Friday, November 21, 2008

Extremism In America: part II

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Years ago, when my son was seven or eight, we watched the Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Pod-man loved it! It was fast, it was exciting, the music was thrilling, there were twists and surprises. But then the next day he came to me with a question. “Blondie is good, Angel Eyes is bad, and Tuco is ugly — but is Tuco good or bad?”

“Well — what does he do?”

“He’s greedy and he kills people, but he’s brave, and he loves his brother, and he prays for the dead, and he wears the scapular.”

“So —?”

“So — he’s a good person who does bad things!” Pod-man fairly shouted, delighted to have figured this out.

“Just like you!”

He sighed, crestfallen, “Just like me.”

Life is a Messy Business

I have noticed that while extremists reason in black and white (something is either right or wrong), relativists see everything in shades of gray (who are we to judge?), but that life itself is made up of spots of black and white. It is easy to point to specific actions we have taken and praise or condemn them as good or bad (acts of charity, nights of drunkenness, devoted service, neglected duty, willing sacrifice, wanton indulgence), but it is difficult to either beatify or condemn anyone we know well. Life is just a messy business. Good people do bad things. Sometimes the easy way out is just too easy not to take. Who cannot live without regret?

Please compare these two examples:

Mr. J— is a friend of mine who just got married. He’s prosperous, a professional, very ethical about his business. His wife is well-educated, good hearted, works for a non-profit organization accomplishing good things. For what it’s worth, they’re good-looking too. But I found out at their wedding that they have no intention of having children — ever.

Miss. H— is another friend. She’s also a professional, highly creative in her work, well respected in her field. She’s also a mom, and one of the best mother’s I know. Her daughter is bright, well adjusted, happy, and, for what it’s worth, cute as a bug. Miss. H— is also a lesbian.

Now — which of these people is part of the culture of death? The sterile heterosexual, or the fertile lesbian? There’s something to admire and condemn about each of them, isn’t there? Frankly, I am more disappointed by the selfish couple than by the lesbian, but you might add things up differently.

And who is a better example? I genuinely hesitate to have my kids abound a lot of DINKS (i.e. sterile couples, “Double Income No Kids”) but I really don’t think that Miss. H— is going to make homosexuality so glamourous as to entice my kids.

And what kinds of sins are being committed here? Both examples are being sexually selfish, but the sterile couple are being socially selfish as well, since they contribute nothing to the next generation.

It’s a messy business, isn’t it?

Familiarity Breeds Familiarity

It’s hard to hate someone you know, isn’t it? You might find Mr. J— and Miss. H— despicable from my description, but they are my friends and I like them despite their failings. It is telling that, in response to my last post on extremism, John Jansen and Maggie Lee (who both know me personally) never questioned the earnestness of my appeal, while RobK (who only knows me from our frequent web contacts) and Jill (who knows me not at all), were more critical.

Social scientists have long commented on how homogeneous groups become ever more extreme, while heterogeneous groups seek consensus. Private clubs become ever more disdainful of outsiders, while disparate groups of army conscripts form lasting bonds. America was once full of heterogeneous groups (not only draftees, but public school cohorts, “main line” churches, trade unions, neighborhoods) but less and less this is the case. Every demographic indicator shows that we are sorting ourselves out. People “shop churches” for ones filled with like-minded parishioners. Neighborhoods show ever more homogenous voting patterns and “life-styles.” Colleges and universities pitch themselves to differing cultural types. The three choices of network TV are replaced with a cornucopia of entertainment options. Why, in the 1960’s, when most households had but one television, Ed Sullivan, who offered “something for everyone,” was big; a rock-n-roll band for the kids, a night-club comedian for dad, and a crooner for mom. But now, who watches the same things that their kids do? Once “Top 40 AM” radio stations played songs that we all knew (we all had our favorites, but we knew and heard them all), nowadays the “top 40” is irrelevant. In our day, conservatives have given up on movies and network TV, liberals detest talk radio, greens and libertarians have given up on all mass media. I could probably name a dozen songs, movies, TV shows from the sixties that anyone my age would know; can you name one song, movie, or TV show produced in the last ten years that all of the people you know have actually heard or seen?

