Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Why Everyone Loses in an Us Vs. Them Election
“What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.” – Robert F Kennedy
I promised myself that I would take Chris Matthews' advice and leave the analysis of US politics to the professionals and I am keeping that promise. After all, I tried my hand at writing for a bipartisan political blog and became very disillusioned when I realized that so many people would rather argue to make their point than try to listen and understand another person's point of view. Instead today I am sharing my thoughts not on the candidates but rather on what I have heard and read from that microcosm of society with whom I live, work and associate with on social media.
Before I elaborate on why this post opens with that quote, for the benefit of those of you who have not read my previous blog posts or do not know me personally, here is a little background on the life experiences which frame my thoughts. I am very much a child of the sixties who grew up in a very typical working class Black family. I listened to and was greatly influenced by the words of visionary leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. As a child I also remember watching actual news coverage, not archived footage, of the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the funerals of all of those aforementioned heroes, all victims of senseless acts of violence. I remember when man first walked on the moon and girls were first allowed to wear pants to public school. I am also the teenager of the seventies who wore an Afro and sang along to Aretha Franklin’s “Young, Gifted and Black” as well as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. I went to college in Boston, MA just as that city was in a conflict over school desegregation. It was there that I learned how very similar people of all races and religions truly are. It was also there that I first felt the hatred of racism when a bunch of White teenage boys drove by in a car and called me the “N” word while throwing a bottle. I am a woman of the eighties who cast her first vote in a presidential election for Jimmy Carter, my first taste of how it feels when your candidate doesn’t win and an opposing ideology prevails. I am a woman who never doubted that I had the right to pursue a career and that my life was not defined by marital status or how attractive I was to a man. I am also a woman who was absolutely in awe that I was able to stand with my mother and vote for the first African American US President. And I am now a woman who has lived over half a century and experienced the loss of loved ones, personal and professional successes as well as heartbreaking setbacks. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA but have also lived in Boston, MA, Charleston, SC, in small towns in Nebraska and most recently, Charlotte, NC. And through my life’s journey I have seen both the very best and the very worst of human nature in both others and myself. Hopefully, that synopsis provides you with a bit of perspective on the rest of what you will read. You can read my earlier blog posts to learn more about me. Now back to my opening quote.
“What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”
Over the course of the recent presidential election campaign cycle, the political candidates did what political candidates have done since Adams and Jefferson. The candidates threw out enough rhetorical red meat to build a voting block in order to win an election and like ravenous wolves much of the public and the media fed on it, with the media regurgitating it over and over just in case someone missed it. To those who are not students of history or political junkies the antics of this election campaign seemed new and particularly unseemly. In reality there was nothing new about these shenanigans and the mud-slinging negative tone.
The day before the election I shared a post with my Facebook friends many of whom had been expressing their dismay with the rhetoric that they had heard and read during this presidential campaign. Of course that was a Facebook post that was hastily written without the benefit of spell check and contained my usual share of typos.
While this campaign has been particularly repugnant to most of us with the blatant racism, sexism, xenophobia and just plain mean-spiritedness, believe it or not there have been worse. Just read this article about Adams vs. Jefferson. What makes this campaign seem so atrocious is the fact that we are living in a 24-hour news, social media, and globally wired world.
"Back in 1776, the dynamic duo combined powers to help claim America's independence, and they had nothing but love and respect for one another. But by 1800, party politics had so distanced the pair that, for the first and last time in U.S. history, a president found himself running against his VP.
Things got ugly fast. Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a 'hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.' In return, Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson 'a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.' As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was 'one of the most detestable of mankind.'"
See more at:
Does any of this sound familiar?
She’s a liar. She can’t be trusted. She’s a criminal. She’s evil. She has low morals. Her husband has low morals. She’s weak.
He’s a racist? He’s mentally ill. He’s evil. He has low morals. His wife has low morals. He’s a coward.
