Meeting friends and family is part of the universally recognized progression of any relationship, and so it was for me while dating a fellow law student in Washington, D.C. Beyond our common career path, we shared very little”I was a conservative, Republican Catholic from the Midwest and she a liberal, atheist Democrat from Massachusetts.

My girlfriend also happened to be a former Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, so every few months I tagged along for dinners, birthday parties and social events of the informal “El Sal. Peace Corps Crowd.” They were a well-educated, professional and civic-minded group of white, middle-class young adults. They pursued master’s degrees in international relations with third-world (or, as they corrected me, “developing world”) countries, worked in eco-conscious government agencies such as NOAA, or joined NGOs devoted to global female empowerment.

They were the vanguard foot soldiers of progressive liberalism.

I’d only met one friend-of-the-girlfriend prior to my first evening with the entire crew. She was charming, and found her calling in protecting women’s health by sending glass cooking pots to poor Central American villages in order to reduce open-fire food preparation. We pondered whether her desire for government-mandated price-capping, wage-setting and capital-regulation amounted to communism, and amicably agreed that she was not a militant “brown-shirt” communist, or even a full-blown “red” communist, but rather a befittingly “soft-pink” communist.

The first group dinner was predictably located in an ethnic restaurant in one of the more fashionably hip, socially dynamic quarters of the city. The atmosphere was jovial and the conversation freely swayed between friendly catch-up and political banter. It was early 2003, and I thought it wise to remain politely detached as they excoriated conservative policies, Republican rhetoric, and absolutely everything about George W. Bush. I’d struck up a nice conversation on nothing of significance with a quiet, reserved chap across the table.

Noticing that the newest addition to the group hadn’t yet jumped on the bandwagon to vent his political frustrations, the group enquired about my plans for the summer. I mentioned several possibilities, including a gig at the Department of Justice. “Oh my God,” someone exclaimed with a sympathetic look, “how are you going to like working for Ashcroft?”

I’d reached a fork in the road. Should I deflect with a bit of wry humor and clever evasion, steering the conversation along a less perilous route, or divulge some measure of personal conviction and let the storm clouds gather as they may? I’d already assessed the group’s disposition toward the Attorney General and his signature anti-American, “Big Brother,” rights-depleting PATRIOT Act. Receiving a permissive smile and resigned shrug from my girlfriend, I cheerfully replied, “I’m a conservative Catholic who volunteered for Bush’s campaign in Ohio. I co-founded the Federalist Society at our law school and write weekly newsletters for Catholic and pro-life organizations. It’d be an honor to work for Ashcroft and the Bush administration.”

Crickets were heard. Some tumbleweed drifted past. Somewhere in a distant apartment building a dream died.

Finally, out of the deafening silence, my soft-pink communist blurted out, “And how lucky you are to be at this table tonight!” The table burst into laughter, followed by a chorus of skeptical enquires as to whether I was serious. Most expressed their amused surprise, some offered apologies for any offense, and the quiet, reserved chap across the table crossed his arms and never spoke to me again.

Over the next few months, I often belatedly joined their conversations as a lone conservative voice. They’d find a topic of current interest, collectively assert the propriety and necessity of the liberal position, bemoan the vicious, intellectually bankrupt conservative position, and then, brows furrowed, squint their eyes in my direction. I thought it futile to attempt to convert them. My usefulness would instead be to challenge their assumptions and subconscious prejudices.

Two examples will serve to illustrate.

The first example: U.S.-patented retroviral drugs capable of offsetting AIDS and preventing mother-to-child transmissions were being copied by foreign pharmaceutical companies at a fraction of the selling price in America. Conservatives opposed the sale of these generic drugs in sub-Saharan Africa, which my companions found unfathomably despicable and indescribably corrupt. It went without saying that conservatives enthralled with “Big Pharma” were sacrificing poor Africans for million dollar bonuses for corporate executives.

Having affirmed the moral impoverishment of conservatives and corporations, they recalled that I was among them. Squinting, they said, “You agree with ‘them,’ don’t you?”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Why?” They asked with genuine bewilderment.

“I hate Africans and want more of them to die.”

