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.

Civility and The Dodo Bird: a Comparitive Study

civilityOver the past week or so, the call for civility has been louder than ever. I’m not sure if this call will be sustained, nor is it clear if it will be heeded. Sadly, civility is a rare thing these days. I wonder if it’s approaching extinction.

Let’s review:

1. A deranged shooter kills 6 people and wounds more, including an Arizona lawmaker. Within 2 hours, the blogosphere is going crazy: One one side, Sarah Palin-haters are drawing a connection between the shooter and the Tea Party icon, based on Palin’s speeches and an unfortunately ill-conceived graphic which featured gun sites on the Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. Bloggers say that Palin’s combative rhetoric and us-vs-them mentality have set the tone.

2. Many folks argue back and say that the bloggers are looking for a connection that doesn’t exist, and they do so because they, in fact, are caught up in us-vs-them mindsets, that they are taking advantage of a tragedy to cast aspersion on a woman they have grown to loathe.

3. Both of the groups in #1 and #2 above point out that each other’s side has spokespersons who engage in vitriol: Beck, O’Reilly, Rush, Coulter on one side, and Dowd, Maher, and Olbermann on the other.

At the same time this is going on:

4.The stories in the days leading up to the NFL playoff game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets focus on the trash-talking, which has reached some new lows, including references to a coach’s sex life with his wife.

5. The publication of a new version of Mark Twain’s classic “Huckleberry Finn” is announced. This one will have all 219 occurrences of the N-word replaced by the less-offensive “slave”.  Modern hateful rhetoric is so pervasive these days that sensitivity regarding inflammatory speech has crossed some lines into the bizarre.

6. My Facebook friend Susan Isaacs alerted me to the Civility Project, which consisted of a simple pledge for political leaders to debate respectfully. Mark DeMoss, a Republican evangelical Christian, asked members of Congress to sign the pledge. Not only was he unsuccessful, he was berated by several conservatives.

7. In many cases, disagreement is not simply disagreement. It’s equated with an emotional failing. If you voted against gay marriage, you clearly hate gay people. If you are against the death penalty, you are a spineless bleeding-heart. Dare to be for Obamacare? You’re clearly a Marxist. Are you an NRA member? Then you are an ignorant redneck.  According to the rules of modern political discourse one cannot simply arrive reasonably and thoughtfully at a position on gay marriage, the new healthcare plan, or other important topics. Disagreement with me on anything is evidence that you have a wire loose.

8. People still watch Jerry Springer, hoping a fight will break out.

While all the above are disturbing and saddening, perhaps that last one holds the key. Maybe the fact that so many of us enjoy, or at least will may attention to, the loudest, most argumentative, and least civil voices out there is the reason that it won’t go away. What will it take to get this situation right again? Change the hearts of the masses of people who give O’Reilly and Maher their massive ratings? How in the world do we change that many hearts?

Watching Death Happen

I’ve never been in the same room as a person as they died. Once, as a military policeman, I worked an accident and saw the lifeless expression on a young driver’s face just a few minutes after his carelessness resulted in his early exit from this life. In July 2006, I visited a relative in the hospital, only to find that an hour later he had passed on.

21st-Century Americans tend to be protected from the realities of our mortality, for the most part. While that’s mostly a good thing, it probably puts us in the minority when compared to people in different places or times throughout history. As I write this, I am less than 24 hours removed from watching “True Grit”, which features a public execution near the beginning of the movie. As the criminals are hanged, the crowd–composed of men, women, and children–applauds.  Can you imagine taking a 7-year-old child to an execution today?

The reality, of course, is that people have almost always had a front-row seat to death. But for a short period of time, roughly a hundred years, we’ve been insulated. And when something happened where many people watched a death occur on television, an outcry was the result.

Many of these historical deathly events are now available for public viewing. Thanks to Youtube, you can see hundreds of thousands of Japanese get vaporized, see 67 people die as the Hindenberg explodes, watch JFK get assassinated, or watch his killer die.

But watching someone die via electronic means is not new, and it’s not unique to Youtube. During the Vietnam war, millions watched news footage of a South Vietnamese general shooting a Viet Cong fighter in the head while his hands were tied.

What does this mean? Are we really getting more desensitized to death, as some claim? Are we getting more bloodthirsty? Or are we returning back to where we have been for most of human history, willing to watch as humans pass from this life into the next?  Is it a good or a bad thing to be faced with the harsh reality that this world can be dangerous, and death happens?  Can any of us who have grown up during a “safe” time even able to make an objective assessment of this question?