Two years ago, I published a Christian Science Monitor op-ed encouraging my fellow Americans to embrace a New Year’s resolution aimed at making the political culture a happier place.
My suggestion was simple: In the coming 12 months, at least once a week,read a political commentator with whom you disagree. If you’re a liberal, give a conservative writer a few moments of your time, and if you’re conservative, give a commentator to your political left a quiet hearing. My hope was that this small exercise in even-handedness might help bridge the country’s partisan divide.
My essay took on a life of its own, leading to lots of e-mails and a few talk show appearances, including a guest slot on National Public Radio.
A teacher from a solidly liberal neighborhood in Boston called to say that he’d try my resolution on his students, none of whom could imagine having anything good to say about the recent presidency of George W. Bush. I chuckled at that observation, since it seemed the mirror opposite of my own experience in my red-state Louisiana home where President Barack Obama, rather than Bush, has been the polarizing figure.
I’m now approaching my second New Year’s Day since my modest proposal went public and, as any casual observer of the news cycle knows, the country seems as politically divided as ever. But I’m continuing to try, in my own small way, to practice what I preach, keeping company with political voices that don’t naturally align with my own.
Although I’m supposed to be a veteran at this sort of thing, I still get as exasperated as the next guy with opinions I find wrong-headed.
Lately, for example, I’ve found myself within the pages of “The Cushion in the Road,” Alice Walker’s latest collection of commentaries, many of them inspired by her political activism. As a journalist who’s deeply troubled by any government that quashes free speech, I’ve bristled while reading Walker’s admiring reflections on former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has a long track record in limiting press freedoms.
Walker and I will never agree on that score, but, as I noted in my 2011 op-ed, reading opposing views doesn’t have to mean giving up your own. In fact, discourse with a rival voice can actually strengthen one’s previously held convictions. But the point is that ideas are usually made better, not worse, when they’re measured against alternatives.
That’s why I grudgingly kept reading Walker’s words. An open book, I have found, is a small gesture of tolerance in itself. The natural rhythm of reading, in which an author talks from the page – and only one voice speaks at a time – helps cultivate the practice of engaging with a perspective rather than simply trying to shout it down.
This small insight has led me to think that just about any kind of reading, whether it be a novel or poem or essay, might be a helpful resource for us in these deeply divisive times.
It might not be coincidental, after all, that as the pastime of reading has declined in the United States, partisanship has risen. Might a renaissance in reading make us more open to each other, more willing to embrace difference?
To be sure, active literacy doesn’t always advance tolerance. That some of the most highly cultivated minds of the Third Reich were able to indulge so much hatred is proof of that.
But in general, societies that celebrate reading tend to have an easier time sustaining a friendly marketplace of ideas.
Which is why I’m proposing a more modest resolution for myself and my fellow citizens this New Year’s: Read more in 2014. Read widely and read deeply. Each time we open a book, we’re training ourselves to be more open to the world. That seems like a very promising way to make our politics better.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”