Sunday, December 21, 2008

Extremism

Over the years of the Bush presidency, and the Clinton presidency, a certain stridency gained power in our political world. Particularly in the Bush years, people who believe in personal freedom, tolerance, personal responsibility, genuine conservatism, and all those other good American values, despaired. Bush's complete refusal to engage with reality - to do what made sense, what was right - drove us into a very cold and lonely and angry place.

And now we've managed, against all hope, to elect a leader who is not Bush. Andrea and I read both of his books during our road trip to the east coast. To be fair, Andrea did all the reading, and I did most of the driving, which was a happy bit of teamwork for both of us. So we have some sense of the views that Obama espouses.

When I see one group of people get together and say "that person there, that person is a bad person, we must not speak with that person, and must not associate with him," I get suspicious. Words can be used to wound, it's true, but when we close out our fellows because we do not agree with them, the cost is severe.

The point of being friends with someone with whose views you don't agree, aside from the fact that to be a friend is simply a better, more humane thing to do than to be an enemy, is that if you are friends with someone, if you treat them with respect, if you listen to them, and if they come to see you as a friend, then you have a kind of access. You can talk to them. You can figure out why they believe what they believe. And then you have some hope of convincing them that some of what they believe may be mistaken.

If you treat that same person as an enemy, you have no hope of ever communicating with them. You are at war with them. Driving through Hope, Arkansas, we couldn't get an NPR station, and so I wound up listening to a bit of American Family Radio. The people on this network think of us, the liberals, the genuine conservatives, as the enemy. They cannot hear what we have to say. They are at war with us. They literally talk about it in the same terms that we talk about the war in Iraq. They talk about winning the culture war.

We can't have that. But if we are to have something else, we have to stop thinking of it as a war, thinking of our fellow Americans as enemies, and imagining that we have the wherewithal to defeat them. We do not. The more we make enemies of them, and criticize them, and try to marginalize them, the harder they will fight back.

These are not evil people. Most of the people who listen to American Family Radio would be offended if you proposed to them that they do violence to another person. Most of them do not support the horrible things that real extremists do - things like dragging a person to death, or bombing an abortion clinic. But they don't know us, because we reject them. There is no chance at all that they will ever hear our side of the story, because we refuse to hear theirs. We call their side of the story evil, and leave it at that.

This is what drives the culture war. This is something Obama talks about at length in his books, particularly in the Audacity of Hope, but also in Dreams of My Father. Obama sees this culture war, and has spoken about it over and over again in his speeches on the campaign trail. We knew what we were getting into when we voted for him. The Audacity of Hope is an audacity that allows us to lay down our arms and try to connect with people we don't always agree with. To include them in our brotherhood and sisterhood, in hopes that in so doing, we will have a chance to engage in genuine dialog with them.

It is time for us to come out of that cold, lonely, angry place we have been for the past eight years and more. We want to micromanage the Obama presidency the way we tried to micromanage the Bush presidency, because we are used to it. It is what we have been doing for so long.

But now is a time for hope, a time for trust. We put Obama in the White House. Rather than judging him for trying to open a dialog with the people on the other side of the culture war, we need to give him the space to try to end the culture war. We need to try to let go of the aged and refined rage and anger that we have bottled up these past years, and have the audacity to hope that the man we put in office will in fact bring an end to this war. And that means we need to stop yelling at him about Reverend Warren and understand that in inviting Reverend Warren to the inauguration he is doing *exactly* what he promised to do, and what we elected him to do: reunite our country.

17 Comments:

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

All I should say is that I pray you're right.

Monday, December 22, 2008 5:52:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Obama has been *extremely* consistent in the person he presents to us from the time he wrote his first book in the early nineties to today. For him to take on a new persona now, after being so consistent for so long, is certainly not impossible, but it would be very surprising.

