WASHINGTON — Loving ones enemies is the only thing that can salvage the United States from the culture of contempt saturating society, says a leading conservative intellectual who will soon be teaching at Harvard.
In a Friday presentation at the Heritage Foundation, Arthur Brooks, outgoing president of the American Enterprise Institute noted that at present 93 percent of Americans hate how divided the nation has become, though that does not mean they all want to agree. His remarks centered around his latest book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, the title of which is based on the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:44.
The AEI president recalled an event in New Hampshire at which he spoke before approximately 700 conservative activists in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Brooks was the only speaker present who was not running for president.
His speech was focused on economic policy and he told the crowd many things with which they agreed.
But then, he stressed: "I want you to remember something very important. The people who are not here are, political progressives, are not here because they don't feel welcome and they don't agree with us. I want you remember that they're not stupid and they're not evil. They are simply Americans who disagree with us on public policy and our job is to persuade them with love."
That line earned him no applause, he noted.
What did receive applause, however, was when a lady from the audience jokingly said: "I think they're stupid and evil."
As he tried to wrap his mind around this incident and what it represented about the political dynamics and the trajectory they represented he thought of his hometown, Seattle, arguably the most liberal city in the nation. Brooks' mother was an artist and his father a college professor.
"What do you think their politics were?" he asked, to laughter from the audience Friday. Brooks noted that, as a conservative, he is now the "black sheep."
"And let me tell you something about my parents. They weren't stupid and evil," he said, praising his family for instilling good values in him.
The next night in New Hampshire three years ago he asked the audience: "How many of you love somebody with whom you disagree politically?"
Nearly every hand went up, he recalled.
Yet, since the 2016 election, one in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or a close friend because of politics, the author elaborated.
"That is catastrophic," Brooks said. "Why? Because that is a problem of love. That's not a problem of disagreement. That's not a problem of ideology. That's a love crisis. You all know that love is the basis on which we can make progress. It is the nuclear fuels of happiness."
To walk away from a family member in the freest most progressive nation in the history of the world is like what they say in the realm of baseball, "an unforced error," he said.
"You know that nobody in history has ever been insulted into agreement. And yet, that's what we're trying to do today politically isn't it?"
People are more anxious, lonely, and depressed than they have ever been since we have begun keeping records, he said. When people allow themselves to mix their anger with disgust it turns into contempt — the conviction of the utter worthlessness of another human being, according to philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer — and when it is expressed toward a person, permanent enemies are the result, and the misery inescapable, Brooks added.
The Love Your Enemies author recounted how he learned to turn contempt around into warm-heartedness, per the advice of the Dalai Lama, when his 2006 book Who Really Cares proved successful and garnered significant media attention. Not everyone loved the book, however, and Brooks recalled an occasion where he received an approximately 5,000-word vitriolic email from a man who had read it, hated it, and called him a "right-wing fraud."
In the body of the message, the guy had dissected Brooks' book meticulously, offering his counter-arguments on many of his points.
Even as Brooks was poring over the insults in the email, he was actually elated the reader had read his book. Instead of retaliating with similar vitriol, Brooks replied to the email thanking the man for engaging his work so thoughtfully, particularly because it took him two years to write the book and he poured his heart into it.
Fifteen minutes later he received another email from the man who hated his book which read: "Dear professor Brooks, next time you're in Dallas if you want to get some dinner give me a call."
"What happened? Enemy to friend? He didn't think he suddenly liked my book. He still hated my book," Brooks said.
"He just realized he liked me. Why? Because I anesthetized him by answering his hatred with a little bit of love. By answering his contempt with a little bit of warm-heartedness. That was pure power and it set my heart on fire. I became more persuasive. I got happier. I unified two human beings that are both citizens of this great country, talking in freedom to each other."
Brooks will leave his post at AEI this summer and begin teaching at Harvard University, where his views are not mainstream and where he looks forward to living out what he wrote in the book.