Archive for September 2010
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
It’s like one of those games they used to play on Sesame Street. You know, the one where they show you two red things and one blue thing, and ask, which of these things is not like the others? Except sometimes they’d screw up, and show a red triangle, a blue triangle, and a red square. And when six-year-old me goes “The square,” Grover (who they had running things before that punk Elmo took over) would say “The Red Triangle, very good!” And I’d get upset, start shouting at the TV, because it was OBVIOUS that those were two triangles. I mean, duh. I’m not saying this to indicate that at such a young age I was already ignoring color over substance, but to point out that even the best of intentions can be misread.
I like words. I hold the English language and its use in almost totemic awe, and I believe with Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. And yesterday, I tried to use the right words.
I don’t like directly addressing the comments. It is too easy for otherwise good blogs to become echo chambers for arguments between the commentator and the metacommentators. Slacktivist, who is very much my blogging idol, doesn’t often do this, and I don’t want to do it that much either. But in this case, I think its appropriate.
A lot of the comments (even from those who otherwise agree with me) seem to think that I am calling for us to be the nice guys. That I am issuing a call for civility and calm public discourse. This is profoundly not the case. And the confusion, I think, comes from my use of these two words, good and kind. And from the perception of those two words together to mean nice.
Hitler, by all accounts, was a pretty nice guy. He was friendly, warm, seems to have been interested in the doings and lives of his underlings. He was very polite, and loved kissing babies. He was a nice guy. He was also so profoundly evil that he has become a metaevil-a gold standard for measuring the evil of lesser madmen.
And in contrast, I’d like to turn your attention to two items. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” You’ve seen them before, seen them analyzed, but look at them again. Lincoln calls for “malice towards none, charity for all,” without for a moment backing down on the fundamental rightness of his actions. In the same speech in which he calls for mercy to those had perpetuated a war for the continuation of slavery, he says: “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.” That is not a nice thing to say. That is not a conciliatory, compromising, “Oh, lets all just get along” thing to say. That is the hard truth. But at the same time, then man of all men who could have called for his enemies to be driven before him, and done it to thunderous applause, chooses to ask for, “Malice towards none, and charity towards all.” This is a man being good. Being very, very good, as it so happens. And he is being kind.
Or let us turn our attention to the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To those who would ask him to sit down and shut up for the sake of peace and quiet, he writes “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” That is being kind. Even generous.
But King is not being nice. King is calling for a transformation, a complete overthrow of the current system. King is saying that he will continue to cause a goddamned ruckus, and he won’t feel bad about it. King is saying to those clergymen “You are wrong. You are fundamentally and damagingly wrong.” Or look at this line: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
Where I come from, that’s called calling someone out. It is not, by people who are focused on “nice,” considered a very nice thing to do. But it is a good thing to do, and in this case, it is done kindly. Because I think that being good and being kind walk hand in hand. Being kind does not mean never shouting. As King so neatly demonstrates, it does not mean never saying that the other person is horribly, terribly, and destructively wrong. It does not mean being mild mannered and gentle. King never was. King could let go with a blast of words that shook the foundations of the world. But he was always kind.
What it does mean is that you don’t judge them as people. What it does mean is that you don’t call them evil. You may call their actions and their beliefs evil, you may call the effects of those actions evil. (as I did. Multiple times.) But you do not call them, the person, evil. Because good men and women do not stand in judgment of others, save for transgressions so severe that the evil in their souls becomes apparent to all. When the charge of evil becomes not a judgment call, but an observation. And good people, the really good people, they know that there is a fundamental core of goodness in the human heart. They know that not as you know that 2 + 2=4, but the way you know the really important things, the way that you know your mother loves you. They know this because to not know this, to believe instead that people, even some people, are fundamentally bad, that they have crossed the line from good into evil not just in some of their actions but in their souls, is to admit that they have become monsters. And monsters cannot be argued with. Monsters must be fought, tooth and nail, lest they destroy us all.
So what I’m calling for isn’t for you to roll over and go, “Oh, ok Glenn Beck, you just go bebopping along your merry way.” I’m not calling for you to engage in some sort of extreme hippy-dippy bullshit, where everyone is right and no one is wrong. I’m telling you to get out there and fight. I’m telling you to go out there and lay some mushroom clouds like Martin did, and like Mandela did, and like all the other big guns did. And I’m telling you that you should do it the way they did. Be good to those you fight. Be kind to those you fight. Fight. But fight with malice towards none, with charity for all. Because we do not wrestle with malign powers and principalities, but with otherwise good people who are, I know, not willfully and truly evil, but horribly, and painfully mistaken.
