In reviewing the thread of my life over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m the kind of person who prefers to find common ground in relationships, and to work in harmony in order to reach common goals. It’s not unlike how daily employment or work is supposed to be. Cooperative relationships, common goals. All else are details that must not detract from the whole, or eventual disaster follows. Notice that I said “supposed to be”.
When you have friends, you accept that they may not share all of your convictions or viewpoints, but you mutually gravitate toward relating to each other on the remaining common ground and take it from there. Thus you can have relationships with many different kinds of people who are not “in your camp” on some basic issue or other, but who are intimates of some degree nonetheless. You affect others not like you, and allow their lives to affect yours.
This can be dicey ground in reality, but in principle, the differences serve merely to allow you to learn things you hadn’t considered, question your own convictions, and to either reinforce your own views or make you reconsider them. At times, I’ve had to widen my views of things considerably after playing devil’s advocate, poking and probing at others’ different viewpoints in order to see what they’re built upon. The foundations of their beliefs can represent the full span, from past experiences, emotionality, tradition or rebelliousness, prejudice, ignorance, intense research, careful thought, education or moral convictions, to cold logic (if such a thing exists, and I doubt it). They fold or they hold, resonate or collapse, and can internally affect your own viewpoints from that point on. I’ve often had to become less myopic or rigid about how I see and interpret things. This is good. Other things, I’ve become more sure of. This is also good.
Yet the differences, in practice, must be considered as spokes in the wheel of the relationship, and the shared common ground as the hub around which everything else rotates. The emphasis is on getting somewhere, and the differences are not divisive, but strengthening, if there is respect for them.
I’ve also found that this preference is not exclusive to me. Neither is it a universal outlook. Some people love to debate topics, to do their best to describe and project their points of view with the goal of persuading others that their views are the best choice available. The emphasis is on persuading however, not on promoting the actual best option. For fun, they will draw virtual straws and debate to the death for a viewpoint that they actually oppose. What better way to hone their skills? The pleasure is in the promise of persuading and perhaps dominating the outcome. Winner take all. It’s hard to assign a value to this, as it’s somewhat akin to The Force in the original mythic Star Wars trilogy. There’s the Light Side of influencing and changing society for the betterment of it, and the Dark Side of aligning the world with one’s own personal goals, such as lining one’s pockets or accumulating power and influence. You know, build the Death Star.
Then again, sometimes you come across people who yearn to argue rather than debate, whose speech quickly descends into name-calling, personal insults, or condemnation. You won’t learn much from such folks, and it’s best to simply withdraw from their toxic aura. Sometimes this is a permanent situation, and sometimes it’s just a temporary reaction to some other aspect of their lives that has left them feeling out of control. They need to fight and win something, and they’ll do whatever it seems to take. That’s worth avoiding, since issues are not the point. Denigrating the victim is.
Within this camp can also be found those who announce that they’re “just telling it like it is”, though this is often based more on inflexibility of thought, intolerance, unfocused anger, or stewing frustration than on pure malice. It’s just one way of saying either “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” or “I don’t care what you think, so there”. Nothing to learn here. Move along, move along.
A few, for the same reasons, love to overstate extreme points of view as a “challenge”, and brusquely tell the recipient to either swallow it or leave, if they don’t agree. This tends to adhere to the Jim Jones School of Indoctrination, where forcing oneself into a blind corner ends in tragic results for everyone concerned. Since no one can actually live in extremes, there are often big disjoints between the dogma preached, and the practice. Some see them, while others choose not to. You can sift through what you can, but in the end, you’re often left with a pile of contradictory improvisations.
But none of those are my real concern these days. What comes to mind more often is polarization and isolation, thought-wise. Over the many years, I’ve spent time in various gatherings with people holding significantly different backgrounds, viewpoints and outlooks than my own. From devout Commie-hunting disciples of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, to radical “power to the people” subversives and anarchists. From the religious, the self-righteous, the agnostics, the atheists, to the anti-religious. From desperately poor to soberingly wealthy, and so on. Each have a view of life, however constructive, neutral, or destructive. Although it is admittedly much easier to relate to those who share a common bond with ourselves, the different perceptions of different people can prove valuable.
What I find particularly notable is not that the political tide of the United States has moved distinctly “right” in the last half-century. Political leanings in a democracy will gravitate one way and then the other over time based on influence and events, at least if they don’t lean so far over as to fail eventual self-correction. At that point they transition into another form of government in which the only choices are “loyal” or “subversive”. What concerns me is insular thinking, where hard lines are taken and fixed, and there is nothing else to consider. Relationships are promptly bounded and limited by viewpoint.
