Updated 12:10 pm, November 21
“I realize that it is not about who is right or wrong, it is about how we treat each other. We will always have differences of opinion, as we all see reality through our individual filters. The debates will continue. Good, intelligent, and honest men and women will disagree. What is important is to listen — to have some respect and some courtesy. ”
Opposites attract — a law of nature. But when you have two guys on different ends of the political spectrum, such as conservative Andrew Engelman and liberal Don Keller, is it possible for them to meet in the middle?
Turns out it is, if the opposing forces are men of goodwill. And with such men, we spectators might observe an experiment underway: an experiment in the art of civil discourse.
Ah, the digital age. Social media have provided us with endless opportunities to interact and to disagree with one another. Too often, the exchanges deteriorate into mindless attacks authored by the inarticulate and socially maladroit. Now, it’s true that the particular Island residents that are the subject of this story have been regularly lambasting each other by name for their opinions, generally around climate change, in the Letters to the Editor and in the Comment sections of The Times this year.
However, these men are informed, articulate, socially aware, and as it turns out, men of goodwill. Several weeks ago, Mr. Keller explained in a letter to the editor what happened recently, after an online exchange:
“I let him know [in an online comment] that I appreciated that he cared enough to voice his opinion, while I contemplated how to shred his arguments. At his suggestion, we met for coffee one morning. We had a wide-ranging conversation for two hours about our backgrounds, beliefs, biases, and opinions. I came away from that encounter with a real appreciation for the man and his convictions.
“But thinking about the bigger picture, I realize that it is not about who is right or wrong, it is about how we treat each other. We will always have differences of opinion, as we all see reality through our individual filters. The debates will continue. Good, intelligent, and honest men and women will disagree. What is important is to listen — to have some respect and some courtesy. That’s what really makes a society a pleasant place to live….”
Recently, The Times sat down with both men at the Black Dog Cafe to record the dynamic and, you know, maybe capture some fireworks.
The fireworks looked initially promising, judging by appearances and background. Mr. Engelman, 70, is a squared-away, conservative guy. He was raised in post-World War II Latvia under the Soviet system before his family hopscotched its way to the US of A, via Germany and an Australian refugee camp, just in time for 14-year-old Andrew to begin high school. Mr. Engelman became a U.S. citizen at age 19.
Retired from a career with multinational chemical companies, he is now chairman of a Christian ministry and splits his free time between the Island and Florida. Mr. Keller, on the other hand, is a refugee from Exit 3 on the New Jersey Turnpike. He said he arrived on the Vineyard in 1986 to ride his bike and “to have happy thoughts.” Now 62, he operates a small construction company in Vineyard Haven.
We asked them some questions about their views on the world and their relationship. Their answers were incisive, included brightly colored good-natured jibes, and were marked with respect. No fireworks.
MVT: Describe your feelings about each other before you met.
Mr. Engelman: All I had to go on were his thoughts. I didn’t know his heart. Today I see a person who has a good heart and a liberal, therefore wrong, view.
Mr. Keller: My view was that Andrew was a right-wing radical — uncompromising — but who cared enough to write, to put himself out there in liberal Island la-la land. It’s easy to see why conservatives see liberals as people who think protecting the dunes at Lambert’s Cove beach is the major [environmental] problem. I can see his viewpoint there.
MVT: Did you have concerns or trepidation about meeting each other?
Mr. Engelman: None. I have strong convictions that I may be able to convince [him] about. Maybe I’ll learn. We are informed by life experiences. [Ours] are different, and I’ve learned about his temperament, his heart.
Mr. Keller: No. I’m not a fearful person.
MVT: What is your relationship like now?
Mr. Engelman: I’m very comfortable sitting here next to him, because he embodies lots of friendly things; smart, straightforward, a sense of humor. Just because you’re a liberal doesn’t mean you aren’t a nice guy. We don’t engage in ad hominem attacks.
Mr. Keller: I respect people who are not apathetic. I want to make a difference.
MVT: What has changed?
Mr. Keller: You know, I met someone with a different opinion who has invigorated my life. We all have an innate desire to do good.
Mr. Engelman: I am grateful Don and I got together. Don has shown a predisposition to talk through things, not rejecting me as a nut. Fact is, he’s the first guy in nine years who’s tried to have a chat. That’s a credit to him that he allows people to express why they believe certain things.
MVT: What are your commonalities?
Mr. Keller: We don’t really know, because we were anonymous to each other before.
Mr. Engelman: Hostility is in the eye of the beholder.
The two men agree on more issues than would be readily apparent. They share a concern for a decline in American society. Mr. Engelman attributes that to “too many people in the cart and not enough people pulling the cart.” Mr. Keller is okay with the status of the cart, but sees a national political system riddled with arrogance for the electorate.
And they agree that an underinformed and ill-informed populace is not making our societal life easier. “Samuel Johnson [the 18th century English writer] said that most ideas are not propagated by reason but are caught by contagion,” Mr. Engelman said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Mr. Engelman is 72 and chairman of a worldwide Christian ministry. He is 70 and is the former chairman of FOCUS, an Island based national Christian Ministry. The story also mischaracterized Mr. Keller’s original decision to move to the Vineyard.