And I think sometimes, that we do the same thing Glenn Beck does, and we do it with the same reason. Presuming for a moment, that Glenn Beck does not actually believe what he says. Why then would he say it? Why call Obama a Nazi and a communist? Because otherwise Glenn Beck would look like a complete tool. To you and I, who know full well that Obama is nothing of the sort, he sounds like a total tool. But to those who have been deluded, and lied to, he sounds like a hero. If you believed Obama was a Nazi, Glenn Beck would not be a pompous asshole. He’d be goddamned Winston Churchill.
And let us look to our own backyards. I have heard many, many people comparing the Tea Party to the Nazis. To fascists. To the KKK, to the Nuremburg Rallies, to every sort of hyperbolic evil we can think of.
And yet, there have been no lynchings, no killings. Simply more and more stupid and hyperbolic speech on both sides. And I think we are doing this for the same reason that Glenn Beck does. Because if we were to admit to ourselves that these people are not evil Nazi fascists who want to stick us in concentration camps, but simply a large block of people who, by shouting in an echo chamber, have come to some pretty weird ideas, we’d look a bit hyperbolic ourselves. We are using the same language, the same tactics, the same ideological warfare that Glenn Beck uses. And against who? Against one half the Republican party, a group that seems to be causing little more than a tempest in a teapot, if you’ll pardon the pun.
They are not stupid and evil. They are not evil fascists. They are not filled with hate and rage and murder.
They. Are. People. People with some goddamned weird ideas, sure. But people. Not evil people, not saints. People. People who are doing bad things not because they’re cackling maniacs but because they’re scared, or they’re confused, or they’ve been listening to their own echos until it sounds like reason, or some combination thereof. But they are not evil. They are doing evil things, and that is wrong, but THEY. ARE. NOT. EVIL. And its not just me saying this. It’s Martin and Lincoln and Gandhi and everyone else you’ve ever admired. This is what the good guys had to say about their enemies, enemies whose malice was far beyond a Glenn Beck. So we can continue to shout and rage, and get the cheap adrenal rush of screaming and shouting. Or we can be the good guys. Not the nice guys, but the good guys. We can be kind, and good, and extend that open hand without backing down an inch from the rightness of our cause. Without easing up a hair on the firmness of our rhetoric. Without rolling over and giving up. Without giving in to the temptation to become the monsters that we fight. We can do it, because they did it. And because they won. It took time, it took effort, it even took blood, but they won. All of them. And we will to.
“When I sleep, I dream about a great discussion with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty. And when I wake up, I think, ‘I can sell that.’”- Josiah Bartlett
I know you were expecting another installment of Stupid Things Libertarians Say, and trust me, I’ll get back to that soon enough. There is an almost endless array of fresh inanities from that end of the political spectrum.
But you cannot be a commentator, you cannot speak glibly of the foolishness of others without being willing to turn your critical gaze on your own backyard. I am a liberal. I am proud to be a liberal. I have always been proud to be a liberal. Liberals believe in good things. Liberals believe that all people should be free and that all people are worth taking care of. Liberals believe, in a way, that no one is beyond redemption. And though I am an atheist, I have always felt that part of being a Liberal is to believe like Christians do, that there is no one beyond salvation, and no one too lost to be worth saving.
One of the fundamental ideas in liberalism is that there are two sides to every story. That everyone, everywhere has a reason and a story behind their actions. And when we discuss any conflict, whether it is Israel and Palestine, or Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the basic thrust of our discussions is to see both sides. Because without being able to see both sides of any conflict, that any stance as made up of human beings with reasons and beliefs, we become no better than those we fight. Without the ability to understand that our opponents are first and fundamentally human beings, we begin to lose our own humanity. If we cannot see that they are people, understand their tears and their laughter, understand the love and the passion and the fear that drives them, how can we ever expect to so be seen?
We fight those who would with one sweeping gesture, condemn the Islamic religion. We fight those who with a thought would dismiss en masse all blacks, all Hispanics as criminals and interlopers in an America made for the white race. Those who would take the actions of a few criminals in Harlem or South Central, or the actions of a few madmen on September 11th, and say that in the actions of those few can be read the purpose and nature of all. This is the bigotry that we fight.
