the competition. And for what it's worth I am the retired president of three companies in the US as well as one I started in Asia which now has a volume exceeding $500 million a year.

So come on over and let's get it on.

Bill's website was titled “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly." Members kept themselves busy refuting the lies of the liberal media and circulating long articles that "proved" the WMD had been discovered in Iraq.

Reading through the postings, I hesitated. These guys were not the ordinary conservative American types with whom I had hoped to speak. They were committed ideologues with some really nasty, far right opinions.

But Bill kept after me, sending a few gently chiding emails, re-inviting me to join. With this intemperate challenge to my machismo, I decided to give it a whirl. I posted an introduction in which I described myself as an anti-authoritarian radical interested in learning how right-wing people think, and included a list of questions, ranging from WMDs to the torture scandals to the Patriot Act.

Replies came fast and furious. I got the following response to my question about why conservatives don't object to minimal school budgets while the military enjoys seemingly unlimited funds:

The military budget is constitutionally mandated. All I've seen is military budget cuts for important things and a reduction in the number of active service members. We need MORE spending on the military. And as for schools, we need to abolish the FEDERAL spending and all federal involvement with schools. there is NO constitutional provision for federal involvement. […]

Another had this to say:

Schools aren't poorly funded. They're poorly teached. Look at a pie graph of the US budget. We don't dump as much into the military as you want to think. Social programs get T-t-trillions!

On the Abu Grahib scandal:

Iraqi's were tortured? REALLY??? You mean they had their fingernails ripped out? Bones were broken? They were beaten to pulps?

On WMD and the mythical Saddam-Al Qaeda link:

There is INDEED a connection between Sadamn and AQ. One only has to do a google search with the phrase Sadamn ties to Al Queda to come up with many articles written about this very thing.

The writers seemed to live in a different country — an alternate America where the public school budgets are scandalously bloated and the military is forced to hold bake sales just to purchase a few measly nukes!

The responses did cause me to question myself. What did I really know about the way tax funds are apportioned for education? And on arcane technical issues raised by the WMD question, aren't we all at the mercy of "experts?" I had to admit these guys were tenacious in the way they clung to a few murky shreds of questionable “evidence”!

One of the threads debated concerned the KKK. One fellow requested “unbiased” books on the subject, complaining that all he could find was left-wing anti-Klan invective and pro-Klan literature from the organization itself.

Bill Talen weighed in with some interesting comments:

In reality the Klan had a very good purpose during its first 50 or so years of existence but then it began falling into disfavor and eventually deterioted into a horrible organization of misfits. And I doubt you'll find any book that deals with it from start to finish.


Since I was born in 1930 I knew some old men who were very honorable members of the Klan when it was at the top of its game. At that time it was not a racist organization. It did things to some blacks of course but they doled out their justice to sloven whites also.

Did some things to blacks?

I responded by pointing out that the Klan had been a terrorist organization from its inception, bent on using fear and violence to achieve political gains. “You could even make the argument,” I said, “that they were the first modern terrorist cell!”

My comparing the Klan with Al Qaeda did not sit well with Bill. The rules of the board state that members refrain from using insulting language, but apparently my comments caused him to momentarily lose his cool:

Hugh, you really are a freaking idiot. I suspected it when you first approached me with your challenge to a debate. And now you have proved me correct. You deliberately falsify anything that gets in your way. .... typical for a damned commie. /Talen

[quoting Hugh] I'm sure the men you knew were honorable—in the sense that members of Al Qaeda are "honorable."

That is an unacceptable slam at men you know nothing about and it is as disgusting a thing as you could possibly say. You have no idea what the hell you are talking about and yet you keep right on spewing your vomit. Ridiculous crap like this is not going to win any points for you. You sir, are an empty suit.

Bill was especially incensed that I alluded to rape and murder as Klan tactics:

People like you are arrogant fools. You know nothing about why the Klan was formed and yet you continue to belch your bullshyt. Now you are in trouble. You WILL PROVIDE us with some evidence of your charges above .... And if you don't back up your charges I will ban your ass. You will not be allowed to post outrageous lies on this board.

This made me extremely happy. Being banned from this list for speaking the truth about the Klan would be a badge of honor.

It didn't take much Google research to prove that Bill's “honorable” Klan had, from its inception, engaged in the most unimaginable, hateful crimes. One document I found was a long list of the Klan's crimes from a Southern Governor seeking Federal help to stop the bloodshed, from 1871 — crimes including but not limited to rape, murder, arson, intimidation, beatings of women, children and the elderly. I shared some of these revelations, which made a neatly damning riposte to Bill's assertions.

Bill seemed to realize he had been backed into a corner. If he banned me, it would look even to his friends like retaliation for a well-researched attack. Oddly, he chose this moment to open up about his own background, and reveal his own emotional connection to the issue:

My father lived to 81 and he told me many stories about those times. He later served for 40 years as a deputy sheriff of our county and as Chief of Police of our village. He knew what he was talking about, first hand. I don't have to go to a liberal, slanted lying website to get information about that period. My mother burned my father's robes in 1961 after he died as he had instructed her to do.

When I suggested that it was a shame that his father's robes had been burned because his black friends might have been interested in this historical curiosity, Bill finally gave me my wish. On my next visit, I faced a screen with the following beautiful message:

You have been banned from this community! The administrator of this community has banned you from viewing and posting here. If you feel a mistake has been made please contact the administrator of the community you are trying to access.

Talking to people on the other side of the political spectrum can be like walking into a disorienting alternate universe in which black is white, up is down. Or, if you like, where war is peace and freedom is slavery.

I have to admit that my conversations with folks on the right were not particularly constructive. If I was interested in learning how people on the right think, I don't think I found out. I didn't find anyone with what I would call good intentions, willing to engage in good faith discussions with a political opponent — civil dialogue as an act of citizenship in an open, tolerant society.

Instead, I found people with poorly informed opinions, based in part on deeply racist attitudes, people who appeared incapable of having an honest conversation with a political opponent. In return for my civil tone, I received pages and pages of angry denunciation, vitriolic attacks, simplistic reductions of my points, foul language, attacks on my integrity and intelligence, and accusations of being a “granola eater.” When faced with a persuasive point or persistent argument, each and every correspondent became enraged and terminated the discussion.

It's tempting to assume that anyone who would eagerly support a disaster as hideous as this last Iraq war is, to put it bluntly, an Asshole with a capital “A.” But outside the comfort zone of our beloved Bay Area, there is a frightening amount of support for the war, and many other Bush policies. Are all of these people so easily dismissed? Perhaps we should take a look in the mirror —those of us who may long for the good old days of the Clinton Administration need to consider the fact that this seemingly reasonable politician was the architect of mass death in Iraq through sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of children. Should we assume that Clinton supporters are also Assholes?

There are plenty of conservative, flag-waving war supporters out there who are decent, kind, generous people willing to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone — even a radical, unpatriotic, America-bashing fringe-dweller like myself. Sadly, I didn't encounter them in my (admittedly limited) attempts.

Many of us on the left like to blame the decline of democratic discourse on the rapidly consolidating corporate media, and that view would be hard to contest. But that argument doesn't capture the horror, the pure, dreadful awfulness of our broken national conversation. I came away from these discussions with a sense that Americans are speaking to each other across a widening gulf of mutual incomprehension. As the gap between who this country claims to be and what it increasingly reveals itself to be grows larger and larger, we drift further and further apart. Emailing my contacts in this other America, I felt at times as if I was staring into that yawning chasm, helplessly wondering if it would ever be possible for my words to carry that far.