politics

You won’t like everyone you meet.

Is there no such thing as a basic truth anymore? What I mean by ‘basic truth’ is a thing which is universally acknowledged as certain. Something you can trust all other humans to believe in no matter what. I don’t really get the impression that I can rely on people to be certain about anything. There is always someone willing to contradict me.

When I was a kid, still figuring things out, I was pretty sure that what I was figuring out was all the answers that adults already had. I figured there was a knack to this life and that when you reached a certain age you just sort of got it. Of course, now that I’m swiftly approaching 30 I realize that that is a nuts thing to think. Nobody has it figured out, everyone who has ever existed was basically making it up as they went along. Gahdi, just making it up as he went along. Thomas  Jefferson, just making it up as he went along. Elizabeth I, Saint Francis of Assisi, Genghis Khan… the list goes on and on because it includes every human who has ever existed. All people are clueless and the successful ones are basically better at hiding it than anybody else.

But back to the basic truth- I used to think that there were good and bad ways to behave and that maybe there were a few people out there who behaved badly but that mostly everyone was good. At least everyone could agree, in the most abstract of senses, what good was.

I picked this basic truth up from watching movies. The popular movies of the 80s and 90s were certainly quite idealistic. Normally some Joe-Everyman hero would stand up to some blonde a-hole and would eventually, inevitably come out on top. It just sort of seemed to me that the qualities of a movie hero, compassion for others, strong sense of justice, some code of honor, were always rewarded and that everyone would naturally aspire to emulate these qualities.

I now know that good and evil are a lot more complicated than that, but I’ve still been holding (childishly) on to the idea that compassion, justice, and honor, are qualities that every human everywhere desires and respects in one another. But it doesn’t seem like we do that anymore (maybe I’m nieve and we never did). I don’t think we trust that other humans are capable of both disagreeing with us and remaining human.  All disagreements seem to take place in a suspension of decency. We no longer value these qualities enough to maintain them when we encounter people who we consider to be our enemy. And enemies are everywhere.

All it takes to find justice in an unjust thing is to decide that injustice is fine for your enemy. All it takes to abandon honor is to decide that honor is winning, honor is whatever it takes to hurt your enemy. Compassion has become something that we expect to receive from others but refuse to exude ourselves.

Something feels different in the world. I’d like to say that my disappointment in this countries direction has nothing to do with party politics but I’m not so sure that that’s true. There’s a good chance that part of what upsets me is that the way that I think things should be done is no longer happening.

But that is only part of it, and I hope you’ll understand ( I hope you’ll believe me) that the rest of it is a disillusionment with how I assumed this whole ‘being a species’ thing was supposed to work. I thought it meant that we could disagree and still be fine. I thought it meant that we could fight but still value each other as fellow species members. I thought that basically, we all wanted to be the good guy and we all agreed what a good guy looked like, just, honorable, and compassionate. What shook me so hard last November was not the realization that lots of people have different ideas about tax policies or the ideal purview of the federal government. What shook me was the type of rhetoric we are all apparently fine with now. If it means our team scores a point, it’s okay.

I read comment sections, a lot, more than I usually read actual articles. I don’t know why I do it other than a general morbid fascination. I see more and more, in the arguments that take place there, that even the people I agree exhibit none of the qualities I considered a basic foundation of decency. I’d like to sit out. I no longer want to be associated with any of it. But what is my other choice, apathy?

I firmly believe that political activity is the responsibility of any citizen of a democracy. More than that, I am a Socialist, I believe that there are solutions to be found for societal problems that can only be realized through dynamic and responsive governance. Even in this poisonous environment, I cannot accept that debate is a lost cause. We have to get back to the point where we can disagree with respect because disagreement is good, respectful disagreement builds compromise and compromise is democracy.

I’m not complaining about the election really. This isn’t about the election. This problem could not have just sprung up during 2016 and stuck around while winners and sore losers both refused to let it go. Something this big has to have deeper roots than one presidential race. I think that the race, if anything, was the result of our loss of compassion, our ability to accept any sort of behavior so long as it meant points for our team. We are okay with all the insults because the ones being insulted don’t deserve our respect.

There’s are a couple lessons I learned as a child;

  1. It doesn’t matter who started the fight. If you hurt somebody, say you’re sorry.
  2. If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.

The fact is, sometimes you meet people you don’t like. Sometimes these people are mean to you. Sometimes these people are mean to your friends. But the rules of human decency don’t get suspended if the other guys started it. That’s what I learned when I was young. Where did that go?

We might be giving other people too much credit. It’s easier to believe that people don’t deserve compassion if you assume that they must know what they are doing and that it’s all part of some dastardly agenda. They must know what you know about the consequences of their actions or beliefs and just not care.  How can you argue with a person who is purposefully trying to hurt you? We feel attacked and so we strike back.