The second example: NGOs sought government funds to send free rice to Africa to feed starving populations. Conservative groups opposed the delivery, which my companions found unfathomably despicable and indescribably corrupt. It went without saying that conservatives devoid of conscience were sacrificing poor Africans rather than devoting one-millionth of a penny in precious tax revenue.

Reaffirming the moral impoverishment of conservatives and corporations, they recalled that I was among them. Squinting, they queried with a smile, “You agree with ‘them,’ don’t you?”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Why?” They asked with genuine bewilderment.

“I hate Africans and want more of them to die.”

Both times, the group sighed heavily and smiled lightly at my ridiculous, faux confession. Moments passed as they searched for the proper response. Someone finally remarked in a resigned voice, “That’s not what you really think, Justin.”

“Of course not!” I replied. “But it’s exactly what you secretly believe that everyone who disagrees with you really believes, isn’t it?” They stammered, offered a few half-heated objections and”with a slight hint of shame”admitted it was probably what they thought, since they couldn’t find any other explanation.

“But,” I pressed, “do you believe that I think that?”

As they’d gotten to know me, they concluded that they didn’t believe so. Recognizing their internal bias led us to the cusp of a true ideological breakthrough.

The first time, I explained that by allowing foreigners to copy (that is, steal) and mass-produce patented HIV vaccines would bankrupt companies. It’s preposterous to assume that companies would continue investing in HIV/AIDS research if prevented from recouping their research and development costs. Medicine is a business, requiring capital and skill. If companies were faced with insolvency, innovation, even if successful, would come to a screeching halt. While the liberal policy might save more Africans in the short term, it would hurt far more in the long term. It’s a question of giving a man a fish, or teaching a man to fish.

The second time, I explained that flooding African markets with free rice would irreparably disrupt the only fledgling economic enterprise existing in most African countries, agriculture. Starvation in Africa is not due to a mere shortage of food, but rather poverty and administrative corruption. To correct this disastrous legacy, sustainable economic development is essential”a goal eviscerated by sweeping away Africa’s sole economic activity.

Charitable giving to Africa should bolster indigenous economic prosperity, rather than destroying it in its infancy. While the liberal policy might save more Africans in the short term, it would hurt far more in the long term. As before, it’s a question of giving a man a fish, or teaching a man to fish.

That didn’t persuade them. They reverted to general and elusive arguments about corporate welfare, social inequality and the oppressive legacy of colonialism. They posited that the socio-economic conditions that, perhaps, vindicated my opinion were the result of larger socio-economic paradigms for which conservatives are to blame.

So be it. Our conversations did, however, allow my logical explanations to shift my company to a far more receptive posture than I had found them. We even found ourselves able to address fairly the fundamental issue of underlying intentions and motivations.

The reason I oppose free food and cheap medicine is not concealed racism, nationalism, or bigotry. Neither is it due to suppressed desires, (trans)gender confusion, or trauma during my infancy. And it’s not because I’m bitter, clingy, or antipathetic. It’s not due to any inferior quality of my politics, religion, or soul. It’s simply that I am convinced the liberal proposition will help less and hurt more than alternative, conservative policies.

Political confrontations don’t, by and large, involve clear contests between pure good and pure evil. On the whole, both sides, even in the most heated debates, believe their end is good, and don’t proceed with evil intent or malice. Politics requires rational, moral, and informed decisions, but prejudiced presumptions of concealed malevolence in political adversaries cripples communication and excludes meaningful debate.

A majority of white citizens voting for a black president, for example, might be interpreted as an indication of evaporating racial animosity. Yet every instance of opposition to President Obama’s policies has been attributed by ideologues to insidious racial hatred. Partisans have fallen over themselves to slander the Tea Party movements as racist. Failing to find evidence of racism, they’ve resorted to logical absurdities. Consider Paul Butler’s self-fulfilling delusion in the New York Times : “This is how educated right-wing people talk about race in the age of Obama”by not talking about it.”

I’ve long since departed D.C., but still find that the first hurdle in most discussions of a political slant consists of asking my adversaries, “But do you believe that I think that?” A mutual concession of good intentions is an essential platform for meaningful dialogue.

Justin Paulette is an attorney specializing in international and constitutional law. He covers politics at the Ashbrook Center’s No Left Turns and is currently writing a book, Obama Abroad: The Foreign Policy of Hope and Change.

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