Example? In my couple of years on tour, I’ve met two people who defined insular thought for me. The first was a camper who was at a gathering of fellow campers organized by a close friend. He stayed apart by himself though, not drawing his chair into the large circle over yonder. Although one of the few things this group held in common was a preference for the “mobile lifestyle”, a fairly unconventional way of life bundling its own unique viewpoints to underpin it, his response to my question about joining in surprised me. “They’re liberals,” he muttered dismissively in a low voice, and that was it. His tone was such that the thought seemed to nauseate him, and he has since then avoided these regular gatherings entirely, friend or no. This is sad, I think. While I was there, at no point at any time was anything even remotely related to politics broached. Generic viewpoints, yes, political dogma, no. If anything, this group had largely given up on political solutions and were simply winging their own way as individuals.
A bit later, I managed to chase down a childhood friend whom I hadn’t been in contact with for 50 years. A minute into the opening pleasantries, he paused for a second and the question came out of nowhere, “Hey, you’re not a liberal, are you?” It was as if he didn’t know if it was okay to open a conversation with me because, God forbid, I might be one of them, and that would determine whether it was safe to talk with this now unfamiliar caller. Should he risk it? Did he think my call might be monitored, or the conversation recorded, and word get out? No, but he wanted to know if he could be candid, and speak freely in his native tongue without one of us having to engage his shit filters and write the other off from the get-go. I had to wonder just what a call to catch up with a childhood friend had to do with political leanings, and I’m still stumped.
Predictably, out West, there aren’t too many radio stations to listen to on the road, but at least two will be simultaneously rebroadcasting the Rush Limbaugh syndication, or one of his affiliates. I noticed that he doesn’t often run out of grist for his mill, but that when the hopper is empty, he will relate a fact and then paint a “what if” picture, assigning conspiratorial motives and ardently pounding on with his agenda. His style is inflammatory, and I couldn’t help but notice the effect on some callers who were inspired to the point that he had to try to calm them down and return them to something one or two hops closer to reality and logic. Such is life, I guess, when you decide to court fame and fortune by promoting paranoia and conspiracy. After all, today, it works.
This was driven home for me when I was in a barber shop which, like many others, kept Fox “News” rolling on their television. Obviously, the sole stories, editorials and expert commentaries were single-track. That’s okay as long as you take into account who the network’s owner is, what he’s after, and what his track record with the public welfare is. At any rate, one dynamic young lady came on and went into a diatribe about something or other. I don’t even recall the subject, but what I do remember vividly was the exaggerated scorn and sarcasm in her voice, which went from disrespectful straight to plain bitchy. It was as if she was in a bar and, with a couple of drinks under her belt, was doing her very best to loudly humiliate her significant other. Points to consider had left the building, and mindless name-calling seemed to be the order of her day. This wasn’t even one-sided propaganda, much less editorial. “Can she do that?” I thought to myself, “Is anyone listening to this? Who okayed this for broadcast on a news network? Why is she trying so hard to be so offensive?”
Now, my gripe here is not about right-wing, conservative or ultra-conservative. That’s just where the action is these days. They don’t have a lock on insular thinking, but they carry the highest profile by far. Once a respectable and consistent conservative, I carry a mix of viewpoints today that tend to relegate me into whatever camp isn’t yours, if it’s all or nothing. Seriously. I have no idea on how to categorize myself now, because my social views scatter wide across the charts, from the commie-pinko leftists to the radical fringe right of the John Birch Society. I cherry pick on issues instead of molding myself to one group or other. I’m everyone’s enemy in that regard, I guess. Always wrong. It’s a lot like being a husband.
At any rate, it’s a far cry from the old days when different and differing viewpoints could be mixed, debated and respected. When “oh, I don’t think so, do you?” and “who are you going to vote for?” were doors to provoke thought, not be slammed in faces. Actually, the earliest days of our country were marked by a vehement and vicious polarization that makes today seem like flowers and candy, but after a long time of getting nothing accomplished but their own personal interests, they started taking the nation and its people more seriously than before. Business interests did their best to dominate government in the late 1800s, and literally populate the branches of our federal government and regulatory agencies today, which I think is the main cause of the generalized sense of frustration and helplessness of the average citizen. Neither political party seems to reflect much of the popular interest, and are more interested in coming into power and stopping their opposition cold, than in representing the people’s concerns.
There’s a big difference in viewing your “loyal opposition” as wrong or not understanding the big picture, and viewing them as “the enemy” that needs to have its back broken and be put out of its misery. Now that I’m beginning to sense that outlook in the general populace, that’s not a comfort. It’s bleeding over into us, and that’s not good. “It’s Them Or Us” thinking is not broadening or thought-provoking, and chanting half-truths gleaned from editorial commentary on either side is not going to create solutions to our problems, only theirs. Picking out this or that pet political issue to obsess over will not take us very far. Patriotic rhetoric aside, our steering wheel is no longer connected to the front wheels on this puppy, and we could be headed for the ditch in the dark.
I used to think that Thomas Jefferson’s musings that our new nation might need a revolution every twenty years or so to be both thought-provoking and patently crazy. He figured that it might take only that long before the new federal government would start acting in opposition to the people’s interests and too much toward its own, simply to preserve itself and its own interests. Well, it’s lasted this long, hasn’t it, albeit having given corporations greater rights and fewer obligations than the common citizen, and repeatedly enforcing those pre-emptive rights in court. The nation’s interests have somehow morphed into the nation’s corporate and financial interests, under the guise of defending freedom and democracy. Moral and Constitutional principles have been pushed aside for expediency and financial gain, supposedly ours.
