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I will be the first to admit that I sometimes don’t understand why politicians do what they do, even when they do what is generally considered the right thing.

Last night Hilary Clinton made a complaint against Barack Obama that I just can’t understand.

 Background: Recently, Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan endorsed Obama.  Obama has said that he didn’t seek this endorsement and has made it clear he doesn’t agree with all of Farrakhan’s beliefs. I’m good with that. This is, in middle-school term’s, akin to what happens when clean-cut cool kid finds out one of the scary smoker chicks has a crush on him and loudly says “Hey, I’m not into her stuff, and I never flirted with her or led her on.” She is allowed to like whoever she wants, and he is allowed to say he’s not interested in reciprocating.

What I don’t get: In last night’s MSNBC debate, Hillary Clinton attacked Obama for not rejecting Farrakan’s endorsement. Returning to middle-school terms, this is akin to expecting the guy above saying the chick isn’t allowed to like him and that he rejects her emotional state and demands that she not like him.

Why I don’t get this: In our particular US form of democracy we are free to like who we like both in inter-personal relationships and in political relationships. They are not required to like us back. In an enlightened, free-speech nation we are each allowed to stand on the roof tops (or at least on our Internet soapboxes) and proclaim our likes and dislikes – even our uninformed likes and dislikes – to whoever is willing to listen. Those listening are not required to agree with us. If Obama rejected Farrakan’s endorsement, Obama would essentially be saying that he didn’t think that Farrakan had the right to proclaim his opinion (his endorsement) without Obama’s approval.

There are deeper layers to this in my naive mind.  Clinton seems to imply that if two people differ on many issues (such as how to handle Isreal), that they can’t still respect one another’s rights to believe what they believe. In Farrakan’s endorsement of Obama, and Obama’s response of “Look, I don’t agree with him and didn’t seek this,” I see Farrakan saying he respect’s Obama and Obama saying Farrakan is allowed to have his opinions, but he (Obama) doesn’t agree with all those opinions.

In today’s fragmenting society I see people constantly throwing up intellectual walls and flinging rocks from behind philosophical barricades without ever engaging in respectful dialogs.   This needs to stop.  Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time know that I am personally frustrated by the way radical skeptics attack people of faith as “being stupid” and I’m equally angry at radical (typically Christian) people of faith for attacking scientists because their religious documents don’t document the Big Bang and Evolution. It is impossible to hold a dialogue if both sides start from the premise that the other side simply isn’t allowed to believe what they believe and that the other side is stupid.

Productive dialogue must start from a position of mutual respect and the premise that through dialogue it is possible to build understanding and potentially to change opinions or reach a mutually acceptable outcome. I am allowed to say, “I don’t agree with you because…” and state my reasons. I am allowed to say, “I can’t support what you believe because. . . ” and state my reasons. I am not allowed to say, “You aren’t allowed to hold that belief / opinion.”

We can legislate actions – banning murder is a good thing – but we can’t legislate thought.

In demanding Obama reject Farrakan’s endorsement,  Clinton seems to demand that Obama try to limit Farrakan’s right to support whomever he wants to support. In demanding Obama reject Farrakan’s endorsement,  Clinton seems to demand that Obama try to limit Farrakan’s right to respect people who have differing opinions.

Is she implying that I should reject anyone who reads this blog who believes the Earth is 6000 years old because I see clear evidence the Earth is many billion years old? Would she ask me to tell them to stop reading and go somewhere else? (Please, read and learn from these entries, no matter what your intellectual starting point may be.) Is she implying I shouldn’t dialogue with students who think 30-something women who are married should be home raising children instead of out proclaiming science? (Sorry kids, you’re stuck with me.) Where does it end?

Respect does not mean complete agreement on all issues. There are people I respect for their intelligence and compassion whose opinions differ radically from my own. I’m not sure I’d seek their review for the book cover of any future book I write, but they are still people I will talk with, argue with, and agree to disagree with.

And there are times when each of us, like Farakkan, will need to support people who don’t necessarily agree with or even like us. There are many instance where I have to look at a panel of candidates for jobs / offices / appointments where I don’t see anyone who would really represent me, and in many cases all of them would make my life harder (a lot of scientists don’t think money and effort should be “wasted” on public outreach at the level that I do it). That doesn’t mean I should always waste my voice by saying “No one is acceptable.” I have to look at the candidates and say, “This person is someone who I don’t totally agree with, but whose judgments I think will be the most beneficial in this situation.” I would hope that even if the person I support doesn’t like me, that they would respect my decision to support them.

Hilary, what happened to allowing people the freedom to support whom they want to support and believe what they want to believe? What happened to the freedom of speech and the freedom of thought? Why do you demand that we reject people instead of rejecting ideas?

Barrack, keep telling us what ideals you embrace and what ideals you reject (and if you could throw in some specifics on your policy ideas, it would be appreciated).   Keep respecting people and supporting the idea that each of us has the ability to move this nation forward (just please tell us how you want to move this nation forward with some specifics, please).

And please, both of you, show us that you respect the American people.