A week ago, I had the great pleasure of celebrating my Uncle Jacques’s 90th birthday. Jacques, one of the last living family members from my parents’ generation, emigrated from Québec at the age of 15, eventually marrying my father’s sister. As I was growing up, we lived near enough to each other to gather for holidays and other occasions. For the children at these gatherings, notable drama was always provided by an extended political argument between my father and my uncle, increasing in both volume and intensity as the festivities progressed.
Our childhood memories of these arguments – which we cousins recalled for the amusement of those assembled to celebrate Jacques’s milestone birthday – focused on their uncharacteristic intensity. These men were our fathers, and we were accustomed to patient explanations, playful banter, and stern parental admonitions from them. When they got going about their political differences, however, they seemed to us transformed into towering, passionate figures, their faces sometimes contorted with anger and rosy with the heat of contention. My cousins, my sister, and I sometimes interrupted our play to watch them from a distance, alternately amused and alarmed by their animated verbal combat.
Gerry was a pacifist libertarian, who had taken the unusual stance of conscientiously objecting to World War II, on the ground that returning evil for evil on the massive scale of war between nations could never be morally justified. After his experience in the government camps where objectors were held, he had come to see governments, indeed nation-states, as necessary evils to be kept within tight limits. He celebrated freedom of speech and due process of law, and distrusted New Deal and Great Society government expansion, although he viewed industrial giants with almost equal skepticism. Jacques might be described as a social democrat, believing that economic justice was crucial to human progress and seeing laissez faire capitalism as a thin disguise for the domination of society and the accumulation of wealth by those who already had the most. And he saw great benefits in World War II: to him, the defeat of fascism was more important than the violence of the conflict or the rise of communism (although he had no patience for totalitarianism). In addition, he saw the powerful positive impacts of the war effort in integrating American society, breaking down ethnic, racial, even gender barriers as people worked together, intermarried, and benefited after the war from the educational opportunities of the GI bill.
Given their different viewpoints, the energetic clash of their opinions is unsurprising in retrospect. What we children, observing from a safe distance could also see, however, was how much they both cared –– how much it mattered to them that the country they inhabited was rightly and fairly governed. As we sat together after the celebration this past week, it was not their past contentions about what to do about one public policy or another that Jacques helped me remember, but their love. He was remarking, as people his age naturally do, on how many of his contemporaries were gone. In particular, knowing of course what it had meant to me, he recalled how sad he had also been about my father’s early death. “He was a very smart man, and incredibly kind, and caring –such a good person. I really loved him so much.”
These words were sweet to hear on the most personal of terms, but they illuminate wider truths as well. First, we can hold this in our hearts: that people can care with equal depth about the common good while seeing dramatically different paths to protecting and advancing it. Second, that passion in contrasting and testing those disparate ideas is a sign of our love for the place we live and the people we share it with, and that passion is not a thing to avoid, even though it isn’t always pretty or easy to handle. Third, that it matters greatly that competition among political ideas takes place within an envelope of love, respect, and compassion. Only then can we be assured that the contest will build understanding and lead to a better future, rather than dividing us into implacable factions. Vigorous yet loving argument need not happen only in the dining room on holidays. It can also be the way to chart a new course for our communities and our nations.