Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In Defense of Everyone

When I was very young—five, six years old—my family lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a couple times a year we'd visit our cousins in Alabama. My uncle Forrest worked in Huntsville as an aeronautical engineer for Boeing.

Among my cousins, I was most in awe of Tim—a tall, slim, handsome boy, a few years older than me, who struck me, in a manner typical of middle sons, as warmer than his cool brother Dave and cooler than his warm brother Todd. I followed him around a lot during our visits, trying to learn how to be a boy. In memory, he's forever the handsomest of the Treanor boys, and, despite his meek name, the most admirable, combining a Treanor's congenital interest in the life of the mind with an athlete's physical ease.

It's been at least twenty years, I'm guessing, since Tim and I have seen one another. But a minor family crisis this summer involving Chik-Fil-A, my mother, and my gay brother Nathan sent me to Tim's Facebook page, where I learned something of his life today. He now lives in North Carolina, where he works as a chiropractor. The Western diet, as with tens of millions of other Americans, has softened his slim handsomeness. And—now to my purpose—he's become a staunch, activist Republican.

I took some time perusing his posts, which I could read despite the fact that we've never become Facebook friends. Many of them were about me: a progressivist liberal who, for the most part, votes Democrat. Yet they weren't describing a person I recognized.

Nor did they describe a president I recognized: a "communist," who wants to "destroy the family, destroy private property, destroy religion, destroy the nation." For a while I considered attempting to disprove his claims—but I quickly realized that I'm about as unlikely to change his views as he is to change mine, and there wasn't much summer left, and only an idiot begins an un-winnable war. Especially against family.

But Tim's Facebook page has stayed with me. And alongside its catalog of crimes and misdemeanors I've considered the way some of my liberal friends talk about Republicans: as anti-intellectual, racist, xenophobic, gay-hating, Bible-thumping, patriarchal, anti-science reactionaries working to drag us back into a 19th century, Gilded Age dystopia, where unregulated corporate magnates collaborate to steal the nation's wealth, overheat the planet, and destroy the middle class, all in the name of some Darwinian, Ayn Rand-ish individualism that replaces community with the Law of the Jungle and tolerance with the Law of God. And don't bother asking whose God.

Something is wrong with these pictures. Most people I know, Democrat or Republican, are, speaking generally, equally decent: equally compassionate, equally patriotic, equally smart, equally happy, equally devoted to the future of America and equally devoted to the safety of their families and their neighbors. Republicans, in my experience, do tend to be a bit more insular and frightened of otherness, particularly if it comes packaged in poverty. Democrats, on the other hand, do tend to be a bit more starry-eyed, a bit too indifferent to tradition, and a bit suspicious of wealth, particularly if it comes packaged in a suit and tie.

Which brings me, like most of my experiences these days, to James Baldwin:
What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I'm not describing you when I talk about you; I'm describing me.
So I turn this wisdom upon myself. Many of the most astonishing people in my life—including my own mother, who walks on water—are dedicated Republicans. Like many Democrats, they genuinely worry that America—which is inevitably their idea of America—is losing its way. They fear for their future and for the future of their children; with good reason they look back on the 20th century and proclaim that the single greatest threat to freedom is the tyranny of the State.

In fact, this fear is as old as the country. DH Lawrence saw it with an artist's acuity when he wrote of American immigrants:
They came largely to get away—that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That's why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been.
'Henceforth be masterless.'

[. . . ]

In America this frictional opposition has been the vital factor. It has given the Yankee his kick. Only the continual influx of more servile Europeans has provided America with an obedient labouring class. The true obedience never outlasting the first generation.
According to Lawrence, that refrain—"henceforth be masterless"—captures something essential in the American temperament; and I think he's right. Yes, Lawrence has plenty to say about the self-delusion that accompanies our cries for masterlessness in American life. It's the same self-delusion that liberals point out when they note the hypocrisy of Tea Partiers who simultaneously call for government to get out of their lives and, in the next breath, threaten any politician who wants to cut Medicare. It's the same self-delusion that conservatives point out when they note that Occupiers are organizing against corporate power by using iPads. There is always, says Lawrence, a master.

For many Democrats these days, Mitt Romney embodies, down to his toenails, their idea of a freeedom-destroying master: a monied corporatist, archetypically white, who has enriched himself by financial sleights-of-hand, exporting jobs, and tax evasion. He's not an embodiment of American ingenuity but an amoral crony-capitalist whose trickle-down economics and commitment to deregulation will only accelerate the collapse of the middle class. Never mind his well-documented philanthropy, his dedication to his family and his faith, his years of unsalaried public service. Talk to a Democrat and he'll make it clear: "Mitt Romney isn't the solution. He's the problem."

And for Republicans, Obama perfectly embodies the freedom-destroying master they fear: of uncertain—possibly foreign—provenance; a foreign-educated, multi-racial, multi-religious "community organizer" who rose to fame not through merit and hard work but on the wings of Marxist utopian conspirators and a healthy dose of liberal guilt. Never mind that coming out of college he took his Harvard degree to Chicago's South Side, or his own commitment to faith and family, or, as president, four years of historically low taxes, robust militarism in the country's defense, and, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, a level of frugality while in office unmatched by any president since Eisenhower. Ask Tim: Obama isn't the solution. He's the problem.

Contrast these views with how each party sees its own candidate: for Republicans, Romney isn't a usurping master but a fellow traveler who will help them build a road to their idea of the American Dream. Ditto for Democrats: Obama isn't a usurping master but a fellow traveler who will help them build a road to their idea of the American Dream.

In other words, American Republicans and American Democrats—Tim and I—are two sides of the same coin. Our distraught response to each other's politics, our habits of impugning each other's motives and attacking each other's common sense, simply reflects back to us what we most fear: a master-tyrant, who has tracked us from the nightmares of the past, even to here, where we thought we'd finally be free.

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