But we’re all just making this up as we go along, remember? People tend to find a position and stick to it with all their might because that helps keep them orientated while they pretending to know what they’re supposed to be doing in life. If we are being attacked, it’s by people who are just as frail and lost as we are. Our responses should be tempered by the understanding that being wrong is not the same thing as being evil.

Compassion should remind you that when people are mistaken they deserve your patience, not your anger. Your sense of justice should remind you that the respect you expect from others should be given regardless of whether or not it is reciprocated. Your sense of honor should remind you that you (and only you) are responsible for the hate or the love which you put out into the world.

I miss the idealism of being a kid. I miss believing that adults had some ace up their sleeve, a secret that made the world okay, less scary. But I don’t think that the cynicism and anger of political rhetoric are inevitable when I give up that idealism. If I want change I’ll start with me.

My goal in writing this is to remind myself of a new lesson:

  • There will be people in the world who I don’t like and who hold opinions which I think are harmful to society. No matter what, the rules of decency still apply, always.

That is my basic truth. I hope it’s universal, but regardless I’m going to try and live up to it.

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Thoughts from a melting snowflake

I don’t understand the point of insults. Not in an I’m-impervious-to-them kind of way, I have a pretty thin skin, but I don’t get what they’re supposed to accomplish. Especially in a debate where your goal is supposed to be convincing the other person you’re right and they’re wrong. How exactly is an insult supposed to help you in this endeavor?

I have a masochistic habit of reading internet comments. I never comment myself but I’m fascinated by the people that do.  And I’ve noticed a trend in the way that people deploy insults. They are used;

A) To hit a soft target. To insult a group on an article or post that is already negative towards that group. An insult that acts as ‘going in on the fun’ and that expects to find acceptance within the target audience of the post.

or

B) To derail the conversation. This insult will pop up from the ‘rival’ group to disparage all those who agree with the post.

Since I live in a liberal bubble and generally only see one side of each insult. I get the impression that conservatives tend more towards B. But this observation is likely highly influenced by a perception bias (seeing what I expect to see) and shouldn’t be trusted. Still, I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to say that liberals call conservatives bigots, conservative call liberals weak, and both groups call each other stupid.  (the last insult is crowd pleaser favored by any corner of the political spectrum)

These insults NEVER change anyone. NEVER add to the conversation. And NEVER (I’m speculating here) make the insulter feel better for any longer than a second.

The reasons we use them are obvious. We’re mad and we want to hurt the people who make us mad. We have an opinion that we lack either the knowledge or the creativity to defend and so saying someone is Hitler is the next best thing. And last, and most importantly, knowing where you stand in the world is a scary and precarious position. If some belief is your foundation it is unsettling to find out that other people are capable of disagreeing with it. It can make us question ourselves and feel powerless. Insults seem like the best way to take the power back, or at least diminish the power of your opponent.

So, why do I bring this up?  Well, yesterday my typically safe observer status was taken away from me. I was insulted by someone in a private Facebook message. A man with whom I had had semi-regular, and previously public, debates with sent me a message with an insult about how I post too much on facebook. Fair enough, I do post a lot.

Thing is, this really came out of left field for me. For one, I hadn’t actually posted anything that political recently. Two, I thought this guy and I had an understanding. I knew him from the church I grew up in.. The church I attended when I was still devoutly Christian before I started to feel like someone who thinks that it’s fine for gay people to exist and for trans people to live as their true selves had no place in the fundamentalist Christian society.  I left the church because what I felt was right and what the church told me was moral no longer matched one another.

At any rate, I have always been determined to not be one of those lapsed Christians who gets their jollys talking shit about what they used to believe. I was determined to stay connected and to actively keep alive in myself what it was to hold those beliefs. It’s good to have some person in your life with whom you can politely disagree. Ultimately the world is a better place when thoughtful people engage in debate and make earnest attempts to understand the other side. I thought that that was our arrangement. I thought we respected each other. It was disappointing to find out that I was wrong. It hurt my feelings.

So, let’s go back to liberals being weak. I think this is based in the way we talk about offensive behavior. It can be hard to understand where we’re coming from when we often fail to make our argument passed the point of the offense. To quote Stephen Fry “You’re offended, so what?” We have to move the argument passed the what and into the why. But, on the other hand, to quote Louis CK “When someone tells you that you hurt them you don’t get to say that you didn’t.”

