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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
October 1, 2010

A classic by Joseph Sobran
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I just got a message from a friend who nearly always disagrees with me. His disagreement usually takes the form of an irritable accusation: to wit, that I can’t really mean what I say.

I know how he feels. It’s irrational, but we all tend to get angry when others disagree with us. That’s because we are so right that nobody in his right mind could honestly deny it, isn’t it?

Accepting disagreement as sincere is one of the severe tests of maturity. I always think of George Orwell, one of my literary heroes, who recognized in himself “a rare capacity for facing unpleasant facts.” One of these facts is that other people are as sure of their convictions as you are of yours, and they are as sure of your dishonesty as you are of theirs.

It took me a long time to face this. It was so tempting to believe that deep down, my opponents agreed with me but perversely refused to admit it. Finally it sank in: They meant what they said just as much as I did. I had to face the test of truth just as much as I wanted them to. If I was right, I must be prepared to demonstrate it to unbiased people (if I could find any).

Yes, I can

A silly old adage has it that you should never argue about politics and religion. But as G.K. Chesterton retorted, politics and religion are the only subjects worth arguing about. If only we could all do it as cheerfully and as charitably as Chesterton does!

I certainly can’t. But I’ve trained myself, at long last, to suppress my annoyance at disagreement, and even to take a friendly interest in it. The other fellow must have some reason for thinking as he does. As William Blake says, “Everything that is possible to be believed is an image of truth.”

When it comes to the hot topics of religion and politics, it’s true, most people believe what they want to believe. Their “beliefs” really flow from wishful thinking, not reason. And in a way they admit this when they assume that my beliefs must also flow from mere wishes. They assume that all of us believe what we want to believe, just as they do.

I can say that this isn’t true in my case, because, like Orwell, I’ve steeled myself to face those unpleasant facts. I now believe many things I’d much rather not believe. I’ve also had to give up beliefs I once cherished, at some cost in comfort, recognition, and dear friendships. Not to mention money.

For example, I was sitting pretty when I was a mainstream conservative. I miss those days. But there’s no going back. Finally, it’s a matter of self-respect: I just couldn’t keep saying things I could no longer say with conviction. I have to endure a certain amount of isolation and even ostracism. But as John Kerry’s dying mother so memorably said, “Remember — integrity, integrity, integrity!”

On a slightly less lofty matter, I’m sometimes accused of “snobbery” for arguing that “Shakespeare” was really the 17th Earl of Oxford — which implies, again, that my wish was father to the thought. But I’m about as snobbish as a mongrel pup, and I was happy to believe that Shakespeare was an ordinary young man; it took an effort to realize that he was really a bisexual lord. This was far from what I wished to discover.

The truth, I think, is the reverse: Believers in the Stratford man want to believe he was the great poet, in spite of the evidence. They like the dear Horatio Alger story of the country boy “warbling his native woodnotes wild,” and a charming story it is. But I can’t believe it. I have to force myself to realize that many people still do.

Another kind of wishful thinking is the desire to think the worst of our enemies in every possible way. This is common in politics, as when Republicans, not content with savaging John Kerry, also savage his wife for pretty harmless remarks. I don’t mind that they are ungallant, but that they are so desperately petty about it.

If you want to know how wise and honest a man is, observe how much he is willing to credit to his opponents.

The Reactionary Utopian archives

This column was originally published by Griffin Internet Syndicate on October 28, 2004.

Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

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