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  • Max Stearns

Dear Unfriend

Dear Readers:

Please read the following letter and also the note that follows. The story takes an interesting turn.

July 12, 2019

Dear Unfriend

Although we never met in person, for some time you were my only candidly pro-Donald Trump FB friend. We are the same race, gender, and religion, and about the same age. Yet we seem to disagree on virtually everything, with one exception: we agreed that there was value in our engagement. That exception made the FB relationship we had special, at least for me. Neither held back punches. I didn’t hesitate to point out what I thought were moral failings in your world view. And you didn’t hesitate to point out when you thought that my views were naïve or misguided. In each instance, you were invariably polite, and I like to hope that I was as well.

Over the course of our exchanges, I received several private messages, from actual friends, relatives, and some acquaintances who, like you, I had never met, encouraging me to drop you as a friend or at least to decline engaging with someone so willing to defend Trump at nearly every turn. Each time, I explained that I valued the connection with a Trump supporter, especially one who was thoughtful and articulate, despite our seeming universal disagreements over virtually everything. The connecting threads between those of us on the left or center left and on the hard right are increasingly rare. I also received a few private messages going the other way, commending these unusually candid exchanges, much for the same reasons that I valued them.

Over the course of several months, we exchanged, forthrightly, over Trump’s immigration policies; Trump’s personal conduct; the relationship between personal conduct and public policy; Hilary Clinton, anti-Semitism, and numerous other topics. I noticed a pattern. I would put up a post on FB with content that troubled you, and a few days later, you would put up a mirror image post seemingly inspired by something I had said. I recently posted about the horrifying policies in which this administration is separating families and depriving lawful asylum seekers of the most essential aspects of humane treatment. I concluded that history will not look kindly on those who support or condone these policies. Shortly thereafter, you posted that there is no such thing as being on the right or wrong side of history. I am certain that you are mistaken, and I commented with such examples as those who supported Nazis and the KKK, and those who opposed the Civil Rights movement. You clarified that you merely intended to convey, contrary to Martin Luther King, Jr., that the arc of history does not necessarily bend toward justice. Although I found that ironic in light of our exchanges, which I viewed as having you defend policies resisting a more benign arc, I had to concede that on that final point, at least, you were right.

All good things come to an end, although this one ended a bit differently than I had anticipated. You unfriended me. This seems to have been precipitated by a few specific exchanges. Without access to your feed, I risk getting some details wrong, but I am confident that I recall the gist. I was, and remain, persuaded that the administration’s asylum policies are motivated to impose harm as a means of either punishing those who lawfully seek it, or of deterring those who might wish to do so now or in the future. When you persisted in defending these policies, I posed the same question to you that I have posed to many Trump supporters and apologists since his campaign began: What is the precise line of offense that, if crossed, would cause you to stop defending Trump, and later, his administration. Much to your credit, a few days later, you posted that someone had asked you this, and then you proceeded to provide a lengthy and detailed answer. The gist seemed to be that if Trump sought to further the most horrific policies of past vicious dictators, for example, seeking to complete Hitler’s final solution; if Trump systematically sought to thwart the Constitution; or if Trump directly contravened a Supreme Court decision, you would abandon him.

I replied that requiring that Trump exercise the powers of a vicious dictator as the price of abandonment is a remarkably low moral bar; that Trump already satisfied the test of thwarting countless constitutional norms; and that, just this past week, Trump had demonstrated a willingness to thwart a Supreme Court ruling. Although you thanked me for my reply, you conceded no ground.

Shortly thereafter, you posted a comment joking about the possibility of gaining literary “focus” in a concentration camp. I found this deeply offensive. I commented that I liked to hope the post, on reflection, was beneath you, and I encouraged you to prove me right by removing it. You declined. Instead, you commented that since childhood you had an irreverent sense of humor, and you pointed out that family members had been in Nazi concentration or death camps. I responded that your family’s personal history was irrelevant to the offense, and I continued to insist that the post, for me, crossed a line.

Along came your final post that I was able to read. It was a four-line poem, ending with the assertion that the real problem in our society was the lost capacity for fun. Perhaps I might have let this one go, but I inferred that it was directed at me. And so, I replied. I listed several of the most offensive of Trump’s personal behaviors and policies, and then concluded, admittedly facetiously, that sure, you are right, the genuinely serious problem our nation faces is the incapacity of those on the left to have fun. You then unfriended me.

