Both Sides NowPosted: August 20, 2017
The Judy Collins Songbook cost $4.95 back in 1969. It includes 55 songs by such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger, whom I will love all my life. A few, along with her Reminiscences, are by Judy Collins herself. The one that I was looking for in the collection yesterday – “Both Sides Now” — is by Joni Mitchell. I last sang the song decades ago and the pages of the 50 year old songbook crackled at their seam.
Ironically, it was Donald Trump’s bombast that triggered my search for this sweet song. I, like millions of others, was horrified by the President’s deference to “both sides” of the conflict in Charlottesville. That he did not, and likely could not, perceive the moral difference between those shouting “Jews will not replace us” and those protesting Nazism and racism was shocking. But it also led me to consider how to differentiate between an issue that has “both sides” open to debate, and a world view that permits no “other-sidedness.” It may be that the world of the First Amendment disallows any such distinction. The Constitution, after all, doesn’t evaluate content; it asserts the freedom to espouse it. But in a moral world, there is a need to recognize that there are philosophies so pernicious that they exist on one plane only.
Joni Mitchell’s lyrics offer a metaphorical guide to this terrain. She looked at clouds “from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.” Mitchell’s insight is that clouds themselves, depending on one’s mood, can be fanciful or weighty. As deeply as we look into clouds, from various angles and mindsets, we may never capture their intrinsic nature. But whatever this suggests about the study of clouds, it is clear that they are not defined by something else.
Sunshine, for example, is not perceived as the “other side” of clouds. Sunshine is its own phenomenon: cleansing, brilliant, brutal and deadly. And so too, darkness is not the “other side” of the sun. One is not simply the absence of the other.
Several writers of music and memoirs have referred to “the other side of darkness.” Their focus is not on the duality of darkness itself, but rather the emergence from a debilitating emotional state of mind. It is, however, a misleading use of the words insofar as it suggests that darkness itself has another side. True, it can be experienced in a variety of ways: somber, peaceful, frightening. It may reveal stars and invite dreams or nightmares. And it may be, as used by these writers, a metaphor for a state of mind. But leaving behind confusion, depression or anger is not to find another “side” of darkness. It is rather to discover something totally different: light, love, and all things that flourish when darkness is dispelled. Each has its own attributes, and it would be simplistic to construe this shorthand to mean that one is the “other side” of something altogether different.
Which takes me back to Charlottesville. There are some (few) like the President and David Duke who insist that the fascist marchers and the protesters were “both sides” of – what? An issue? A debate? A controversy? This desultory analysis ends in what has been described as a false “moral equivalency.”
If neo-Nazism is “controversial,” it is not because this nation accords to its agenda any philosophical or political stature worthy of debate. The controversial aspect concerns only whether and to what extent the First Amendment requires us to tolerate the expression of its vile nature, antithetical to the First Amendment itself. Protesting neo-Nazism is not “the other side” of this evil; it is not one of “both sides” of a reasoned conversation. To declare that the Charlottesville demonstrators and protestors represented “both sides” of an issue is tantamount to pretending that there was a basis for a legitimate difference of opinion between the Warsaw ghetto Jews who rose up against the Nazis and their oppressors. There was not.
So, too, in Charlottesville, there were purveyors of Nazi hate and there were their antagonists, defending the essential moral and political character of our nation. They were not representing or expressing “both sides” of a debatable issue like taxes. They represented and advocated wholly antithetical world views, one of which our country has rejected, fought against and defeated. By casting it otherwise, Donald Trump has again revealed both his feeble-minded ignorance and his depravity.