Political Persuasions and Guilt By Association

Us vs ThemIt’s hard to nail down that exact moment when it happened. I had always relished taking a side politically, whether it was as a card-carrying liberal in my early 20′s or when I reached my late 20′s and took a hard turn to the Right.  In both my life as a staunch Democrat and later as a die-hard Republican, I excelled in the art of mocking, hating, and pitying those misguided voters who disagreed with me. In either case, I embraced “victim” status as I complained about how the Press was biased against Us and for Them.  I had come to see evil motives in everything The Other Guys did; I considered their every word to be manipulative half-truths delivered by candidates who purposely wanted to bring down our nation.

And then, at some point I cannot quite pin down, I ceased playing the  Us-vs-Them game. I no longer thought about these issues along party lines. And I have to say: I’ve been politically happier ever since. Well, mostly. I say “mostly” because I still find it sad when I observe Us-vs-Them doing its damage.  But I’m happier because I now have the freedom to choose a position on a topic without caring what I’m supposed to think to fit into some mold.

“I’m Not a Republican nor a Democrat”
It’s quite fashionable these days to identify one’s self as “neither Democrat nor Republican”, but I have to be honest here: by my count, most of those who say this trite phrase tend to very consistently follow one party line or the other.  Folks who insist they reject the idea of over-simplifying everything by lumping it into two sides are often the ones whose beliefs match up quite nicely with either the D’s or the R’s.  I could give examples, but would have to throw my good friends under the bus; just trust me when I see the examples are too numerous to ignore. “I’m neither liberal nor conservative” seems to be code for either “I’m very liberal” or “I’m very conservative.”

I’ll take the whole suit
But for this piece, let’s narrow the focus to those who, like me, have made a switch at some point in their life, either from Right to Left or vice versa. One of the more fascinating things I’ve observed in people who have switched from liberal thinking to conservative views, or the other way around, is the tendency to change views on most or all of the key issues which define those two mindsets. As I hear their stories, it seems to start out with one thing, say a re-thinking of their position on gay rights or abortion or national defense, but interestingly, their views on other topics which traditionally have strong Left/Right viewpoints follow.  It’s as if a man walks into a store with the intention of purchasing a new shirt, and walks out of the store an hour later with a coat, tie, pants, belt, and shoes which all match that shirt.

The Big Question
Why do so many tend to follow the party line from top to bottom? There is no logic to explain the correlation between topics such as, say, abortion and environmentalism, yet what you think about those issues ends up being a pretty reliable predictor of your opinions on seemingly dissimilar topics like gay marriage, gun control, and capital gains tax. But why? And more important is the Big Question: why, when someone switches from conservative to liberal (or the other way around), do they tend to change views on several key issues rather than one? If you changed your view on gay marriage, why does your stance on gun control follow closely behind?

Guilt By Association
I think I know the answer, but it’s not based on any hard data (as if I had access to any). Based purely on observation, it appears that the reason voters stick with the party line is Guilt By Association. They see conservatives or liberals as “those people” and don’t want to be anything like them.  I hate to generalize, but more often than not, liberals tend to view Righties in a certain caricatured way. And Conservatives often think certain similar thoughts about liberals, as well.

Again, I’m speaking in general terms, based on what I read and hear from people who have strong political interests. I certainly was that way myself. When I was a liberal in the late 80′s, it seemed to me that conservatives were looking to find communists under every rock, and everything was a conspiracy. And when talk radio helped convince me to become a Republican, I saw liberals as godless, consumed with the victim mentality, and I became convinced Lefties didn’t believe in personal responsibility.

I don’t think I was alone. As I take in the arguments that my strongly partisan friends make even now, I hear that the Right hates little kids who like Big Bird, and the Left perpetuates the victim mentality. The logical conclusion is that I don’t want to be like Those People, so whatever they are for, I’m against.

The knowledge that Us-vs-Them is an effective persuader is not new. Political campaigns have used it as long as there have been elections. Advertisers use it. The best example is the Apple/PC ads. They talked about the technology a little bit, but the main memory that the user comes away with is that the Apple guy looks cool and hip, and the PC guy looks…well, he looks like someone I don’t want to associate with.