And part of being a liberal is being able to accept that the world is a big and complicated place. There are seven billion people on this planet. This is a big and complicated world, with big and complicated problems, and part of being a liberal is being able and willing to grapple with that complexity, to accept that there are no easy answers, no glib and sweeping statements that can hold any real truth. We accept that to deal with the problems of the world will mean no simple solutions, no easy fixes, but great and collective societal efforts, and small, constant steps towards a better world. We accept that it will be messy and complicated as the world is messy and complicated.
To be a liberal is to grapple with people. To understand both that there are seven billion unique and infinitely complex individuals with which we share this rock, and to understand that each one of those people is much the same as us, has many of the same desires, fears, and dreams. To understand that in that dazzling and overwhelming mass of humanity there are underlying common threads by which our fellow man becomes understandable. But fundamentally, to understand that each of this incalculable herd is a beautiful and amazing individual, worthy of love and respect.
And it seems most passing strange that, as liberals, we will seek to understand the belief and agency that drives 19 young men to fly planes into skyscrapers, or drives a Northern Irish Paddy to firebomb a house, and yet we cannot turn that same comprehensive and understanding gaze on those in our own country. We cannot seem to see them as simple, amazing people, ultimately worthy of love and respect. In this case, I am speaking specifically of the way that we as liberals view Republicans.
Republicans are our great bogyman. For eight years we lived under George Bush, and witnessed the cataclysmic failure of the modern Republican agenda- from the callousness seen during Katrina to the idiotic and rash invasion of Iraq and the fundamentally ruinous handling of the economy. But what we fail to remember is that these people, these Republican people, make up a great wedge of the population, a group far too large to be ignored or cast aside. The Republican party has 55 million registered voters. The percentage of people who identify as Republican hovers around the 33% mark. 33%. One third of the country. Literally one hundred million people who identify themselves as Republicans.
And yet Liberals have little problem with saying Republicans — not some Republicans, not those Republicans in the public eye, like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, but Republicans, full stop — are stupid and evil. And I wonder sometimes why we are so incapable of looking at these people with the same understanding and compassion that we are so quick to offer to terrorists. To criminals. Why can we not extend the same grace toour fellow Americans that we so quickly proffer to the rest of the world? Why can we not understand their story with the same reflexive nature with which we seek the roots of the conflict in Palestine or the rise of Fundamentalist Islam?
I think it’s because we’re too close. We’ve never been bombed by Israeli planes. We’ve never seen the riots when the Orangemen march, or feared a Palestinian mortar round. We have the privilege of distance, and with that distance comes an ability to see perspective and depth that we cannot apply to our lesser but home grown issues. These are the people we must argue against, we must fight, we must oppose to create our greater world, the world that has been in our dreams for two hundred years and more. What Johnson called “The Great Society.” And they are fighting for their own dream, a dream that we cannot understand but that stands in fundamental opposition to ours. It is the nature of conflict to dehumanize the enemy. To say that they are less than us, that we hold the moral and intellectual high ground. That we are better people, and that those we are fight must be stupid and evil, or else why would they oppose us? We, after all, are right. And they are wrong. And if they cannot see the light, they must be blind.
In the course of my blogging, I’ve drifted off in a different direction from where I started. The earlier posts here are more clearly focused on the “New Scum,” the idea I drew the title of this blog from. The New Scum are the disenfranchised of the world, those without power, without money, without influence. Those outside of the great machine that drives the world, who are crushed under its treads, who are ground in its cogs. It’s you and me. Unless Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have stumbled across this blog (and if you have, please send money) it’s all of us.
And the biggest trick ever played on the New Scum is the idea that there are separate and disparate groupings, that this group must be on one side, and this group on the other. That there is such a thing as black and white, middle class and lower class, blue collar and white collar. When in reality, we are all in the same boat, and it is not the ship of power. We are the greatest force in human history because there are more of us than there has ever been before, and yet we continue to squabble endlessly over differences that are no differences, over perceived issues set in place as shiny and meaningless baubles to distract us from the fact that we’re all getting screwed, and getting screwed by the same people.
And the Republicans are in the boat along with us. These people are not stupid. They are not evil. They are not blind morons staggering around in an orgy of callous destruction. They are our fellow Americans. They are from all walks of life, all levels of society and education, and to casually dismiss them as stupid does both sides a grave injustice. What they are is wrong. Wrong, at least, from our point of view.