I don't think you can expect Obama to turn around and stuff the Christian Right into the wastebasket - if you are hoping for that, you will be disappointed. What I expect him to do is to try to find common ground and suck the strength out of the campaign of divisiveness that's dominated our politics pretty much since Clinton's second term.

This is what I wanted him to do, and it's why I voted for him. I don't *want* him to be an extremist--even an extremist in the direction in which I'm an extremist.

Consider this: the religious right wants abortion to be outlawed. And they've been getting people elected on that basis for years. So why isn't abortion completely illegal? It's because the American people as a whole, while a majority of us think abortion is wrong to varying degrees, still very much feel that it's the woman's choice to make, because her future and her body are at stake, not ours.

Similarly, it appears to be the case that a small majority of Americans oppose gay marriage. I don't understand why this is. It doesn't make sense to me. I suspect my feelings about this issue mirror the feelings of a pro-life activist on the issue of abortion.

So we have a choice: just decide that the person we don't agree with is evil, and try to suppress them, or try to find common ground with them, and try to figure out what we *can* agree on, so that rather than fighting for a few yards of ground here, or a hill there, we have a well-defined border and a place from which to move forward.

Public opinion on gay rights has changed *hugely* just in my lifetime. If we are not at a place yet where the country as a whole can agree to do what I personally think is right and give gays the same rights as straights, maybe we can get there in another ten years. But we can't get there while we're at each others' throats, because we aren't talking, and so our views aren't changing.

And as I would say to the pro-life activist who is angry about the fact that abortion is still legal, and is not willing to wait ten years to see public opinion shift (particularly since I don't think it will shift in that direction), look, man: it's just too bad. You cain't always git what you want. So why not try to get what you need?

Monday, December 22, 2008 7:26:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

The choices are not "attack or honor." "Ignore" was always an option. But now someone who hates gay marriage and evolution, someone who has spoken in favor of "taking out" Ahmadinejad, someone who speaks of non-negotiable beliefs, will forever have "inaugurated a President" on his resume. Obama's spectrum is running the gamut from Protestantism to Protestantism, and I'm just not impressed.

Really, no one's saying Warren shouldn't preach what he believes. But why should Obama lend him the bully pulpet?

On Steve Brust's blog, I mentioned why this has provoked such a reaction: Obama's supporters can rationalize all his bad cabinet choices as pragmatism. But Warren's importance is symbolic, and that makes it seem so much more gratuitous.

Do you think Kennedy would've or should've had a minister in 1960 who opposed interracial marriage?

Monday, December 22, 2008 9:47:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

I don't think you've quite caught my point. My point is not that we should honor Warren's homophobia. It's that what Obama is doing by including him in the inauguration is not honoring his homophobia. Rather, it is including him and all the other homophobes in the dialog.

Think for a minute about what "homophobe" means. It means "afraid of homosexuals." Phobos == fear.

There are a lot of homophobes in this country. Some of the things they do in response to their fear are very ugly. But fear can be overcome. And this is what Obama is doing. This is what he said he'd do.

Now, suppose we were to find someone who was afraid of homosexuals. And we were to welcome that person into our living room, serve that person tea, and talk to them. And after a year, or three years, of welcoming this person into their home, their fear abated. And consequently they stopped acting on that fear.

Wouldn't that be a good thing?

The choice I see is between attacking this person and trying to change this person's mind, not between attacking this person and honoring this person. I think that what matters is the outcome, not the symbolism.

Warren is speaking for a substantial part of America when he expresses his homophobia. Suppose in the next few years, as a result of the rapprochement that Obama is trying to orchestrate, he changes his mind. He spoke at the inauguration. Maybe some of the people he's speaking for now will listen to him then, because he spoke at the inauguration.

Suppose he sways two or three percent of the small majority of homophobic Americans away from their position against gay marriage. Then that would leave a small majority of Americans in favor of it, instead of a small majority of Americans against it.

That will never happen if there is no dialog.