In light of this, I’ll explain my hurt feelings;

I don’t like the implication that my posts are so offensive to you, so threatening, so infuriating that you send a private message to try and shame me out of them. This is not an attack on some changeable behavior I have that’s annoying, like chewing loudly, this is a comment on an aspect of who I am. I like politics. I like talking about politics. When I post about politics it’s not to hear myself talk (on the internet). I’m hoping you respond, I’m hoping there’s a conversation because that is so much more interesting then me being mad in my liberal bubble. I don’t really care about sports. I have no interest in having a baby. I like talking politics. That is a fundamental part of me that if you don’t like then, unfortunately, you don’t like me. It’s not sold separately.

I don’t like that you felt like that message was worth both your time and your energy. When they say that it’s better to say something nice or nothing at all, you should listen to them.  The world is not better for that. That was a pointlessly mean thing, and it was beneath you. There is both an unfriend and an unfollow option of Facebook. I invite you to chose either of them in the future.

And last, it was patronizing. I don’t want to cry sexism. I am sure that this can and does happen to guys. But I am constantly being told by men with little to no acquaintances with me, what exactly it is I am doing wrong in my life. The fact that you think you know better is offensive. The fact that you think that an insult will shame me into behaving the way you think is best, is laughable. The fact that you are so convinced that you know best… The audacity that any human can decide how another human is supposed to act and feel, is ludicrous. Tell me I’m wrong! Present me with a ten pages essay illuminating every point of my wrongness, but don’t tell me to shut up and expect that to work.

The opinions I hold which don’t match yours infect your newsfeed and drive you to distraction, I get that. But let’s be real, either you don’t like me or you don’t like being reminded that there is anyone in the world who disagrees with you. In either case, there’s a better way to handle it.

Fight No More Forever

Wednesday was the anniversary of the surrender of the Nez Perce at Bear Paw which brought an end to the Nez Perce War. I didn’t want to let the day pass too far by me without remembering what Chief Joseph said on that day 139 years ago;

“Tell General Howard I know his Heart. What He told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting, Looking Glass is dead. too-Hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are–perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

This speech is both haunting and incredibly beautiful, but I’ll try not to focus too hard on the beauty. Often in American culture, when we do acknowledge indigenous people, it is with a kind of orientalism. New agey myths surround the “wisdom” of the first Americans as if they only existed as shaman proffering a fun spirituality that we can pick-up in our twenties and decorate our facebooks with, then just as easily toss aside for the next culture we want to fetishize. In remembering Chief Joseph’s words, I want to remember that this was a human man who suffered great loss.

But I do think it’s important to remember these words because they, like all beautiful things, reach a place in ourselves that would otherwise be unreachable. They are a visceral reminder that this nation was built on a genocide. (And if you now want to stop reading this now because you don’t like that last statement you’re actually exactly who I want to talk to (hopefully not lecture, but talk to)). I don’t think we love our country any better by pretending history never happened. I don’t think blindness is good patriotism.

We pick and chose and borrow and steal from those parts of this nation’s history that are beautiful, affirming, and encourage us to think of ourselves as the hero of history. We get very, very angry at anyone pointing out that firebombs killed civilians in WWII, internment camps imprisoned law abiding US citizens and stole their property, slavery was an evil that made America rich (North and South), the wounds of Jim Crow have NOT healed. We get very, very, very angry when a man uses his very public stage to say that justice is not available to everyone in this country.

The outcry is “How dare you not love this country!” But if that’s how you love your country, I don’t think you and your country have a very healthy relationship. Total and unquestioning acceptance is not love. It is not loving to sit in silence while your loved one hurts herself. It is not patriotism to make standing for a song, repeating a pledge, and never ever criticizing, the hallmarks of good citizenry. Especially in a democracy where it is our duty to be vigilant protectors of this fragile experiment.

Love for America is not contingent on the belief that America is without sin. Rather, the ability for democracy to grow, and learn, and change, depends on people challenging the complacency of believing we’re perfect. That is what we should take pride in, protestors are patriots. I believe that we are strong enough to challenge ourselves and overcome, to acknowledge the sins of our past and from them learn to do better and be better. That is how I love my country. So from time to time, I remind myself of the worst parts of history so that I can find ways to make us better.

Quick thought on hate speech

Please read this article to know what I’m talking about (tldr; the number of hate crimes against the Muslim American community is on the rise.

This violence is a direct result of hate speech. It is not a coincidence. It is not just some people taking it too far. Continual statements from public figures that demonize all of Islam, that spread fear about people who think and look differently, that propose that an American citizen who practices Islam is anything other than an American citizen. Those statements create a hateful cloud of misinformation from which acts of violence are the lightning strikes.

