Thank you, Billings Gazette, for your editorial on former Wisconsin Sheriff David Clarke. And thank you, David Clarke, for responding to The Gazette. This exchange has obvious problematic aspects, but it also offers potential for hope.

If what is alleged of Clarke is true, including that he has threatened reporters with violence if they print what he doesn't like, this is deeply troubling. Freedom of speech and inquiry are vital to American democracy. The assault on news reporting from the president on down undermines the public's need to know the truth beyond self-serving rhetoric.

What then are the grounds for hope? Clarke has replied to The Gazette, and exchanging views is the first step toward overcoming the serious divisions that have ruptured American public life-so long as the conversation is about values and policy and does not fall into nasty ad hominem attacks.

Clarke claims liberal bias is rigged against his righteous conservatism. The terms "liberal" and "conservative" no longer connote complementary perspectives in American politics: liberals emphasizing freedom and equality, conservatives standing for tradition and fiscal restraint. Now they have become pejorative terms, designating groups that have virtually nothing in common. How did America become so divided?

Perhaps it is a weakness of human nature to want to have an enemy in contrast to whom one can appear virtuous. Fear and distrust exacerbate this tendency.

In recent years, after the dissolution of the USSR, the focus on enemies has shifted from outside America to within it. Fear, blame and distrust have been promoted through blogs, ads in social media and on television, talk radio and so on. Dark money, including money from Russia, has contributed to the resultant loss of American unity. Deadlock in Congress and incivility in political discourse have been the result.

The Yellowstone Republicans promote Sheriff Clarke as a tough guy (see the scary image they use in promoting his appearance) who will do whatever necessary to impose order. Clarke is the new Rambo, countering evil with "justified" violence if necessary. History has shown, however, that a violent response to violence issues in more violence.

I am sympathetic with Clarke's claim about the historical need for blacks to act in self-defense. But self-defense is different from belligerence shading into violent speech and action. Clarke may not realize that a Rambo-type image has been used in Montana to authorize vigilante actions that can sponsor lynchings, but the Yellowstone Republicans surely know this. The Montana Militia in the past and neo-Nazis now idealize themselves in Rambo-like terms.

Clarke complains that his views are not fairly presented. Yet in his response he does not say what his values and views are, but rather focuses on lambasting The Gazette. Most troubling, in telling the editorial board to take their hoods off, he suggests they are comparable to Ku Klux Klan members in disguise. The Gazette has been consistently and vigorously anti-racist in its editorials. Clarke's claim that The Gazette is especially opposed to black conservatives is offensive and seriously off base. Ironically, that sort of response legitimates some of the concerns The Gazette listed in its editorial.

So what do we need now? To get beyond the current political impasse, we need active conversation and listening apart from all the divisive name calling. Then we will find we Americans share many common values. Then the hope mentioned earlier can triumph over the divisive "good conservative, bad liberal" (or vice-versa) opponent-creating game in which we are now ensnared.


Walter Gulick, of Billings, is is MSU Billings professor emeritus of philosophy, humanities and religious studies.