Looking at the degraded state of political discourse in America, Paul Meilander turns to the thought of the 20th-century Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber. Meilander admits that Buber’s most famous work, I and Thou, is a “frustrating book” that is often “fragmentary, allusive, vague,” and “overwritten.” But he also finds in it some surprising lessons:
[Buber’s] dialogical vision does not provide us with a direct model for political interaction. . . . Rather, Buber describes a certain attitude or stance toward the world and toward other people that in some fashion we need to recapture. His vision is as much educative as political, calling for a particular kind of character formation, a training in the attitudes and virtues necessary for relationship and mutual respect. He offers what we might call a pre-political preparation for politics, a call to develop in ourselves and in others the disposition of openness to encounter.
Before we declare other people our political allies or foes, we must first encounter their fundamental humanity. This is not a prescription for a wishy-washy, half-hearted politics aiming at moderation for its own sake or dreaming foolishly of an elusive human unity. Instead, it is a call to let others appear to us first in their concrete personhood before we concern ourselves with their propositions and plans, the various things they might want to do for us, to us, with us, or in spite of us.