Us and Them

The truth is that Apple computers, like Windows PC’s, have their strengths and their weaknesses. And so do Republicans and Democrats. Ultimately, this nation is better off when we listen to, and in many cases implement into law, the best liberal and the best conservative ideas. But the Us-vs-Them mentality stands in the way. If we on the Right can stop, take a breath, and see liberals as humans who care about their nation as much as we do, we might find some common ground and some good ideas. And if my strongly partisan friends on the Left will do the same, maybe we’ll get out of this political gridlock we’ve found ourselves in, and make some real progress. But it won’t happen till then.

Dan Savage: Just Another Symptom of an Ongoing Problem

First, watch the Dan Savage speech

Dan Savage, outspoken gay rights advocate who has been best-known the past two years for “It Gets Better”, has been sending what amounts to a mixed message lately. I say mixed because “It Gets Better” is supposed to be an anti-bullying movement, but Savage recently gave a speech to high schoolers which could fit a reasonable person’s definition of bullying.

Not surprisingly, those who happen to agree with Savage say it’s not bullying; it’s righteous anger.  Bullying or not, he definitely was in attack mode. As the video clip shows, he came out swinging. His tone wasn’t “let’s find a way to respect each other even as we see things differently.”

Intentional provocation, followed by feigned “who? little old me? a trouble-maker?”, is always interesting to watch, in that it doesn’t fool anyone. Bu what saddens me is that much of what I have read the last week from those who have called for civilized discourse have been excusing Savage’s remarks. I fail to see how they can reasonably reconcile their calls for respectful disagreement with their defense of Savage.

I’ve been saying for years that civility will happen when people clean their own house (in this case, when those who agree with Savage’s perspective will tell him to tone it down, and when those who have diametrically opposite viewpoints on this topic tell the loudmouths who agree with them to clam up if they can’t talk nice), and not before. Exactly the opposite has been happening, and it’s not getting better.

Civility is a trendy conversation topic these days. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who’s calling for civility, and IMO, it’s not just a nice blog topic; it’s a great thing to strive for. What passes for meaningful discussion these days is truly saddening, especially when compared to, say, how MLK or Rosa Parks went about expressing their views. History tells us that they managed to accomplish great things, and facilitate needed change in our nation, and not once did they ever resort to the tactics employed by Mr Savage.

Not that Dan Savage is alone, of course. He’s simply falling into line behind those cartoon characters who showed the way to greater ratings and increased book royalties. Ultimately, Savage comes across as just another flavor of Rush Limbaugh: a loud guy with no original thoughts, who makes a living saying outrageous things, then relishing the attention that comes with it.

Make no mistake: Savage’s remarks toward the high school kids is not on the same level of righteous anger, and he’s insulting most people of faith in our nation. He’s not just going after a few wrongheaded fundies with Westboro leanings. When he states that the bible is “bullshit”, he’s taking a swipe at a very large number of good people who have sincere beliefs and who have used their belief in the truth of Scripture to do a lot of good in the world. His remarks do not rise above the level of, say, making a broad statement about blacks, foreigners, women, or pretty much any group you can think of which is often stereotyped.

I’ve read Savage off and on for a couple of years, and his writing is just as mean-spirited and hateful as the people he purports to be against. He really is, in my mind, in the same group that includes Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Ann Coulter, Maureen Dowd, Bill Maher, and Glenn Beck, among others. They’re cartoon characters, unable to use solid reasoning to back up their viewpoints, and unwilling to avoid name-calling to get attention. Yes, it sells a lot of books, but it isn’t helping anything get better. And all this time, I was under the impression that “It Gets Better” was the goal.

Intellectual Dishonesty

Nolan Ryan greets Ventura upon arrival

Nolan Ryan greets Ventura upon arrival

As a fan of baseball, there are certain divisive issues within the sport for which I support the minority viewpoint. One commonly-accepted truism, which I reject, is that there are acceptable reasons for a pitcher to intend to hit a batter.  That mindset is popular in my town of Arlington, TX, (where Nolan Ryan once showed that whippersnapper Robin Ventura a thing or two) and its popularity is pervasive throughout baseball.

Popular or not, it’s wrong. If you have to resort to throwing at the batter, it means you aren’t a good enough pitcher to get the guy out by throwing strikes.  If you are really a better pitcher than he is a hitter, then throw him your best stuff, and you’ll win. If he’s better than you, then he wins. You may not like that result, but it’s the right one. If you throw at him, you’re admitting you’re not equipped to handle him any other way.