To engage in this fatuous mudslinging is not only pointless, it is creating a schism. A deeper and deeper schism in American life between those on the liberal side and those on the conservative side. Every round of name calling, of mutual accusations of stupidity, anti-American sentiment, willful destruction, societal sabotage and whatever other charges we continuously pile up at each other’s doors, pulls us further apart. It dehumanizes us both, because you cannot demonize your fellow man without reducing yourself. Every drop of foaming anger, every moment spent in general and sweeping condemnation, is another small cut into our collective souls. And every inch that we push these people away into a small box labeled “Other,” is a step we take away from our own decency.
These are serious charges. And I do not make them lightly. I will freely admit, I am as guilty as the next person in line of making broad statements about Republicans, of making jokes and comments about their stupidity. But the more I watch what passes for public discourse, the more I am convinced that this endless cycle of retort and counter-retort only strengthens our enemies and destroys ourselves. It destroys the best parts of us, the empathy, the understanding, the ability to comprehend the complexity of the world by forcing our perception of that complexity into the two simple categories of Stupid and Evil. It makes us like the worst of them, like the Glenn Beck’s of the world, to whom all Muslims are potential terrorists, all Liberals traitors in waiting. Glenn Beck cannot or will not acknowledge what every Liberal should know in their bones: that there are a lot of people with a lot of beliefs, and that most of those people are fundamentally the same, with a difference in political varnish so small as to be laughably unimportant in the grand scheme of humanity. There is an old saying that you should never fight with a pig, you both get dirty, and the pig enjoys it. Why then, would we borrow these cheap and dirty tactics?
The most common response I hear when I bring these issues up is a reminder that Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin use them. As one person I know put it, “I’ll stop demonizing Conservatives when they stop jabbing me with pitchforks.” And I sympathize with that feeling. I too have friends who have been hurt by the mistaken beliefs of conservatives. I have friends who would like to marry, who cannot, whose honest love is denied by a hateful and unnecessary bigotry. I am not seeking to exculpate conservatives of the harm that they have done or the pain that they have caused. But their souls are in their own keeping, and I cannot speak to that. All I can speak to is my own people.
And it is tempting to lash out, to return blow for blow and to use their same cheap and vicious weapons against them. But it seems to me that when your justification for using these weapons is nothing more than “Well, they started it!” it is time to reconsider these tactics. What is more, I believe that the liberals are the good guys. That we stand on the right side of the lord, on the right side of the arc of the universe which is long, but which bends towards justice. But being the good guys comes at a price. Being the good guys as a nation means there are some things we cannot do, tactics of our enemies that should be barred to us by our own decency. Things like torture, and terroristic attacks on civilian populations.
And as people, as the good guys, there are tactics that are barred to us as well. It would be good politics to play the cards that Karl Rove used against John McCain in 2000, spreading the rumor that he had an out of wedlock black child. Playing on cheap morality, bigotry and slander worked for Rove. It was good politics. But it was wrong. It was evil, cheap, cruel and vicious. And the good guys don’t do that because we are the good guys, and that means something. That means we stand for something. That means we don’t just use whatever weapons come to hand but fight as cleanly as we can. We avoid the cheap shot, and the easy, callous and alienating because we know that we are not fighting monsters, but people like ourselves. And we know that we are better than they are.
At this point, I’d like to take a bit and discuss heroes. Heroes are odd creatures. Canonization, whether formal or informal, tends to strip away a bit of their humanity, making heroes into unfamiliar, almost inhuman characters. But to me, the true inspiration of a Gandhi, an MLK, an Oscar Romero or a Susan B. Anthony has been that they were only human. That we too, are capable of their courage, their vision, their humanity and compassion.
But heroes are more than figures to be posted on your wall, or convenient eunuchs to serve as subjects for reflective college essays. To hold someone as your hero means that you find in them some calling force, something that pulls you forward into more admirable actions. That they serve as a sort of prop, a support that by their example bears up your own insufficient strength. And I cannot help but believe that those who we revere as heroes would be deeply and irrevocably opposed to this mutually destructive and alienating practice of judgment and condescension. The response that I have heard to this point is that we are not Gandhi, or MLK. To which I respond that we should be thankful that our enemies are not theirs. If Martin Luther King could face the blind and vicious hatred of Bull Connor and Jim Clark and still say In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred, then I think it is not too much to ask that we face the infinitely less malicious Glenn Beck with the same charity of spirit. If we cannot rise with our lesser strength to a lesser evil, then perhaps we should no longer call these men our heroes, and instead put them down as historical oddities, freaks of nature twisted by fortune into something greater than our mean strength and courage can aspire. But I do not believe that is the case. I believe that same greatness is within us. That our strength is equal to this smaller task of charity and love to which we have been called.