This can’t be good.

The Cost of Extremism

Judy Brown recently condemned a proposal to ban most abortions (excepting only rape, incest, and the health of the mother) in South Dakota and, possibly because of this, the proposal went down to defeat. Who among us would not prefer to see fewer abortions, yet her stance might just have insured that more abortions take place in South Dakota.

Have you ever met someone who thinks third-trimester abortion should be legal? I have, and they all give the same argument. None of them actually favor third-trimester abortion, but they all say something like “if we let them ban that, then pretty soon they’ll ban all abortions.” Do you suppose (maybe?) that they think this because the Pro-Life movement is dominated by unbending extremists like Judy Brown?

The vast bulk of the public thinks that first trimester abortion should be allowed, while second- and third-trimester abortions are an abomination. Virtually all European countries have laws to this effect: why not here? Probably because extremists like Judy Brown and Rad-Feminists are controlling our debate.

Suppose for a minute, that there were a mass movement, a ground-swell, to ban late-term abortion. Don’t you think that many Democratic politicians would sign on to it? Do you think that if the extremists were marginalized, instead of the majority, that both parties would compromise and come to a consensus that is better than what we have now?

If an orphanage were on fire, you’d run in and save as many babies as you could, right? You wouldn’t stand aside and say, “Since I can’t save them all, I won’t do anything!”

Extremism is Counter-Productive

Years ago, many years ago, when my college-age daughter was a pre-schooler, she and I were walking down Grand Avenue, when we ran into some Pro-Life activists protesting in front of an abortion clinic. I’ve lived in this town all my life, but I didn’t even know the clinic was there, so I was very surprised to run into protesters. And they had signs, very graphic signs, showing aborted babies (forgive me, I almost typed “fetuses”). Pumpkin was shocked and revolted. I hustled her right by, but she saw the worst of it just the same. That night she had nightmares. To this day she remembers those pictures — and she resents it. Far from having a salubrious effect upon her, she now thinks of all Pro-Lifers as being fanatics. There are probably many factors causing her to fall away from the Church, and for being “pro choice” (such as her “pro-choice” mother, her poor catechism, the liberal college she is now attending), but I will always think that this was the first factor that undermined the moral values that I tried to instill in her.

[When my friend John Jansen told me he would be part of a campaign to “show the truth of abortion” I discussed this with him. He thinks that showing such pictures has a converting effect (it is, after all, the truth of the matter), while I think it has an alienating impact. Just the same, when he was protesting downtown, my son and I stopped by on our way to work to show our support for him. He is doing God’s work and we can only hope that he is right.]

Contrast this, if you will, to my experience with my friend Moira.

I was first introduced to Moira by an associate from work, who was sure that we would not get along as Moira was a Radical Feminist and I a believing Catholic. But we talked, and she found me interesting, and we became friends of a sort. We saw each other from time to time, talked a lot, became closer friends, and she became curious about my faith. For I never condemned her, never criticized her, I understood where she was coming from (for my mother was totally secular and I had grown up around such people); I merely offered my own life and experiences as an example for her. And she responded. Her own life had been directionless, without sustenance, perhaps even meaningless, and she began to see that my faith was a distinct contrast to this. After a year or so, she told me that she was taking instruction in the faith. I had the great privilege of seeing someone that I had influenced be accepted into the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith.

And she met a fellow. They dated, became engaged, and then he too joined the Church. Now they are married, she is with child, and I fully expect to be Godfather to her child next May.

Her sister, without any prodding by Moira, came to see the real strength of Moira’s faith, and now she is enrolled in a RCIA program. She will probably become Catholic this coming Easter.

That’s how it’s done. By quiet faith, good example, friendship, and understanding.

Not by hectoring, condemnations, badgering, slurs, insults, intolerance, and all the rest that extremism entails.

Last Things

One day I will face God and his Perfect Judgement. On that dreadful day I will have much to answer for, but I will be able to point to Moira and say, “See — at least I have brought one of your sheep back to the fold.”

What will Judy Brown point to? All those needless abortions in South Dakota?

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