Alas, I am in the minority on this one. Most fans feel that while some dirty baseball (i.e. steroids) is wrong, other dirty baseball, such as throwing at batters, is fine. The ends justifies the means.

Taking this observation outside of baseball, as I read and listen to pundits of various schools of thought argue about divisive issues of the day, it’s not hard to notice that many pundits and self-appointed experts shape the conversation by the equivalent of throwing a fastball at someone’s head. There are many ways they do this, but one that makes my blood boils is this: calling someone a coward.

Of course, nobody uses that word. “Coward” is old-school. It’s something right out of a John Wayne western, usually paired with “yellow-bellied” or “lily-livered”.   No, the people of whom I speak use more subtlety and variety while accusing those with whom they disagree of being afraid.

Let’s take a look at some specific examples:

1. I listened to audio of a sermon last week where the speaker said that those who teach a certain thing (intentionally leaving out the specifics here) do so because they are afraid.   Afraid of what, I am not sure exactly. If you don’t know why someone’s doing what they are doing, you shouldn’t be speculating and concluding that they are doing what they do out of fear. Assigning a motive with no evidence to back it up is nothing more than a false accusation.

2. A blog post from a popular author this week suggested entering a new relationship with a list of qualities you’d want in a future spouse. Most comments to the post were in agreement with the blogger, while a few did not concur. One commenter said “the reason we don’t want to make lists is because we’re afraid.”  Really?  I find that insulting, to say the least. But this person has convinced herself that someone who sees things differently than she does is doing so out of fear.  They can’t have formed their opinion by actually thinking about it and considering all the facts. They must be fraidy-cats.

Again, someone is assigning motives without proof. What a cop-out.

3. The prevalent misuse of the word “homophobia” (as well as related words such as “homophobic”.  I shouldn’t even have to say this. Just about everyone who speaks the English language knows that the suffix “phobia” means “an irrational fear of.”  Yet it’s used against anyone who makes hateful statements against gays (the most recent example being Tracy Morgan’s Nashville outburst).  Sometimes, it’s even used to describe comments by a person who simply states that homosexuality is sin.

Whether intentional or not, this is a dishonest use of “phobia”, employed in order to sway the conversation. Once branded as “phobic”, it is hard to bring common sense and a decent defense of your motives back into the conversation.

If you have a phobia of any other kind, everyone understands what that entails. If you are acrophobic (have an irrational fear of heights), everyone who hears this understands that you don’t make hateful statements about heights. They understand you have a morbid fear of them. Tracy Morgan didn’t sound to me like he was afraid of gays. He was hateful. He was a jerk. he was not phobic.

We don’t know where it started, but some years ago, an unknown person decided to employ intellectual dishonesty in defense of gay rights; he or she decided to throw that fastball right at the heads of millions of people who have theological, political, or personal perspectives which differed from theirs. He did it by asserting, as in example #2 above, that such a perspective must be fear-based. Not just fear, but irrational fear.

The fact is that, while there surely is someone, somewhere, who actually is afraid of gay people, such people are surely few and far between. But the mainstream press, supposedly made up of professionals for whom the ability to choose the correct words must be an essential tool of the profession, has decided to toss common sense and common decency out the window, and has embraced this  profoundly inaccurate term.  There is no evidence to suggest that Tracy Morgan has a psychotic tendency to fear gays. Why not simply describe his rant as “anti-gay”?  Why throw in the groundless accusation that Morgan is fearful (and irrationally so) of homosexuals?

In baseball, there are many who believe that throwing at a batter is an acceptable part of the game, and likewise some believe dishonesty is acceptable when casting one’s political opposers in as negative a light as possible.  When it comes to intellectual dishonesty in general, it all boils down to: do your ideas have merit or don’t they? If they do, then you don’t need to lie. You don’t need to play dirty.

Sadly, for every one person who strives to have legitimate and fair dialog, there is another who chooses to misdirect the conversation by employing the “fear” accusation, which is used so often because it’s effective and hard to defend against without sounding defensive. Like the pitcher who isn’t a good enough pitcher to jsut get the batter out, these folks unwisely and unfairly use the word “homophobe” because their actual arguments do not have merit, and their perspective cannot stand on its merits.

