New Sherwood

Politics and friendship

Have you ever seen political disagreements ruin a good friendship? Or a marriage? I mean between people who generally share the same values and beliefs. This seems to be fairly common. “The blessings of democracy”, indeed.

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“The Friendship-Deficit Syndrome”, by Fr. C. John McCloskey, III.

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September 25, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

9 Comments »

  1. Have you ever seen political disagreements ruin a good friendship? Or a marriage?

    No, although I’ve seen religious disagreements cause such rifts.

    Is it my lack of reading comprehension, or did Fr. McCloskey’s article end abruptly, before offering ideas for a cure to the friendship deficit syndrome?

    In any event, I’ve seen this encouragement of male friendships put forth frequently by Dennis Prager. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to him? He too says how important it is for men to have good friends, and to enjoy their company regularly. I have observed, however, what Father brought forward; that much of the shared time is in physical or passive activity, and not so much in conversation.

    I’m all for good male bonding activity; hunting, fishing, constructing/repairing teamwork, sports, etc. But has the art of conversation been lost by all but a few? Although not a traditional Catholic myself–nor do I travel in traditional circles–I have observed, in the online world at least, a much greater interest and willingness of traditional Catholic men to explore the great ideas, whether religious, cultural, or philosophical. (Not that I agree with them all the time, but that’s something else althogether. :) )

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    Comment by annabenedetti | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  2. I suspect that something similar is the curse of repressive dictatorship. There if you disagree with both the regime and a friend, you’ll probably have to contrive some way to cool that friendship. If you don’t, you might discover that they’re a fair-weather friend after they denounce you to the authorities. And even if that doesn’t happen, a careless word could put them as well as you in danger.

    I’d also temper your remarks with a few suggestions:

    1. G. K. Chesterton and his brother Cecil debated constantly, and yet they remained close friends. The same was true of many of the Inklings. Whether disagreements destroy friendships depend in part on the attitude we take toward them, particularly if we’re willing to let the other person be different.

    2. The flip-side of the coin is that shared beliefs or at least shared beliefs in the importance of something can make a friendship richer.

    *****

    Chesterton described his relationship with his brother so delightfully in his 1936 autobiography, that when I brought Ceil’s biography (G. K. Chesterton, A Criticism) back in print last year, I included his words at the front of the book. Here they are for your enjoyment.

    My brother, Cecil Edward Chesterton, was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue. He continued to argue to the end; for I am sure that he argued energetically with the soldiers among whom he died, in the last glory of the Great War. It is reported of me that when I was told that I possessed a brother, my first thought went to my interminable taste for reciting verses, and that I said, “That’s all right; now I shall always have an audience.” If I did say this, I was in error. My brother was by no means disposed to be merely an audience; and frequently forced the function of an audience upon me. More frequently still, perhaps, it was a case of there being simultaneously two orators and no audience. We argued throughout our boyhood and youth until we became the pest of our whole social circle. We shouted at each other across the table, on the subject of Parnell or Puritanism or Charles the First’s head, until our nearest and dearest fled at our approach, and we had a desert around us. And though it is not a matter of undiluted pleasure to recall having been so horrible a nuisance, I am rather glad in other ways that we did so early thrash out our own thoughts on almost all the subjects in the world. I am glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarreled. –G. K. Chesterton, 1936

    Always arguing but never quarreling is a good attitude to have.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

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    Comment by Michael W. Perry | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  3. “No, although I’ve seen religious disagreements cause such rifts.”

    I have seen this too. But this is more understandable, I think. General agreement in religion is necessary for a strong friendship. The need for religious concord can be taken too far, of course, to the point of straining gnats, and oftentimes it is.

    “Is it my lack of reading comprehension, or did Fr. McCloskey’s article end abruptly, before offering ideas for a cure to the friendship deficit syndrome?

    I was wondering the same thing. What I was really looking for was an excellent article by Alice von Hildebrand on friendship, but it seems to have disappeared from the web or is now invisible to Google.

    “In any event, I’ve seen this encouragement of male friendships put forth frequently by Dennis Prager. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to him?”

    Yes, I have. I like his style.

    “He too says how important it is for men to have good friends, and to enjoy their company regularly. I have observed, however, what Father brought forward; that much of the shared time is in physical or passive activity, and not so much in conversation.”

    Right. I think there are two kinds of men in the world: those concerned primarily with things, and those concerned primarily with ideas. Most men are “things” oriented. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, if it is balanced, at least, with a healthy respect for ideas. Engines, computers, buildings, cars, games (a process is a thing) – these are what most men can get into. A smaller and lonelier number of men are “ideas” oriented. It is something of a curse, to be honest, because such men have very few social outlets today. Fortunately we all overlap to some degree.

    “I’m all for good male bonding activity; hunting, fishing, constructing/repairing teamwork, sports, etc. But has the art of conversation been lost by all but a few?”

    I suspect that “ideas”-driven men have always been a minority. But it is also true that modern society simply has no place for them, and that even men who are “things”-driven do not have the interest in ideas they should have, however secondary. Because the pursuit of ideas and critical thinking are no longer encouraged, the art of conversation has been lost.

    “Although not a traditional Catholic myself–nor do I travel in traditional circles–I have observed, in the online world at least, a much greater interest and willingness of traditional Catholic men to explore the great ideas, whether religious, cultural, or philosophical.”

