Warning: This blog post is about politics. Proceed at your own risk.
Yesterday, I had occasion to visit an old friend–a conservative Rancher who’s occasionally been very active in Republican politics, who I hadn’t seen in close to five years.
After the normal catching up, talk turned to writing and ranching, new projects and old, when from nowhere came a question of the species I’d been dreading:
“I just don’t get what the deal is with these homos.”
In earlier years, I’d have dodged the issue–or, if I’d been in a surly mood, I’d have taken it as picking a fight. But this was neither an attempt to needle me or an attempt to be self-righteous. There was an edge of worry in his voice that made me think that there was a sincere question underneath. Maybe one of his foster kids was having a sexual identity crisis? Maybe one of his grandchildren? I didn’t know, and I still don’t, but there was something there that told me it was important.
So we talked, nearly for an hour. And the questions he asked are VERY instructive:
Basic, informational questions. Not question begging sneering, not homophobic hate mongering, just questions. It was a productive discussion, but eventually I had to ask why he was asking? This man from the World War 2 generation, who’s been a religious right activist for thirty years, said:
I just don’t get why it’s a big deal. It’s none of my business who has sex with who. It’s like the color of someone’s skin, or if they like football instead of baseball: it doesn’t mean anything. It’s none of my business.
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If this was just an isolated incident, I might not have commented on it, but it was the second incident this week that brought me up short. The other was from another longtime religious right affiliate, who said to me, almost incidentally:
“Actually, with the DNA exonerations, I’ve decided that our system is too broken. I’d like to see the death penalty done away with. ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt’ is too low a burden of proof. There’s no excuse for executing an innocent person.”
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These two things, taken together with a lot of other things I’ve seen recently, constitute a big deal, because it shows up a place where liberals and libertarians are missing the boat in a way that could make a profound difference in our politics and our culture.
There are two kinds of so-called conservatism in this country. One of them champions self-reliance, individual responsibility, civil rights, personal initiative, the integrity of legal process, and civic engagement. It’s the kind of conservatism you hear in old radio dramas from Democrats like Jimmy Stewart, or Republicans like Barry Goldwater. To people like this, whether you’re a naturalized American or an immigrant, you’re a fellow traveler, and they’ve got no problem with you if you pull your weight. They don’t mind disapproving of some things about you (for example, your sexual preferences or your taste in movies), because they don’t think their disapproval should mean anything to you–after all, it doesn’t mean a thing to them if you disapprove of their religion or their taste in shoes.
The other kind is the reactionary conservative, and these are the folks getting the airplay. These are the theorcrats, the folks that are convinced that science is a covert attempt to drive out religion. These are the folks that never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t like, who think Kirk Cameron is a proper authority figure, who cheer like a mob when the state executes someone, and who are jolly well fine with torture because they figure the bastard must deserve it.
You see a lot more of the reactionaries these days, because they’re politically useful. They’re useful to right-wing strategists and commentators and demagogues, because they have a lot of energy, they make great spectacle, and they are motivated to get out and vote–and, more importantly, to spread fear among their friends who are conservatives of the first kind. There are folks–cynical folks with cameras and microphones, and sincere folks with pulpits–who are making a lot of money and gaining a lot of power spreading fear and disinformation to turn conservatives of the first type into conservatives of the second type.
There are also a lot of cynical folks with blogs and newspapers and elected office that are making a lot of money and gaining a lot of influence doing the same thing. They’re the ones you hear talking about “The Conservatives” as if they’re a monolithic block of groupthinky voters, interchangeable and equally groupthinky as “The Republicans.” These are the same folks who pioneered identity politics, who imagine that walking the euphemism treadmill can somehow change how people think, and who also run THEIR entire operation on fear.
What you’re seeing from the crowd at the Republican debates, what you’re seeing from Fox News, what you’re hearing the folks at AlterNet say about the conservatives in this country, what happens when the talking heads that come on the TV or the radio for a good screaming match? That’s all theater. It’s spectacle. It’s designed to make a political and monetary profit out of polarizing the country, draining away our ability to debate, and replacing it with a determination to beat the other guy.
The left wing’s hatred of the other is every bit as unreasoning as the right wing. The paranoia from both is infectious, and the factual foundation of their rhetoric is as flawed as it is poisonous. And it masks an underlying truth that most people (including me) often lose sight of:
The good guys can still win. The last ten years have given sane folks a lot more in common than the issues that they argue over. Ask a sane Republican or Democrat, or a sane independent (over 40% of voters now) about civil rights, and while you may get quibbles over particular policies, everyone agrees in principle that sexual orientation and skin color should be equally immaterial. Ask them about domestic policy, they’ll be upset about the bailouts and the insane spending spree and the partisan bickering.
But the good guys can only win if we stop taking our cues on how to view each other from the folks looking to divide and conquer. Since the 1970s, folks from Orange County and the deep south have been waging a civil war against folks from New England–using San Francisco and New York as proxy whipping boys. The Beltway Crowd and Hollywood have retaliated with more and more disgusting stereotypes of folks from “flyover states”–attacking their culture and their right to exist as people rather than arguing with them. It’s an old cycle, one that goes all the way back to before the Civil War.
Smug northern bullying and self-righteous southern crusading are creating a hell of a mess. But we proved in World War 2, and in the Internet Boom, and around Apollo, and at dozens of other times that the South and the North and the West (and the subcultural presences they have in almost every community) all have unique–and complimentary–cultural strengths.
Wherever you sit on the political spectrums, maybe it’s time to stop watching your enemies on the news, and start arguing with them over coffee. You might find you have a lot more values and dreams in common than you imagined possible.