Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Irreconcilable differences

You've heard it before. Paid thugs start showing up at political events and shouting down speakers. Some are seen carrying weapons. They soon expand into direct intimidation, stalking politicians and their staff members and bullying them into doing their will. When they win, they are emboldened, and begin running and electing candidates of their own. A national audience hears from their leader, on a well-respected news program, that what is happening is a triumph for democracy. Then the newly empowered movement turns around and tries to shut down the network that broadcast that program, allowing its own paid outlets to dominate the airwaves.

Things like that happen in third world countries all the time, right? We hardly pay attention. Maybe we've read enough history to know that such things also happened, less than a hundred years ago, in advanced European countries with long traditions of enlightened thinking and intellectual progress. We still tend to assume that they won't happen here.

Except that they did. Everything I describe took place in Waco, Texas, within the last two years. The politician they bullied and then defeated was Congressman Chet Edwards. The network on which their leader was interviewed was NPR, which now faces the threat of losing all of its federal funding. And the wealthy billionaires who paid for this exercise in subverting democracy and free speech are licking their lips.

At least that's the way I see it. I think I'm a good person with decent values, and I'm terrified right now for the future of my country.

I know people, though, who I also think are good people with decent values, and their perception of what's happening is the exact opposite of mine. The good guys are finally winning. Government is being reclaimed for the people. Right is triumphing over wrong. Far from being terrified, many people are exultant.

Who is right? Naturally, I think I am. What I'm becoming convinced of, though, is that the differences between these two ways of seeing reality may be irreconcilable. Two sets of people look at the same facts and draw completely opposite conclusions from them. It seems impossible that there can be compromise, and that scares me more than anything. If we can no longer talk to each other because we speak completely different languages, then how can shared, representative government possibly survive?

I write this in sheer frustration. If you think there's any common ground left, I want to hear about it, because right now I'm not seeing it.


  1. You might be correct, Robin. But 60 years ago, a majority of Americans thought is was OK that some of their fellow citizens were denied by law access to public schools, public accommodations and the right to marry outside their race. Now those laws are gone, and nobody publicly defends Jim Crow laws. Indeed, we lived to see an African American elected president.

    Even 20 years ago, a clear majority of Americans believed it was OK that some of their fellow citizens were denied by law the legal rights accorded those who are married, because of their sexual orientation. While these legal prohibitions are still in place, the majority perception in this country is rapidly changing.

    It is important to distinguish the sound of a noisy minority from the voice of the majority. It is important to distinguish the divisions of the present from the trends of history.

    Today's Tea Party intolerance is not new. These people are the heirs of the John Birch Society of the '50s and '60s.

    I'm not arguing for complacency. I'm arguing for perspective. America is changing, and the sound of change is noisy and sometimes angry. But my reading history is that, however much some of these people resemble Nazis, this is not Wiemar Germany.

  2. I fervently hope you're right, Joel. It's not so much the Weimar comparison I'm pushing here as the fact that we seem to have embraced competing and irreconcilable narratives about our recent history and its significance. A more apt analogy is the Civil War. A house divided against itself still cannot stand, and I see us becoming more that way, not less.

  3. Robin, the Civil war was about slavery. Slavery was central to the economic way of life of the Southern aristocracy.

    What, in your view, is an issue central to the economic well-being of the major political factions in this country, comparable to slavery, that you think could lead to a full-scale war?

  4. The idolatry of the free market: the idea that wealth, and the pursuit of wealth, is an inalienable right, and all the social Darwinist stuff that comes with that belief.

    I'm not saying that I expect a full-scale war. What I do see coming is a complete breakdown of our political system, as more and more people are thrown to the wolves in the name of "fiscal responsibility." That would be bad enough.

  5. Just saw this quote, which seems relevant here:

    "We must make certain that things don’t begin to seem unbearable. If we look too closely at problems we will see nothing else and they will appear all out of proportion with reality; that is when they become intolerable. If we can stand back from them, we will be better able to judge them and they will seem less serious."