Note that, unlike many people, I am not calling for an end to debate, either within Christianity or outside of it. Debate will always be with us because theological differences will always be with us. The bible is ambiguous in places, and when we read it, we all bring our own presuppositions and prejudices, and want to fit the bible into what we already think.

What we should do is acknowledge the fact that we will differ and go from there. In the process, we should offer compelling arguments which are completely honest. Because if we have a legit point to make, that’s all we need. Leave the name-calling to kids.

“He’s One Of Us”–The Art of Self-Delusion

Subtitle: What does Kirk Cameron have in common with Ollie North and Rob Bell?

I recently became re-acquainted with “The Emperor’s New Clothes”–a story I hadn’t heard in decades. You are surely familiar with it: As an emperor makes a public appearance, all the adults are pretending to admire his non-existent new clothes. They’re all willing to participate in the delusion because others around them are doing so. To admit the truth would be to go against the grain. Better to bow to peer pressure than to rock the boat and get branded as an oddball in the process.

Some recent discussions I have participated in recently have convinced me that not much has changed since the story about the nude king was written. There remains a strong tendency within human nature to delude ourselves in order to support someone–athlete, entertainer, preacher–who we decided long-ago that we really liked. We pretend his flaws, his bad performance, his teaching are not problematic in any way.

Of course, the Rob Bell “Love Wins” debate is the most obvious recent example, but there are other instances of well-meaning people putting on rose-colored glasses and refusing to truthfully examine what needs to be examined.

My observation is that much of the time, this happens as the result of people putting their faith in people, institutions, political parties, or denominations.

So am I saying that most people defending Bell are among his biggest fans before the new book? Of course. They have been touched by his previous books, and he has cemented in their heads that he is a good guy. And in fact, I still think he is. I don’t see a conflict in seeing him as a good guy and in disagreeing with what he says in “Love Wins”, though.

Ironically, one of the more vocal defenders of Bell since this mess started in February is Derek Webb. I say it’s ironic in light of what he said in this video clip (beginning at the 3:35 mark):

Speaking about another book by another author, Webb says:

“We will just take anything that comes down the pike in the church culture.  We don’t discern anything. We don’t discern teaching. We don’t discern music. We don’t discern anything to see if what it’s teaching is right. If we call ourselves people who believe in the bible, we should be taking things that are taught to us back to the bible, seeing if they line up as truth. And when things don’t, we should be bold enough and not be afraid to call them wrong, and to warn our fellow believers about them.”

I am not singling out Bell, though. I am calling out all of us, myself included, who are willing to open the door to self-delusion when it comes to someone we perceive as “one of us.” It happens with conservatives and liberals. It happens across the board.

Some non-Bell examples which come to mind:
Politics: my fellow Republicans are embracing the likes of Newt Gingrich, who was unfaithful to his wife, as was John McCain, the most recent GOP presidential nominee.  Then there are those who embrace Oliver North even as they denounce government corruption. It’s OK, because Ollie is “one of us”.

Sanctity of marriage: Republicans are the only party to have nominated (McCain) and elected (Reagan) a man running for president who has been divorced. It’s OK, because Reagan was “one of us.”

Entertainment: I’m amazed at how many within the Christian community think of Kirk Cameron as a good actor. Again, Kirk is “one of us.”

A few years ago, evangelicals, who are vehemently anti-porn, were embracing Mel Gibson, conveniently forgetting the amount of gratuitous nudity in his previous movies. Because of “The Passion of the Christ,” he appeared to be “one of us”.    How’d that work out for you?

I am sorry if you are a Newt or Gingrich fan, or you think Fireproof is a good movie. You are entitled to that. But my point is that many people will be more forgiving of less quality if they perceive that said politician/actor/whatever is “one of us”.

When you read or consider “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, what do you think of?

If You Buy It, They Will Come

It’s very easy these days to find laments about consumerism in books, blog posts, and sermons. American culture is saturated with the materialistic mentality which is rooted in a perceived need to acquire more stuff, and there are plenty of voices which are sounding the alarm. In fact, the anti-materialism message has been preached for much longer than I have been alive. Often, if comes from seasoned folks who have acquired wealth and things, and realize how those things do not satisfy.