Monday, December 22, 2008 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

The sad thing here is I would've made that argument ten or fifteen years ago. The theory is lovely. The Clinton years weakened it enormously for me. But I'll go back to my original comment now. Hard times may force Obama to greatness.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 7:50:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

I had high hopes for Clinton too, and he blew it. And Obama may blow it too. But there's a little more content there. Have you read his books?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 9:11:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

I've read some excerpts that I quite admire. I'm not denying that Obama's a smart man who can say wise things. The question is whether he can do them. He claims to be reaching out, but all his reach is to the right.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

This is the thing I think is mistaken about all the yelling people have been doing. His position is really clear, and is stated in his book: that we need to find common ground and work together.

What other thing would he be doing, if that were his goal, than what he is doing now? Who would he be reaching out to, other than people to the right of him?

What we have been seeing in Washington in years past is a winner-take-all mentality. That's what Bush did in 2000. Look how well it served him. I don't know if what Obama is doing will work. But he is doing what he said he'd do.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

If he wants to be inclusive, why is he leaving out the Democratic left? No Grijalva. No Reich. Every major figure in his cabinet supported the march to war. I'm trying to be optimistic, but all he's offering is hope.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

I really don't know why he's made the picks he's made. And we won't find out until they start working for him. Maybe he's appointing cronies. Maybe he has a strategy. If he does have a strategy, maybe it will work. Maybe it will fail.

Right now we have no traction. As citizens, all our decision points are in the future at the moment. So the only thing yelling accomplishes, as far as I can see, is creating an unpleasant environment. If his picks *do* things we don't like, then we can get some traction. Until then, yelling, criticizing, second-guessing, all of that is just useless.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Hmm. You seem to think the appointments don't mean anything by themselves, but they mean everything. They're the foundation that he'll build on. And that foundation does not look good from here.

Now, that we're helpless to do much more than hope, I'll grant for the moment. So I am willing to hope. But not to be quiet about the problems I see. Qualified hope is an option.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

No, dammit, that's *not* what I think, Will. I think that the nominations are part of a plan the details of which are not known to me. I think that they do matter. What I don't know is whether or not they are good choices. That is something that only time can tell us.

People are not gears. What they do depends on context, not on how many teeth they have.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Sorry. It's just that you seem less willing than I am to judge what we're about to see on the basis of the cast and crew. I thought we got a pretty good producer. But now I'm seeing the choices for director, writer, photographer, and main cast. All of them come with history, and that history is not promising.

Well, I'm really not trying to make you worry. I'm just trying to explain why many of us are concerned. But given the immediate choices for what we can do, having a nice holiday should be at the top of the list.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Yeah, I don't blame you for being concerned. It's just that worrying is useless. And it really could come out well, even though the players aren't the ones we would have chosen. And it's the other guy's move right now, so there's nothing we can do except hope for the best. If we really wanted a president who would bend to our will, we should have elected someone else (I know, as if).

So I think your plan regarding the holiday is probably the best course of action for the moment.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

There's an interesting and topical article by Melissa Etheridge in the Huffington Post...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008 6:10:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

It's good. Let's just say I really hope to be pleasantly surprised by all of this.

And happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008 8:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Patricia Lemon said...

While I agree wholeheartedly with both Ted and Will, to a person from my generation--one who grew up hearing radio reports of lynchings and cross burnings--the operative emotion as regards the radical (evangelical) right is FEAR. And, of course, fear often expresses itself as anger. Maybe most of them wouldn't take part in such horrible excesses, but you wouldn't have expected the Germans to take part in the Jewish Holocaust, either. I just have to hope and pray you're right.

As regards gay marriage, I think I'm not alone in thinking this dialogue should be with the belief communities to which the individuals belong, not with the government. Catholics (and many non-Catholic Christians) consider marriage a sacrament, not a contract. Government's role is in civil contracts, not sacraments.

Friday, December 26, 2008 7:15:00 PM  

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