I won’t debate the merits of any of any of those allegations nor will I list them all. You’ve probably heard them or read most of them including the truly insane and absurd suggestions from persons in both camps that the candidate of the other party need to be violently removed.
Not only were those comments made about the candidates they were said about their supporters and often the word “All” was included in those statements.
What is truly tragic about this election is that while the nation has grown and become more diverse over the past 300 years, our political discourse has failed to evolve with it. That says more about our society as a whole than it does about any individual political candidate or their campaign. It speaks to the fact that for too many of us the world is viewed through the lens of “us vs. them”.
Last night as I was watching the election returns come in a very well educated and reasonably rational person in the same room made the statement, “You know that all White people think like him. They all call us “Ni____s” behind closed doors”. Of course, I had a comeback for that comment but as I uttered it I knew that my words were falling on the ears of someone for whom this is their dogma. In that, they are no different than the people for whom the idea that all Muslims are dangerous, all Hispanics are illegals and all poor people are lazy and want a free ride from working people.
I still believe the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who refused “to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become reality.” Like Dr. King, I too “believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” However, people and election cycles always test my faith in humanity especially when people for whom I have profound respect make statements like, “I have given up discussing Black folks’ business with White people who will never understand”. Should I stop trying to discuss issues involving the struggles of family caregivers or the challenges faced by the homeless too? Should we all just stop trying to communicate to others who aren’t “like us” or who don’t share our views? Where would we all be today if the abolitionists and suffragettes had stop trying to be understood?
When did we stop listening to each other? It seems that too many of us hear and judge but refuse to truly listen.
“The intolerant man will not rely on persuasion, or on the worth of the idea.
He would deny to others the very freedom of opinion or of dissent which he so stridently demands for himself. He cannot trust democracy.” – Robert F. Kennedy
Yet that is what we continue to do.
“The task of leadership, the first task of concerned people, is not to condemn or castigate, or deplore: it is to search out the reason for disillusionment and alienation, the rationale of protest and dissent.” ---- Robert F. Kennedy
While I am fully aware that there were elements of racism, religious intolerance, xenophobia and misogyny which were clearly apparent during this election cycle, I also know that not every vote cast for either candidate can be so easily labeled or explained.
For example how can you say that the educated White female South Carolinian who may have voted for Nikki Haley as Governor is ignorant because she did not vote for Hillary Clinton? Could it be that this voter disagreed with Ms. Clinton on the issue of abortion or same-sex marriage and those beliefs were reflected in her vote? We will never know if we don’t ask her and listen to her reply.
Is the Black woman who voted for Hillary Clinton not a true Christian because her vote?
Is the White male former factory worker whose company moved out of town and now he can not find a job working 40 hours a week that will pay his mortgage and car note a bigot because he voted for Trump or just angry because he is facing financial hardship and believes that one candidate will represent his views? We will never know if we hold the view that all Trump supporters are bigots.
Is the Black man who refrained from voting irresponsible because he believes that neither candidate understands what it is like to live in fear of being killed by police?
I could present at least 100 scenarios based on people with whom I’ve interacted which fit none of the neatly defined stereotypes that are so often used to describe how people voted or why they protest.
“ I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit. “ -- President John F Kennedy, remarks at a closed-circuit television broadcast on behalf of the national cultural center, November 29, 1962. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962, pp. 84647.
“We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will talk sense to the American people. But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this Nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense. “ -- President John F. Kennedy, remarks prepared for delivery at the Trade Mart in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963.Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963, p. 891. This speech was never delivered. President Kennedy was on his way to the Trade Mart when he was assassinated.
I close this blog post with an excerpt from a more recent and, like all the others, a far more eloquent voice than mine.
"That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many -- and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." -- Excerpt from President Barack Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address
In order to accomplish any of this, we must all assume, “the first task of concerned people, … not to condemn or castigate, or deplore: (but instead) search out the reason for disillusionment and alienation, the rationale of protest and dissent.”
In short we need to speak to each other and truly listen. The world is not divided into “Us vs. Them”.