Those that commit hate crimes don’t do so because they are ‘lone wolves’ and they don’t do so because they are misunderstanding what a politician is saying when he’s “telling it like it is.” Picking out a group as ‘unamerican,’ repeatedly making statements about the danger of this group, makes that group into an ‘other.’ (An ‘other’ is a nameless, faceless, straw-man diametrically opposed against everything that you are.) A group, once othered, is subhuman. They are not worthy of empathy, their lives mean less.

For example, look at the discourse surrounding the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. The victims of those crimes were likened to vermin. They were said to be the enemies of the ‘true’ people. Nurturing the othering of any human is the first step in every terrible act that the human race is capable of.

That is why I say that hate speech is the direct cause of hate crimes, not the unfortunate misunderstanding of a misguided few. It is true that not everyone who spreads hate speech commits hate crimes, but everyone that commits hate crimes believes in the hate speech. Those that perpetrate violence do so because they are acting on the necessary extension of the logic laid down by hate speech, “these people are not my people”, “these people don’t belong here”, “these people are my enemy.” They feel that their actions are legitimate because those in authority repeatedly tell them that they are under attack.The repeated message “All practicers of Islam are the same. America is at war with Islam. To be Muslim is to be against ‘true’ America*.” sinks in, people believe it is true and act as if it were true. Without hate speech constructing that dichotomy of the other and the “true American” violence would have no narrative through which to legitimize itself.

Words have power. It is with words that people create their understanding of the word  and their understanding of themselves. There is no such thing as an innocuous statement, particularly from a person with power and privilege. Perhaps if we were living in a culture that valued substance over sound bites we might be better equipped to critically pull apart all that is entailed in a public statement. But until then we should recognize hate speech for what it is, a threat to peace.

* “True American” can be interpreted as “White Christian”

 

Post Tuesday Blues

Well, I’m disappointed. It’s not as if I believed the highly unlikely would happen. I tried to temper my enthusiasm and remind myself that generally, there are never surprises in politics, it’s too big and too well orchestrated a game to have any unexpected results.
I was ready for Hillary in a big way. Almost immediately after I cast my vote for President Obama in 2012 I was eagerly anticipating her run in 2016. But then Bernie Sander’s entered the race.
Wednesday, in the aftermath of my disappointment I’ve been reading the liberal op-eds and their tone is far from victorious. It’s a strange reaction when you consider that we are so close to a history making election. But it makes sense when you take into account the tone of the Clinton campaign thus far.
When I said that there are never any surprises in politics what I should have said is that there are never any good surprises. He-who-shall-not-be-named (because every time we type his name it only increases his brand value) threw the republican primary into a sharp spiral towards the far right. When we had expected the usual battle between moderate forces and the theocratic Tea Party we ended up with a massacre of moderation in favor of bluster and hate speech.

On the other side, Senator Sanders’ entrance pushed mainstream debate further left and for liberal democrats like me it was thrilling. To have things like single payer insurance even enter the sunlight of the national discussion was something I had previously only dreamed of. Even if that discussion played out; “Single payer insurance? Psht, that will never work.”

The deficit of exuberance I think we are seeing post California is a result of the Clinton campaign’s winning strategy. She was forced to define herself from Sanders’ as the practical one, and define herself from you-know-who as the less evil one. Stuck in-between these two swelling tides, Clinton became the campaign of “Psht, that will never work.”

As much as moderation is a necessity for a healthy democracy there is still as sense of deflating when the supposedly cooler head has prevailed. I don’t think that this deflation is merely our idealistic bubble bursting. I reject the characterization that all Bernie supporters are a bunch of hippies chasing a pie in the sky. California is the unsatisfying reminder that liberal politics is not about ideals, is not about innovation, and it is certainly not about rocking the boat.

Of course, it is not great for government to be the sort of organization that moves on whims or gets too experimental, but when the fear of change stops even the conversation, when the knee jerk mistrust of anything remotely socialist means that the attitude that prevails in liberal discourse is dismissal of new and engaging ideas, those are circumstances that continue to make liberal voters disengage from the process. We have become the party of the safe bet and we are stagnating under incremental change that moves in millimeters.

The fact that the only challenge to the status quo which has managed to take root this primary season is the challenge to our decency and inclusiveness is a disconcerting indication of where American politics is headed. It is a result of timid liberalism that stifles itself with the fear of being challenged. I wish that we could be more comfortable with our critical capabilities and raise the level of debate over the punchy zingers or easily digestible, but nutritionally valueless, fluff. I am sick of throwing the socialist baby out with the communist bathwater, because politicians don’t have respect enough for the intelligence of American people to standup for a platform with any shades of nuance.

Negativity won the day Tuesday, both for the people who want to regress the country back to the point before all those irritating civil rights came about and for the people who look at a bold vision for real change in this country and think, “psht, that will never work.”