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Books that help bridge the political divide

Time for spring-cleaning. 

The basement apartment in which I live could use a deep cleaning: dusting, washing, vacuuming. It’s tidy enough — chaos and I were never friends — but stacks of papers need sorting, bookcases beg to see their occupants removed and the shelves rubbed down with a mixture of Pine-Sol and water, and the dusty, spider-webbed eaves cry out for an invasion from the shop-vac and dust mop. 

And then there are the loose books, volumes whose home is elsewhere. They lie sprawled across my reading desk, temporary guests with whom I have so far established only a casual acquaintanceship. Several of these are visiting from the public library, and though I had intended to hear what they had to say, they are now due back home. 

Let’s look at three of these visitors.

First up is Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (Crown Forum, 2017, 420 pages). Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court justice at the time of his death in 2016, was noted for his lucid prose, his strict interpretation of the Constitution, and his humor. In this collection, which ranges from graduation addresses to some of his dissents on Supreme Court rulings, we can see that Scalia’s reputation in all three areas is well deserved. 

All Americans should read Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “Foreword” to Scalia Speaks. Ginsburg and Scalia were at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, yet they became not only colleagues on the bench of the Supreme Court but good friends as well. They debated various points of law, they disagreed on major issues, but at the end of the day they treated each other amicably and treasured their relationship. 

Justice Ginsburg’s brief account of her friendship with her conservative colleague shines a light on how the relationship between the left and right of our country might be repaired and enhanced if we would learn to listen to one another, to debate a topic, and to agree to disagree, all the while keeping, as did Justices Ginsberg and Scalia, our sense of humor.

Similar in theme to Justice Ginsberg’s remarks is Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right (HarperCollins, 2017, 295 pages). Author Ken Stern, former CEO of National Public Radio, a liberal and a homeowner living in a neighborhood where no one he knew was a Republican, much less conservatives, watched with grave concern the gulf growing between left and right in our country. Fed up with the stereotypes of Republicans offered up by his co-workers and neighbors, and as a man of the left, Stern decided to explore the other side of the political and cultural fence. 

Given our present debate about gun control, I wish Americans, of whatever political persuasion, would read the opening chapter of Republican Like Me, “The Fellowship of the Pig.” (The “Pig” refers to a hunt, not to a human being.) Here Stern discusses firearms and gun control after setting out to explore our gun culture. He cites a number of statistics regarding guns and violence — we learn, for instance, that murder rates by guns has dropped by half since 1980 — and he shows us a common ground may exist between gun owners and those opposed to firearms, if both sides would catch their collective breath and just listen to each other. 

Like Justice Ginsburg’s thoughts on her deceased friend, Republican Like Me is a call for debate and civility rather than the contempt and insults that today comprise our political dialogue. 

James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster, 2018, 445 pages) continues the saga of detective Dave Robicheaux. Unlike Scalia Speaks and Republican Like Me, I did read Robicheaux in its entirety, though probably too fast. In this complicated story are all the elements that make Burke’s Robicheaux a beloved character: grand descriptions of Louisiana from its bayous to New Orleans, a love for the innocent and a disgust for those who hurt them, a hatred of war, criminals, and violence, an idealization of women, sympathy for the Left and a strong distaste for the Right, a contempt for the rich. Here, too, we watch Robicheaux, a veteran still traumatized by his time in Vietnam, a police officer wounded by all the bodies and blood he has seen, a widower, struggle with alcoholism and his personal demons as he battles murderers, drug dealers, psychopaths, and bureaucrats. 

In his powers of description, Burke is one of our finest writers. He brings to life the landscape and weather of Louisiana. That said, Burke sometimes casts his characters too strongly in black and white. The character running for Senate, for example, is a populist, cast as evil for his ambitions and an act of wanton murder in the past, yet we never really grasp why his political views themselves are evil, unless we are supposed to be appalled by his cynicism and hypocrisy, character traits not unknown among politicians. Near the end of the novel, this same man calls to his side an elderly race-baiting minister and declares himself a friend and ally of this racist. Other than to make the character more contemptuous, Burke give us no real explanation as to why a candidate for the Senate would make such a gesture in which he has everything to lose and nothing to gain. 

There. Three books back to the library on time. 

But, that desk still needs tidying up.

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