Then I noticed some years ago that the government did a turnabout and approved the use of military warfare drones inside U.S. borders, and the development of weapons specifically designed for population control, lethal and non-lethal. What? What were they expecting to happen? Did somebody stumble over Jefferson’s writings and figure that the government is so far out on its own course that it will never revert back to “of the People, by the People, and for the People”? Maybe.
Where do they figure the allegiance of a true American patriot stands? With the welfare of the present government? With the welfare of the American People? Depends on what you believe the point of forming the new Republic was, I figure, and just what all that suffering and extinguishing of lives was about. What if those interests are at odds?Jefferson had his viewpoint, and he wasn’t alone at the time. In contrast, the popular maxims in the 1960s and 1970s used to be “my country, right or wrong” and “America, love it or leave it”. That’s insular thinking. I tend more toward the “America, love it or fix it” way of thinking. That involves open dialog, not regurgitated dogma. As excruciatingly petrifying as the late Conservative William F. Buckley Jr.’s erudite debates and commentaries used to be, he changed some of his key views over time, and had both socialist and liberal friends that he pulled onto the air to debate with him. Such a thing is unthinkable today, with the emphasis being on attack and silence by whatever means necessary. That’s Nixon’s second legacy.
Maybe a lot of people out here in the western half of the nation share the same uneasy feeling that the federal government does today: disjoint. Used to be, people would stockpile food and water to try to get through hardship. Then they stockpiled it to try to survive a nuclear war with Russia. These days, they’re stockpiling it either for terrorist attacks or for the aftermath of a governmental crisis and/or a societal collapse and chaos. They’re also arming themselves to the teeth out here, and there are occasional efforts to organize volunteer militias and self-sufficient armed enclaves that, if push comes to shove, are more dedicated to the local citizenry of their states than to the governmental authorities, who may impose martial law, a declaration that representative government has forcibly ended and military occupation has begun.
That last point about ultimate allegiance is likely the type of thing that signals to our federal government that if another round of rousing patriotic bumper stickers fails, the situation might possibly require specialized weaponry to address – against her own citizens. Recent events in Wisconsin strongly promise that your demonstrating for any cause other than as an endorsement of the government’s actions will get you surveilled and wiretapped as a potential dangerous subversive, as well as your interest group being infiltrated. What’s happened to the right to peaceably assemble as free men and women to ensure that our voices are heard by our elected representatives, and by the public at large? Anyone besides me find any of this to be a bit unsettling? There are even petitions circulating about that call for western state successions from the Union, but these are limited to the angry fringe elements, and anyhow, you know how that ended for the South some time earlier. The answer was no.
I’ll never get into one of those enclaves, by the way. As one organizer stated, any new people who showed up would have to have a practical contributing skill. Oops. And, although this one purports to be a Christian group, “…things will go a lot better for you up here if you’re a conservative.” Gads. I could tell them that I voted for Reagan, but if I mumbled in my sleep my wish for the minimum wage to regain the current value equivalent of what it was when it was first established, I’d be tossed over the log wall back into the Mad Max apocalypse.
By the way, after careful consideration, don’t figure that Big Biz will have a vested interest in straightening out this mess, or even their mess. Their bottom line, by law, regardless of PR and mission statements, is to make money, and if they can’t do it here anymore, they’ll simply hightail it and move on to the next. Not their problem. They aren’t called multinationals for nothing, and their obligations are limited solely to their shareholders. The individuals they’ve enriched already have their safe havens all arranged. If you don’t believe me – and it does sound nutszo – then do some research. If anyone is going to preserve the United States of America, it’s going to have to be up to us, the people, one way or another. We’d better relearn how to get along, and to not let ourselves be divided by influence interests that simply want the money train to keep on rolling until the going gets too rough for them. They have the ticket to the next train. We don’t.
What’s my bottom line in all this? Easy. First, I still find politics to be both complex and terminally boring at the same time. It’s like most management meetings, where there is much roaring and posturing, and little getting done. Second, hanging out with like-minded people is great, but enforcing that as a requirement for existing in the proximity of someone else for an hour is not healthy for you or them. As long as the person is thoughtful, you’ll live, and may learn something. If you just have to pigeonhole and exclude, then obnoxious, unpleasant, or toxic people should be treated as such no matter what their views.
So let’s be as thoughtful as we can. As the character Elwood P. Dowd relates in the film Harvey, “Uh-huh, I plan to leave, you want me to stay. Well, an element of conflict in any discussion is a very good thing! It shows everybody is taking part, and nobody’s left out. I like that.”
And, “You know, years ago, my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be…’ – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart, or oh, so pleasant.’ Well, for years, I was smart… I recommend pleasant.”