Thursday, November 6, 2008

Extremism In America

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.

All gone.

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.


John Jansen said...

I agree with much of what you say here.

I remember thinking a few months back how much more polarized our country was becoming during the seemingly interminable run-up to the election. Now, after the election, I wonder if things are going to get worse before they get better.

Your point about the difficulty in demonizing someone you know is an especially good one. I think of the great friendship between G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. They frequently held public debates, they didn't agree on much of anything, but they genuine liked each other.

Here's hoping more such friendships form in this great land of ours.

Maggie said...

You have so beautifully articulated my feelings about this. The most disappointing thing about the Presidential campaigns was the frequent use of the word "evil" by both sides' supporters.

It seems that the idea of being unified is much less attractive than the idea of being unique, special, and so much smarter than everyone around you.

RobK said...

I think you are right that we all share much in common. Indeed that was true back in the days of the Soviets, no? They loved their children too.

But you gloss over a lot.

My 12-year old daughter was called a racist at school because she did not vote for Obama in their mock election - she came home in tears.

Here in CA, we witnessed the Gay activists trash our Prop 8 signs (including with swastikas), scratch paint on cars, and physically attack people. Now we are having churches picketed (and threatened).

We were confronted by gestures of hate and had the police called on us because we were praying outside of an abortion clinic.

I agree that it is painful when our differences become visible - most of the time we can pretend they are not there. But they are there, and they are consequential. What is more, our choices define who we are. A thief is so because of choices he makes, and a murder, and a just man. When we make choices, even in elections, we choose who we are. Sometimes, we want to make those choices without taking the consequences (that is a modern American attitude, don't you think?). How we vote shows us what we value most, who we are. That our country voted for Obama tells us about who we are - some of it is admirable, much of it is not.

We can easily slip into a life of complacency by pretending that everyone is the same. We can slip into our own worlds and never look to help our brothers and sisters - I mean really look at them - not as other citizens with different opinions - but as other souls on a journey making choices between two ultimate destinations.

Our differences are not just differences. Our decisions are. They involve moral choices and they are either right or they are wrong. It comes down to whether you believe in truth. If someone advocates and stands against truth, they stand for a lie. If they do not choose what is right, they choose what is wrong. Standing for a lie, and choosing what is wrong have consequences for one's soul. What is more, such stands and choices have consequences for the souls of others - none of us goes to heaven or hell alone, we bring others with us.

Building from our similarities may be useful, but pretending that they are not real and consequential is false. Tolerance and compassion are required, but so is courage and fortitude in standing for truth.

RobK said...

Speaking of what is wrong, did you see that among the very first things Obama will do as president is expand abortion abroad with our tax dollars?

Obama's pro-abortion extremism is one of the largest stands against truth that our nation has ever stood for and tells us a lot about our character. Some of the details are here.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Robk for speaking the truth to this blog owner.
Truly, political correctness seems to be the new religion.

The Dutchman said...

jill said...

Thank you Robk for speaking the truth to this blog owner.
Truly, political correctness seems to be the new religion.

Let me get this straight —

I said that what this country needs is a little toleration and a little understanding. That most people are really pretty decent and so we shouldn’t just assume that everyone on the other side of an issue is evil, corrupt, and wicked.

While Rob said that “If someone advocates and stands against truth, they stand for a lie.” The presumption here being that he knows the truth, and if you disagree with him you ”stand for a lie.”

But, according to Jill, somehow I am the one guilty of “political correctness.”

— did I understand that correctly?

Let me tell you about Mrs. N—.

Mrs. N— is a Japanese-American who was born while her father was away serving in the Army in Italy while her mother and grandparents were in an internment camp in the Arizona desert. Mrs. N— spent the last few months as a volunteer answering phones for Obama and she said to my wife that not an hour went by without someone on the phone calling her a “baby murderer,” or “terrorist,” or “nigger loving slut.” She laughs it off. She says it’s funny being called a slut after being married for almost forty years and she’s just glad they can’t see her over the phone and call her a “gook,” because that would bring up unpleasant memories. She loves this country and she says that, despite fielding dozens of hateful calls, she believes that most Americans are decent people.

Now, if Mrs. N— can still think that Americans are basically good people after putting up with internment, and racism, and all the hate-mongering she got over the phone, maybe the rest of us can to.

RobK said...

What's your point with the story? That there are people who go to far? Sure. Do you want to argue that they aren't so from the both sides? Because I see plenty going on right now. But that wasn't your point, and it isn't my point.

Your point was a call to civility, indeed a celebration of it. And you expressed hope that we can get past these issues that divide us.

Civility is good. No doubt about it. And charity for those one disagrees with - absolutely. But we cannot just gloss over the differences. They are real and consequential and destroying the fabric of our country. It isn't the lack of civility that is doing it, that is a symptom of the disease.

The disease is that there are two competing and incompatible world views. One accepts the very idea that there is a right or wrong, and the other rejects that. We choose who we are and what side we are on in elections (as well as other points in our life) and those choices have consequences for the country and our very selves.

As far as presuming to know the truth, we each must search for it. And when we find it or a piece of it, we cannot sit idly by while it is trampled. Some truths are worthy standing up for. Don't you agree?

The basic human right to life is one worth standing up for. It is the battle line over which our nation is tearing in two. And, as a nation, we chose poorly.

Anonymous said...

The Dutchman:
I wonder if St Arnulf of Metz (blog header) found it possible to reconcile the Catholic faith with a life lived in the world. I daresay he came to the conclusion that we had to choose one or the other.

Obama has made promises to Planned Parenthood and the gay community to facilitate their agendas (unlimited abortion, same sex marriage) which contradict Church teachings. We have good reason to speak up against this promotion of evil.
Extremism is the other side of passivism, which seems to be your problem. Neither are good but as St Paul advised Timothy "insist upon proclaiming the message, to convince, reprimand, (strong words) and encourage.......for the time will come when the people will not tolerate sound doctrine and will stop listening to the truth"!
You, Mr Dutchman, with your wide circle of aquaintances could become a force for good if you wanted to stand up and be counted. It's up to you. Good or evil.
Oh, by the way I met an angel in Metz a few years ago. A truly heaven sent guide. Perhaps it was St Arnulf?