    ~Dalai Lama

  6. True enough. Point taken. Complacency is also an abiding temptation, though. With God's help, I seek the middle path.

    Which brings me back to my original question. Is there still common ground? How do we go about recovering it?

  7. If you want to look for it, you can probably find some common ground with most people. Even my in-laws, with whom I seldom speak anymore, probably agree with me that my wife and daughter are swell people.

    While I'm interested enough to hear and understand what the other side is saying, I believe that in most cases offering unsolicited advice seldom repays the effort.

  8. Robin, I think the reason that no one has given a "direct answer" to your question "is it possible that we can start really talking to each other and hearing each other again?" is that the best answer is "it depends."

    There are probably many issues where Americans can talk to and hear each other. But I believe there are others where they (or at least I) cannot. For example, I am not interested in discussing:

    Why the purposeful destruction of a human zygote or embryo is murder;

    Why the idea that all life on earth is a product of descent with modification might be wrong;

    Whether the planet has entered a period of net global warming;

    Whether a government has the right to execute unarmed citizens who pose no threat to others;

    Whether the US has a responsibility to collect and use tax money to provide basic health care for those who cannot pay for it themselves.

    On these topics, and several others, I find no reason to expect to be swayed to another POV, nor to I find a reason to believe that those who hold the opposing views will be swayed by my reasons for holding my POV. For me, discussion on these matters is futile.

    The thing is, Robin, there have always been such unbridgeable differences between US citizens. Nothing substantial has change on that front since you moved to Texas. You've just noticed it more.

  9. Or maybe it's just bothering me more. I have a nagging feeling that with the extension of the Bush tax cuts we passed a point of no return. If the pre-Bush rates aren't re-instated, American society as I've known it all my life is gong to collapse under a burden of debt, and those who insist that the only answer is to cut government spending to the bone are going to be doing a victory dance and saying "I told you so." I feel like it's my obligation as a responsible citizen to respond, but I'm sick and tired of having futile conversations that end with the suggestion that we "agree to disagree." I just can't agree to disagree right now, because the stakes are too high.

    Actually, the central issue I'm concerned about isn't on your list. I've already written a couple of posts on the question "Can a Christian be a libertarian?" As you've seen, I believe the answer is an unequivocal no. I may write another one soon on the question "Can a Christian be a capitalist?" The answer to that question, i believe, is "yes, but in many ways capitalism is completely incompatible with Biblical values, and one needs to be aware of that at all times so as not to be sucked into the dangerous worship of wealth that capitalism begets."

    I'm still hoping I can talk to a few people meaningfully on that topic. Stay tuned.

  10. In re: taxes vs budget cuts. I'm more sanguine on this than you are. The draconian budget cuts necessary to reduce the deficits while maintaining current tax rates will not be tolerated by the majority of the electorate. Eventually, the pendulum will swing once again. I predict the adoption of a Clinton-era income tax structure. He proved that those rates are compatible with economic growth.

    I'll leave the discussion of what a Christian can or cannot be/do to you, Robin. People have butchered each other in unspeakable ways over this issue in the Christian world.

  11. People have butchered each other everywhere over a lot of different things. I would like to frame this issue in less global terms. McLennan County, where I live, is one of only three counties in Texas that has a federally subsidized family health clinic that will not turn anybody away. Under the budget that our new Republican congressman is supporting, that clinic will no longer be able to serve working people with no health insurance. Of course, he also wants to repeal the new health care law, but that's not going to happen. Over the next few years, though, it's quite possible that a hard-working person who makes only minimum wage will get very sick, and will have nowhere to go for treatment.

    If that person were to die, I would be curious to know how our new congressman, and those who supported him, would be able to live with their consciences. I suspect the answer is "by ignoring it," or "by claiming that said person could have gone to the emergency room," or by some kind of equally contorted casuistry.

    I'll be blogging about this soon.

  12. Uh, Robin, this is not new, except maybe to McLennan Co. It has been happening all over our country for decades.

    Eventually, the US will follow the lead of all other industrialized nations in the world and have some kind of single payer system. Until then, there will be much unnecessary suffering and death. I'm afraid there aren't enough Christians who share the construct you put on this word to make much difference in the meantime.