Last night, in addition to being election day, was the last performance of Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera. I had planned on going to the Obama rally in Grant Park later but, right after the Opera, I went out for a quick drink along with most of my fellow supernumeraries . The results came so quickly that I never had a chance to get to the rally and I was having a beer at Stocks & Blonds when Obama made his victory speech.
Most of us were pretty happy, but my buddy Bill wasn’t. He’s a nice guy, friendly, easy to work with, conscientious; I’ve been in four or five operas with him and I can’t think of a bad thing to say about him. So I was surprised, not that he supported McCain, but that he talked about Obama as if he were Al Sharpton. He was genuinely concerned that Obama was some kind of race hustler who was going to enroll millions on welfare, create thousands of government sinecures for hordes of shiftless loafers, rig-up affirmative action so that masses of near-cretins would get all the spots in our best universities, and tax the productive sector into bankruptcy. Of course, Bill knew that I was an Obama supporter, but he held no ill will against me, and he knew that I certainly didn’t want any of these bad things to happen, yet he thought this election was nothing short of a catastrophe.
This got me thinking about extremism.
Now, I know a lot of different people. I used to be a Godless Communist and I still know lots of hard-core leftists. I go to the most conservative Catholic parish in Chicago. Most of my clients at work are designers, gallery owners, and restaurateurs, and I also work at Lyric Opera, so I talk to a lot of artistic types. I handle all of my deliveries myself, so I know the dock workers at the buildings, the drivers on the paper trucks, the bike messengers, all of them blue-collar guys. And I love to talk, so when I go to the Sox games or the Symphony I always strike up a conversation with the people in the next seat. My kids are in public school and I routinely talk to all the parents there. My best male friend is gay and we usually hang together in the toughest leather bar in Chicago, while my best female friend is a Maronite Catholic, recently married, who wants me to be godfather to the baby she is now caring. I am probably the only printer anywhere who has done pro bono work for the Midwest Workers Organization, Daughters of Saint Paul, West Town Bike Coöperative, Socialist Labor Party, Saint John Cantius parish, and some anarchists who were trying to get a fellow off death row. I think that I know more different people, from more different points of view, than just about anybody.
And I hear a lot about extremism.
I hear my Catholic friends speak of pro-aborts as being homicidal monsters with a crass indifference to human life. Yet none of the pro-choicers that I know regard abortion as anything less than a human tragedy, a last resort only to be used in a desperate position.
Similarly, my secular friends see the religious as a sort of American Taliban, intent upon depriving women of all rights and keeping them ignorant. Yet none of my pro-life friends favor the incarceration of women who have abortions and they all give their daughters excellent educations.
I know Republicans who are convinced the Democratic Party is full of socialists who want to string bankers up from lamp-posts, while my Democratic friends are convinced that Republicans want to return to the twelve-hour days of sweat-shop labor. Conservatives who think that a single-payer health system would mean vital care routinely denied to patients, and liberals who think that the poor are being allowed only third-world health-care in this the wealthiest of nations. Conservatives who think the liberals are trying to wreak the economy and Greens who think the capitalists are trying to ruin the environment. Those who favor the war see the peacenicks as traitors who want to capitulate to terrorist demands, while those against it see their opponents as warmongers embarked upon an imperialist adventure to pillage the oil resources of a country that had nothing to do with terrorism.
Yes, there’s a lot of extremism in America — but it all seems to be on the other side!
Most people seem to want a good education for their kids, an economy that provides a decent living for all, health-care for the sick, fewer abortions, security at home, and peace overseas. Everybody hates paying taxes and wants the government to leave them alone, yet they see certain services as essential and want the government to make the other guy behave. No one wants their kid to grow up to be a whore, or a drug addict, or a child molester. Everyone thinks they’re not paid enough, that things cost too much, and that their kids are growing up in a tougher world than they did. Who doesn’t think the culture is going to hell, yet who wants government censorship to clean things up? Everyone hates their government and loves their country. And they are also sure their enemies control the levers of power and are just ruining the country they love so much.
Really, we are not so different.
I would estimate that about one person in twenty is an extremist, conspiracy theorist, religious fanatic, predatory sexual deviant, sociopath, libertarian, hate-monger, racist, or some other kook you can’t deal with. But the rest are good folks.
When I have a party, I invite all my friends. I have never seen any discord between Brother Chad (of the Cannons Regular of Saint John Cantious) and Richard, a homosexual opera director; they both love choral singing. Nor any difficulty between Karl the anarchist and Ed the real estate speculator. No one cares that Gail is a lesbian or Arlene a vegetarian, and Michael the pacifist gets along quite well with Brian who is proud of his service in Iraq. And everyone looks after the kids, because you know, kids can get into mischief.
See — it’s really hard to demonize someone you know.
Part of this country’s problem is that there are so few things that bring us together. In my father’s day there was a draft and most men spent a few years in the service. This brought them together: north and south, rich and poor, Jew and gentile, they had to live and work together and they did. And churches were broad institutions. There were liberal Baptists in those days, and conservative Presbyterians. Most denominations held a spectrum of views, but now people have “shopped churches” and cluster together, conservatives in the Evangelical denominations, liberals in the “Main Line” denominations, Catholics distributed between “traditional” and “welcoming” parishes. And there was over-lap between the political parties. There were Liberal Republicans who favored small government, yet championed civil rights. And there were Conservative Democrats who were stridently working class, yet held to old values of patriotism and tradition.
I’m against the war — must you question my patriotism?
I’m against abortion — must you call me anti-woman?
I’m against GAT and NAFTA — must you revile me as” protectionist?”
I favor a single payer health care system — must you jeer me as “socialist?”
I’m against gay marriage — must you call me a hate-monger?
I favor taxing the rich — must you deride this as “class envy?”
I’m a patriotic American — can’t you just accept that, even if I’m different than you?
We really are one nation, we are very close. The fellow voting the other ticket isn’t really an extremist, he just thinks that we need to take a different path to the things we all want. Talk to him and you’ll see.