    Good observations, Anna. In my experience it also true in real life. There exists a hugely disproportionate number of articulate, thinking men in traditional Catholic circles (not all of them pleasant or personable!). This has been one of my greatest joys over the years. At present, the reason seems to be that traditionalists remain a self-selected group of people who came to the movement by intellectual means. That has its benefits, but it isn’t the ideal situation, and probably lends itself to certain undesirable pathologies.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  4. Thank you for your insights, Mr. Perry, which obviously come from a learned place. I enjoyed the C.S. Lewis quote and the story of his relationship with his brother, which I don’t remember ever coming across. C.S. Lewis probably had a lot to do with my becoming such a controversialist myself.

    Perhaps, by now, most of my blog readers have figured out that I love a good argument. Argument is a sport. I enjoy exploring a topic of controversy, peeling off the crusty layers, and getting right down to the point of actual disagreement, which is seldom what the parties originally thought it to be. It usually comes down to either a fundamental philosophical difference or the fact that one or both of us hasn’t really thought things through. Two honest sparring partners can make a lot of progress. There is no need for such arguments to ruin friendships.

    “I suspect that something similar is the curse of repressive dictatorship. There if you disagree with both the regime and a friend, you’ll probably have to contrive some way to cool that friendship. If you don’t, you might discover that they’re a fair-weather friend after they denounce you to the authorities.”

    Well, I didn’t mean to imply that politics only exists in a democracy. I meant to imply that there is something unique about democracy that tends – to a greater degree than other systems – to exaggerate the importance of politics and political opinions. Modern democracy is like a steam-roller that flattens everything in its path. If democracy is the best thing to rule a nation, we reason, then it ought to rule business, family life, and even the Church. Furthermore democracy persuades men that they must have strong opinions on everything from the minimum wage to health care to foreign policy, and so we dutifully form those opinions without adequate knowledge, information, or a coherent philosophy behind them. We dig in our heels, convinced that one vote can change the world, and look askance at those who betray the side of truth, justice, and the American way.

    Mass democracy turns priorities upside down. The average political activist is fiercely dogmatic on policy prescriptions, but liberal or indifferent when it comes to metaphysical truth. Hence the bonds of religion, family, or friendship become subordinate to politics and end up ruining many good relationships unnecessarily.

    Once again, I’m speaking of people who generally share the same values and beliefs, but differ on political matters where disagreement ought to be tolerated. Disagreements about abortion and same-sex marriage, on the other hand, usually indicate there is not enough common ground to sustain a meaningful friendship anyway.

    “And even if that doesn’t happen, a careless word could put them as well as you in danger.”

    Yes, that’s true, but again I think the politics of a dictatorship have a completely different dynamic. Sure, politics ruins friendships everywhere. I can understand why friendships might go south when one’s politics places one’s life in danger. What I don’t understand is why, in a democracy, friendships go south over whether one prefers John McCain over Chuck Baldwin, or Chuck Baldwin over Alan Keyes, etc.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  5. I think the key with politics and friendship is once problem areas come up, and there’s a good mutual thrashing, that both parties understand not to cover that ground again. To avoid the subject. (Isn’t that how James Carville and Mary Matalin stay married? They only talk politics together on “Meet the Press”?) There is much to life besides politics.

    So I look forward to reading this Jeff, although I found the subtitle interesting in itself: “The key to evangelization in 21st-century America may be the recovery of authentic male friendship.”

    Friendship, by its very nature, seems like it can’t have a utilitarian aspect, even something as noble as evangelization. The recovery of authentic male friendship is a good in itself; to make friends in order to evangelize seems to put the cart before the horse?

    But that’s obviously very picky and may not be all that applicable to the article, which I intend to read now.

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    Comment by TSO | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  6. I think a key here is respect, and a well-honed sense of the common ground you share with your friend. If either of those things are lost, civility quickly seems to follow.

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    Comment by Steve | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  7. Does it make a difference whether the friend is a friend in person or on-line? My own experience is that in-person friendships are more resilient.

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    Comment by Lydia | September 26, 2008 | Reply

  8. […] reader, have been put off by my line of inquiry, I don’t blame you for taking a hike. Jeff Culbreath has noted what a problem politics can be among friends (especially when abortion is at stake) and I’ve seen it in my own friendships. These […]

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    Pingback by It Ain’t For The Popularity | Steve Skojec | September 26, 2008 | Reply

  9. I see a lot of myself in Fr. McCloskey’s remarks.

    Who has time for friendship? Where does one find friends?

    I had several friends in college–the deep kinds of friends that Fr. McCloskey is talking about. But then I was a different man; I had no responsibilites. My religion then was politics. I was an activist, I called voters, went to protests and met presidential candidates as they visitied our communities. I lobbied the legislature and went to city council meetings. I found my purpose and my friendships there. But that religion failed me, and those friendships are now gone. The last time I saw any of those friends was years ago…back when I only had 4 kids. Even at that time 4 kids was a something so far from the world of their experience and expectations that I had become an alien. I have no idea what they would think now that I’m expecting our ninth.

    8 years ago I joined the Knights of Columbus hoping to find male companions for whom I would not be an alien, but I have had limited success. Mostly we share a common interest in beer. Sometimes I can find a companion with whom to watch the political gamesmanship with as we root for “our guy”– the exact opposite of the guy I rooted for in college. But mostly I still lack real friendship.

    It is not the case that I do not have people I call friends. There are a number of guys I could call on for help moving or to fix the garage door, and I know these men to be good comitted christians–I trust them and I likle them, but I lack that deeper level of friendship that Fr. McCloskey is talking about.

    My best friend is my wife. She has some other close friends though. I’m grateful for that.

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    Comment by ben | September 26, 2008 | Reply


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