Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Why I Stopped Blogging About Politics

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jon Stewart’s closing speech yesterday at the Rally to Restore Sanity, and I’ve been disappointed by the reactions by some of the pundits who accused Stewart of false equivalency or of not having anything really to say. And I’m not accusing those pundits of bad faith here. Rather, I think that they were so ready for Stewart to make a false equivalency (because to be honest, he has done that in the past) that they assumed he was going for one here.

And I think that’s indicative of where our public political discourse has gone for the most part. We assume bad faith. We assume that people we disagree with are either liars or just stupid, bigoted or ignorant. Or at least that’s the way it seems at times. They aren’t people who are disagreeing with us–they’re caricatures of people. Any sentence which begins with the phrase “liberals think” or “conservatives think” or “fundies think” or “atheists think” or any other group you want to insert in there should be punctuated immediately after the word “think,” possibly with extreme force. Because no matter what is going to come after that word, it’s likely to be false. It’s going to be too general, it’s going to be too simplistic, it’s going to make the speaker look dumb.

It’s dehumanizing.

This is an insight I came to painfully in the last year or so. It was a painful insight not only because I realized that, for all my talk of open-mindedness and tolerance, I was painting with a pretty broad brush, but because I didn’t notice it until someone I had a relationship with did it to me and I was offended by it. And I want to focus on the relationship part of it because that’s going to play a big part in this later on.

You see, I didn’t care when Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove or Sarah Palin said ridiculous things about liberals because they do it to make a buck. Sincerity is irrelevant for people in that position–it’s even a liability at times.

But I did care when friends from high school and college repeated those things about liberals, because they were talking about me, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. And what’s more, all those times I was demonizing conservatives as mindless bigots who are too dumb to understand that they’re being used, I was demonizing friends, people I’d shared significant parts of my life with. And I knew better. These people aren’t caricatures–they’re all individuals, each with their own foibles and assets.

A former student and now Facebook friend of mine is a very conservative young man. He’s well-meaning and sincere, honest and, from my perspective, completely mistaken on a ton of issues. He feels deeply about politics and is a very active organizer on our campus. I respect him for that. But we had a confrontation on Facebook when the health care reform bill passed. He called everyone who supported that bill a traitor, and he was sincere about it.

The easy thing would have been to simply un-friend him, dismiss him as a simple-minded kid, and move on. But I like him, and I respect him for his unwavering honesty, so instead I engaged him and I asked him a very simple question. “Do you think I’m a traitor?” I asked. And when he tried to respond in general terms, I brought him back to the personal level again. “Do you think I am a traitor?” And I insisted he answer that question because, as I told him, if you really believe I am an enemy of this nation, then you cannot be friends with me, because that would make you a traitor too.

And I’ll admit, I was worried that he was going to un-friend me because I didn’t know how he was going to respond. He didn’t. We see each other on campus from time to time and I always say hi and shake his hand, and if he asked me for a letter of recommendation, I’d probably write him a good one, even though we don’t agree on a single thing politically speaking. Why? Because he’s not a caricature, and when he was forced to choose between looking at me as a person and looking me as a demon, he chose the person.

A year or so earlier, in the weeks before the 2008 election, I found myself in a similar confrontation with a couple of college friends, and I didn’t do what I’d done with my former student. In fact, I was doing to my friends exactly what they were doing to me–treating them as caricatures of southern redneck-dom, unreconstructed bigots who got their economics from Rush Limbaugh and their hatred of gays from Michael Savage. Only they weren’t, or rather, they weren’t just that. They were also guys who I’d played ball with, who when I’d been short had bought me a drink and vice versa. They weren’t monsters any more than I was, but we couldn’t get past the images we’d built up of the other long enough to remember that.

That’s what Jon Stewart was getting at in his speech with his metaphor of the cars merging to go into the tunnel, a metaphor I experience my own version of every Tuesday evening when I’m on I-595 on my way to teach my poetry workshop at the end of a very long day. I’m going to quote it at length here because I think it’s important.

These cars—that’s a schoolteacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high. He’s going to work. There’s another car-a woman with two small kids who can’t really think about anything else right now. There’s another car, swinging, I don’t even know if you can see it—the lady’s in the NRA and she loves Oprah. There’s another car—an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter. Another car a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear—often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile long 30 foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved, by the way, by people who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by conscession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go. Then I’ll go. You go then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s okay—you go and then I’ll go.

And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute, but that individual is rare and he is scorned and not hired as an analyst.

Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.

The mistake that pundits made is that they thought he was going to make a call to action for some cause, but that was never the point of this rally. The name of it says it all–it was the Rally to Restore Sanity, not the Rally to Point Out How Dumb Conservatives Are and How Righteous Liberals Are. Stewart was trying to remind us that no matter how much the media or blogs or talk radio tries to convince us that there’s a monolithic entity of people out there who all believe the same thing and that thing is bad and will destroy us all, that’s not the case. Those are people, not monsters, and what’s more, they’re probably friends of yours on some level, even if they believe things that make you cringe.

And it’s important to keep those lines of friendship and communication open, because otherwise that tunnel is going to be longer and darker than it needs to be. So this is my goal and my commitment: the next time I see or hear a friend, a workmate, an acquaintance make some generalization about liberals, I’m going to ask them, very simply, “do you really think I’m like that?” And I would like my conservative friends to do the same thing to me if I make that kind of a blanket statement.

