When the Bush regime gained control of the three branches of the Federal Government, it did so with an ideologic righteousness that belittled opposing points of view. There’s no evidence that the outgoing regime enjoyed debates or evolved through meetings of the mind.
Over the past several weeks, as it became more credible that now-President-elect Obama (such a kick to type that!) would be the 44th President of The United States of America (an even bigger kick to type that!) the rants of partisans like Bill Maher and Sean Hannity seemed increasingly mean and superficial. They echoed the hateful tones of a nurse whose blog vilified destitute refugees from Hurricane Gustav and my equally-hateful response to her. None of us stopped to imagine the other’s experience but rather, retreated to our comfortable, exclusionary paradigms.
Isn’t intolerance a fancy way of saying, “You’re either with us or you’re against us?” (“You’re either like me or you’re strange.”) Isn’t it a swampy place where we consign people and points of view that challenge or threaten us? If the clerk in the grocery store tells me s/he “voted for McCain,” and my response is an aghast, “Are you nuts? What the hell were you thinking as a working person?” will my intolerant ignorance of her life make the clerk feel welcome in the Obama tent?
When Bill Maher says religious people are too stupid to vote or too ignorant to have an opinion, isn’t that just one more way of delineating his Real America from Another America?
When a foreclosed farmer or an unemployed college professor is shadowed by debt and loss, where do they turn? To the familiar. To the things and ideas that have been traditional sources of comfort. Mine are my children, family, a few dear friends, chocolate cake, knitting, Mark Twain, the first three seasons of Boston Legal, barbeque chicken and potato chips. For a vegan, comfort might be a bowl of steamy tofu chili. Whatever comforts we seek, they’ll be alluring or repugnant to others. More important than the specific comfort we seek is the fact that most of us do retreat to familiar cultural bunkers when we’re threatened. And you’d better know, I won’t relinquish my comforts to suit you unless you convince me that my bunker provides false comfort. Telling me that my choice of chicken wings is “stupid and irresponsible” won’t do it. Forcing tofu down my throat will just make me throw up.
When The Daily Show and others sneered at “undecideds,” were those voters encouraged to support Obama? I know a number of undecided voters who finally chose in the voting booth. In the main, they were social conservatives who disagreed with McCain’s lack of economic vision; or, they were terrified of electing an inexperienced President but were equally terrified of Sarah Palin. They aren’t stupid people and they agonized over their choices until the last possible minute. One of them wanted so desperately to do what was right, she nearly voted as her deceased grandmother would have. She knew how proud the life-long Democrat would have been to vote for the young Senator from Illinois.
In the end, I believe there are remarkable men and women who walk onto the public stage because the historic moment cries out for them — great Statespeople who teach us to imagine the minds and lives of our “enemies” and to walk in their shoes. I believe that Barack (like Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.) is one of those people. They teach us that we all have fears and therefore, prejudices. As a Populist, I’m suspicious of anything that divides me from others and mostly, I’m frightened by what happens when we combine fear with ignorance. Justice and unity cannot co-exist with intolerance and it doesn’t much matter if the butt of intolerance lives rural or urban, is a trades person or a comedian.
In a pre-election segment of Morning Joe (MSNBC) Willie Geist tried to sell McCain-Palin tee shirts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He found two sympathizers among the crowd flowing past him. The vast majority, however, were Obama-philes and their snippiness was instructive: “I don’t know any McCain people. I wouldn’t have one for a friend.”
None of us is 100% consistent. Most of us have squirrelly bits that glare balefully at our better selves. They’re easily-recognizable, though; they often snarl loudly and pound their fists. Sometimes the only way to counter our irrational parts is to poke around in their origins; to wonder aloud, “What am I afraid of? What are you afraid of?”
This is not to say we can stand mute in the face of racism, sexism, religious intolerance, attacks on intellectual freedoms, homophobia or any other threats to civil society; but as Obama emissaries, we must listen to and understand the fears of others. How else can we lay those fears to rest? How else can we open our doors as far as possible and create an innovative and more civil future?