In one sense, I don’t blame you. You have other FB friends, and, I presume, many share your views of the world. Although for me the friendship was a vehicle for the rare exchange of serious disagreements with someone holding diametrically opposed views, for you this might have been a distraction, an annoyance, or simply unfun. Unlike so many of your posts, I’m not offended that you dropped me. I am disappointed that you didn’t tell me.

I have had FB acquaintances in the past with whom I’ve had sufficiently sharp disagreements that it took a personal toll. In some instances, I sent a private message informing the person that although I was not going to unfriend him (yes, always a him), I was going to unfollow him. This, I explained, would allow me to occasionally check his feeds when I was prepared to do so, rather than having what I regarded as offensive, sometimes shocking, content randomly appear in mine. I have sometimes sent a private message offering not to post on the feeds of those with whom I feared disagreements might become too intense. When I have done so, the recipient, sometimes to my surprise, discouraged me from discontinuing. What made this particular situation unfortunate and unusual is that although our disagreements were sharp, as I viewed them, they were never personal or heated. For that reason, it never occurred to me to send you such a message, although certainly you might have viewed matters differently.

This is particularly sad because, as this Pew research project shows, ours is an increasingly—perhaps even fatally—bimodal society. I increasingly believe we are actually two societies, not one, despite sharing some real estate. How long this can continue remains uncertain. But one thing is certain, at least to me. That duration is shortened every time a connecting thread, however tenuous, is broken. I regret that this single tenuous thread suffered that fate. I hope to find future opportunities for such rare, yet essential, exchange.

I would like to say that I wish you well. I do personally. Unfortunately, I cannot wish you well as far as politics or your world view goes. I wish you failure in that regard because, in my heart of hearts, I am certain that you are on the wrong side of history. And although I personally hoped our friendship would continue, I am nonetheless willing to lose you as a friend if that is the price of explaining why.

I welcome your comments.

A follow-up note:

I wrote this letter over the course of a few days, after suspecting, then confirming, that I had been unfriended. An intermediary had connected with me during the exchanges described in the letter, which he particularly enjoyed reading. When I suspected that I had been unfriended, I asked the intermediary if he would do three things, first, verify that my suspicion is right; second, read and comment on the letter, then in draft; and finally, forward a copy of the letter to nominal recipient so that he may offer feedback or even objections prior to my posting. On the last point, although I wrote this as an open letter to be published in this blog, and although I was not going to mention the recipient by name, I wanted to be as fair as possible in my characterizations. I also did not want to blindside him should he read it after it was posted, and the unfriending disallowed me to send it directly to him.

The intermediary kindly agreed, and after several, sometimes lengthy, exchanges, he informed me that after reading the letter, the recipient responded that he would be happy to reconnect with me. We have since done so, and I am truly pleased. I told both men that although I had hoped to publish the letter, it might not make sense to do so now. To my great pleasure, the recipient strongly encouraged that I still do so, pointing out that, although he has some quibbles with my characterizations, which is fair, it was all true at the time it was written. And so, here it is.

One more note:

Shortly before I reconnected with the recipient, I told the intermediary, who, unlike the recipient and me, is not Jewish (although he has family members who are), that he had performed a mitzvah and was a mensch. After the reconnection, the intermediary began a three-way group FB chat titled "three menschen," which truly made me smile. As for the recipient and me, I have no doubt that our sharp political disagreements will continue. And I am truly honored to count both of these men as my friends. As I say in the letter, such connecting threads are essential to who we are as a people and to whether our polity can survive and thrive. There is only one thing that might make me happier still--if reading this encourages anyone else to work toward repairing a once-broken thread.

Finally, this too might not be the end of the story. So please stay tuned.

And a codicil:

The four-line stanza, and I admit to some embarrassment for not recognizing it, is from Paul Simon, "Have a Good Time":

"Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland

But I think it's all overdone

Exaggerating this exaggerating that

They don't have no fun."

In my defense, though, I was unable to go back and reread it!

And, yes, comments are always most welcome.

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