Bad things happen when we deny the basic humanity of those we disagree with. We justify wars–we justify genocide–over the idea that others are not as human as we are. We’re not there yet, even though there are those among us who might wish it so, but those who wish it are, as Stewart said, rare and scorned and shouldn’t be hired as analysts.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some apologies to make.

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November 1, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

10 Comments »

  1. this was excellent.

    Comment by cleek | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] was more cultural – anti-fear, anti-dumb, pro-reason, pro-common ground, pro-sanity – for example). The musical stuff was fun – though there was a lot of slow stuff from The Roots and John […]

    Pingback by cleek » DC Rally | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  3. I had a similar experience on Facebook. Regrettably, mine turned out pretty much the opposite of yours, and a long-time friendship went straight down the tubes. It had the side-effect of leaving me a lot less inclined to be tolerant of Tea-Partiers.

    Comment by Meanderthal | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  4. Thanks for this lovely post – crystallised many of my own opinions and, as I’m just launching a blog, it’s good to be thinking about these things. Posted about it here.

    Comment by TheMightyTrowel | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  5. Excellent thoughts. The rally really touched me, and this really clarified what I’ve been trying to process.

    Comment by Marsha | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  6. Favoring the universal health care bill = traitor, IS in fact caricature. It is NOT reasonable, rational, or even something that one could make a case for, at ANY level. Your friend makes the most extreme charge, and is unable to justify it. Your friend, in all of his earnest energy says that millions of citizens should be treated as active enemies of the nation (arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced?). Hard to be less of a caricature than that.

    It is one thing to have a viewpoint regarding the financial implications of the health care proposals. It is quite another to feel that those who feel differently are enemies of the nation. He did not simply awaken one day with the conviction that those who would bring down our nation are seeking to do so via the pernicious mechanism of medical coverage.

    That notion (enemies from within) is one that has been nurtured for a generation as a tool to drive an electoral cohort, IN THE ABSENCE of reason, policy initiatives, and the like. He feels this way because he was NOT being exposed to other points of view when his viewpoint was forming. I feel that declining to address this sort (your friend’s) of thought process (via a blog or individually) is why he can express these ideas in all of his conviction.

    You need to save him from himself, and likewise those others who you blog for. We are all part of the collective Bodhisattva and should not shrink our little piece of the work.

    Comment by Ulysses (not yet home) | November 1, 2010 | Reply

    • I hear you, Ulysses, but the thing is that I’m not going to convince this guy to change his mind by blogging about the details of health care, or by mocking him online. Chances are he won’t read the former and won’t react well to the latter. But there’s a chance I can get through if I remind him that I’m not the monster that Glenn Beck says I am and I can only do that by face to face conversations, by smiling and nodding and laughing with him. Because those moments remind him that I’m human, and they remind me that he’s human as well, and not just some straw conservative. He’s more than that.

      Those details don’t work on tv or radio, and they rarely work on blogs because the conversation is so often one-sided. I’m tired of talking into the air, at least about political matters. I’d rather talk to a person and get feedback, and not just because i think I have a better shot at changing a mind that way, but because it forces me to examine my own arguments closely. I spent my entire youth and early adult life eagerly eating up the received wisdom of those around me–I don’t want to do that anymore, and I don’t want to be one of those who spout the received wisdom either. I learn by doing and testing and poking and prodding, and I think most people are the same, given the opportunity. But I don’t get that from preaching into the wind, or worse, to a choir.

      Comment by Brian | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  7. This was extremely well-stated, Brian. I continue to make this case all the time…with varying degrees of responsiveness. I contend that NONE of us should abandon our core values…or, as least, that we should not be required to do so in the name of civility or bipartisanship. All we really need to do is to stop demonizing those with whom we disagree, and make SOME effort to truly understand the arguments of the other side (instead of pretending that we know the motivations of others…which is virtually impossible).

    Personally, I lean one way. But when I talk to a credible, well-considered person of the opposite persuasion, I ALWAYS learn a little something more and further inform my own position. We have to stop letting the media clowns be our political “thought leaders”. NONE OF THEM have our best interests as a country in mind. They have a base to play to and ads to sell. It’s the exact same on both sides. I do not know of a SINGLE issue of national significance that only has one legitimate side to the argument…whether it’s illegal immigration, health care, our current economic situation or anything else. We can continue to disagree all we want. But all legitimate politics involves negotiation and compromise. Nobody’s truly happy, but everyone can live with it. I say…vote your conscience. But remember, if you want to live in America, you’re going to have to learn to live alongside people with whom you disagree. If you can learn to view them as people, instead of political positions, you’ll find your life a lot easier.

    Thanks for the great post!

    c-

    Comment by Chuck | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  8. Thank you. For once now I’ve read an article about the rally by someone who actually got the point. You got the point. Thank you. You may even unerstand how frustrating it is to read the vast majority of what is being written about Saturday, written by people who for whatever reason just didn’t seem to get it. You got it. Thank you. I really can’t thank you enough!

    Comment by David K. Schreur | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  9. You expect comedy out of Jon Stewart, but we didn’t get comedy- we got a thoughtful call to tolerance and inclusiveness. Thanks for bringing is down to the relationship level. It’s much easier to scorn the beliefs of “them” than those of “my buddy, _______”.

    Comment by Judy King | November 2, 2010 | Reply


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