And finally, I would like to turn my attention to a less pleasant task. To begin, I would like to say that I have nothing but respect and admiration for Fred Clark. I dream of being half the writer he is. He is one of the most humane and kind writers I have ever read, and has a generosity of spirit I envy. He is very much the sort of person I would like to someday be. But in this case, I completely disagree with him.
He writes here:
52 percent of Republicans believe that President Barack Obama “sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”
More than half of all Republicans say they believe this. The same poll found that 59 percent of Republicans believe “Obama favors the interests of Muslim Americans over other groups.”…The stupidity required here is just too vast, too disabling, for it to be a plausible or a possible explanation.
And that only leaves one choice: More than half of Republicans are evil. They’re lying. And lying out of malice.
Their telephone rang, they answered it and thought, “Ooh, here’s a chance to bear false witness against my neighbor” and then proceeded to do so in the hopes that it will improve their prospects for seizing political power. Because political power won by deceit and malice is so very democratic.
I’m not the one who handed Republicans this rope. I didn’t force them to tie it into a noose and slip it around their own necks. No one made them do this to themselves and no one encouraged them to do this to themselves.
So you can’t complain about my identifying them as evil here — as awful, mendacious gossips with a contempt for the democratic process. This is information about themselves that they eagerly volunteered on their own. Given the chance to respond to a poll, they proudly seized the opportunity to declare to all the world that they are malicious liars willing to embrace any slander, no matter how ridiculous, if they think it might improve their electoral hopes.
And I disagree. I do not think this people are as malicious, as evil as Mr. Clark claims. I cannot believe that anywhere from thirty to fifty million people are simply evil. Or stupid. And I say that because I know these people. There are people in my family, good, kind, generous and loving people who believe that. People who give to charity. People like my grandmother, who sends hundreds of dollars a month to orphanages in Haiti, and who sends even more to disaster relief whenever there is an earthquake or tsunami. This is not the act of an evil woman. I know many others who are charitable, kind, and loving. Good people. People who give to charity, who stop and give rides to strangers on the street. People who are the first on your doorstep in a family crisis, people who would give you the shirt off their backs without a thought or a whimper. I have seen these people, I have known them all my life in a thousand different forms.
But there is a strange characteristic of many people who are good, and honest, and hardworking. They are easily tricked. Their own honesty is such a bedrock of their lives that it does not enter into their minds that people could willingly carry on with the massive and evil lies of a Sarah Palin or a Glenn Beck. They trust others, believing that others are as honest as they, as good as they. And so when they are lied to, and on such a massive scale, they believe it because they cannot think so poorly of someone to believe that they are charlatans, liars and frauds. Their own charity of spirit betrays them to the vicious and predatory wolves who feed on their honest duplicity.
And here, I think, Mr. Clark has taken a stance against those whose only crime is their own honesty and trust. Do I think that in those tens of millions, they are all good and honest people? No, I’m sure there are many who fit Mr. Clark’s description of willful and self-delusional liars. But not all of them. Not most of them. Most of them are good, smart, and honest people who have been viciously and willfully lied to. And it is the liars we should attack, not those on whom they prey.
I don’t want this to be seen as an attack, or a condemnation. I am not trying to say that you are bad for calling Republicans stupid or evil. Nor am I trying to set them up as saints. Their actions have done a great deal of harm, and caused a great deal of pain. But attacking them, calling them stupid and evil, is not the path we should walk. It is the easy way, the quick and mindless way, but it is cheap. More importantly, it is driving a permanent and, I fear, dangerous wedge between us and our fellow citizens. We cannot chose those who share our country, but we can choose the methods by which we deal with them. We can — we should — be the examples, showing the tawdry and classless nature of our enemies by our own better nature. We should be seeking reconciliation and common ground across this boundary. No one has ever been convinced by being called a fool. And no one has ever been ennobled by calling someone else a fool.
We have a choice. To extend across this gap a hand of fellowship, or to stand on the brink shouting insults until the banks crumble beneath us and drop us into unknown depths. To raise the level of debate, or let it die. This is the nation that spawned Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, Bull Connor and Father Coughlin, David Duke and the KKK. But for each of these vicious and demagogic monsters, there has always been an equal and greater opposing force, meeting their hatred with love, their alienation with inclusivity. Now it is our turn. We have our own battles to fight, and it is our choice whether we will take the high ground of moral consciousness, of grace, reaching out to our fallen and mistaken brethren not with condescension and rage, but with a kind and friendly hand, and move together to build a greater future.