With each new generation, the old guard recognizes that what they strived for their entire lives is not providing them with the kind of fulfillment they had hoped for, but the numerous attempts to communicate this message to youngsters are rarely successful.  Till now, I have avoided commenting on this topic for two reasons:

1. Americans are too far gone. We might convince a few here and there, but the general population is beyond hope in this area. “I need to buy X to be happy” is so much a part of our mindset that you’d find it easier to separate the Kool-Aid powder from the water it’s mixed in than to remove materialism from the minds of most people in 21st-Century America. It’s a lost cause.

2.We are bombarded with messages — hundreds, maybe thousands, of times a day. They will not be drowned out by the likes of me.

But then I watched this video clip and saw something I never noticed before (note that the audio is off by several seconds):

This perceived for more has shown another side. While we already know that “stuff” promises satisfaction which it will never deliver, we now see another line of reasoning that advertisers are using on the public: “If you buy X, you will look good to others”.

Our culture’s unhealthy fascination with the acquisition of X is rooted, not in the desire for the things themselves, but in impressing others. I know this from personal experience, as I have bought new “toys” and thought to myself how inevitable it would be that this new electronic gadget would make friends like me more. It’s a shameful thing to admit, and I don’t like saying it, but those thoughts have crossed my mind. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

Assuming I’m not, then, what do we do? Is this mindset new? Did the Israelites of 3000 years ago, or even the Ingalls family of the 1870′s, care so much about looking good to others that they allowed this desire to dictate which purchases they made? One assumes not, but either way, it is a symptom of a larger problem which is as old as Adam and Eve: the desire to be accepted by others. While this desire is understandable and can be good, it often manifests itself in various ways, it is prone to end up with terrible results. The day that we as a culture can be free from having to look good to others is the day we become free indeed.

Upside-Down Priorities: Who’s the real hero?

Which one is a real hero?A few days ago, my sons and I went to the always-highly-anticipated annual Texas Rangers Fan Fest.

All too often, the high hopes that bring us the this event are not grounded in reality. But it’s fun, so we keep coming. This time, however, the excitement was heightened because the optimism was justified. After all, this team had gone farther than any Rangers team ever: the World Series. It’s like the Super Bowl of baseball. (Or perhaps the Super Bowl is the World Series of football).

Because these players were so successful, they were treated like heroes. My clan didn’t stand in line for autographs, but those in search of signatures waited for hours to get Matt Treanor, CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis, or Josh Hamilton to sign balls, gloves, or bats.  These guys were hailed heroes. For a fan base which has not seen a lot of baseball success before 2010, the hero treatment for a World Series team is understandable.

But I also noticed the legendary Gaylord Perry, sitting there at a table with no line. Sure, his autograph was $20, but so was CJ Wilson’s, and the CJ line was at least 2 hours long.  So why did CJ Wilson, who has been a starting pitcher for all of one year, get so much more love than Gaylord Perry? Before CJ was born, Perry had won a Cy Young in each league. He has struck over over 3000 batters. His status as a Hall of Famer should be enough to warrant a much higher demand. Simply put, he has accomplished much more than all the young guys on hand, combined.

A few minutes after I noticed Perry sitting by himself with barely any attention, I saw something even more astounding. If the ignorance of Perry is sad, this nearly qualifies as tragic. As I was waiting for my sons to take their turn running the distance from 3rd base to Home Plate (in case you are wondering, Jacob did it in 3.89 seconds, and Zachary in 5.17), an elderly man was there, probably watching his grandkids as they stood in the same line as mine. He must have been at least 80, and he was wearing a cap that said “World War II Vet”.

Everyone ignored him. People walked past him like they walked past any other person they didn’t know. I walked right by him myself.  If I were a better person and better father, I would have thanked him, right in front of my boys, for his service to our country. But I didn’t. And I wasn’t alone in that.

OK, so it was a baseball event, not Veterans’ Day. Still,  I couldn’t help but be struck by the way we have our heroes reversed. If all were right with the world, there would have been a long line of people to see the WWII vet, a medium line to see Gaylord Perry, and a few to bask in the presence of the youngsters like Hamilton and Wilson. But, like so many things in America, we have it all backwards.