Something I’ve learned this year is that how a person views any given topic depends largely on how they fit that viewpoint into the story they tell themselves about how the world works. For most people when you start talking to them about politics they don’t cite economic data or scholarly works. Most of them don’t even quote the talking heads of radio or television. Instead they’ll tell you a story…
“I was at the grocery store yesterday and the woman in front of me was buying steak with food stamps…”
“I’ve been looking for a job for a year and can barely make the rent…”
“My son’s best friend got killed in this damn war. I nearly lost him too…”
“I waited for three hours at the free clinic just to be told they couldn’t help me…”
“I just want my brother and his husband to get the same rights that my daughter and her husband have…”
“My grandfather came up from nothing by hard work and determination so it makes me sick when I see these freeloaders…”
“If it weren’t for free meals at school my kids would go hungry…”
One of the things that I’ve learned is to stop and listen when somebody else is telling their story. There’s something in a personal tale that helps to humanize issues in a way that raw data simply can’t do. What looks good on paper doesn’t always translate into the reality of human experience.
The trick is to not stop with just one story. Or two stories. Or stories just from people who look like you and live in your neighborhood. Or stories that support the views you already hold.
If rich people and poor people and gay people and straight people and black people and white people and Christian people and atheist people and all the other groups of people in the world could take a little more care to listen to tales of the others came to their conclusions we might just have a lot less disagreement than we think we do. That would be quite the story indeed.
This is how My Obama Year ends, not with some great revelation but only with more questions than I had when I began it. Some of my viewpoints have genuinely changed over the last year. Some I have tried on only to find that like a borrowed pair of shoes they just didn’t seem to ever fit quite right.
Over the next few days I’d like to spend just a couple posts wrapping up the experience and trying to make sense out of it all. My conservative friends will no doubt believe that I’ve turned into a flaming liberal. My progressive friends may well retain the impression that at my core I’m still a die-hard right-winger. So it goes.
To begin this autopsy I’ll start with the end and at the end of it all: I just don’t care about politics like I used to. The reasons for this apathy are many but the one idea that stands above the rest is that the game itself is rigged and as the climactic scene in War Games teaches us: “the only winning move is not to play.”
Watching the party leaders fight in Washington is akin to watching a pro-wrestling match on television. The entire fight is a scripted bit of pageantry for the amusement of the onlookers who will keep shelling out money to support their favorite spandex-clad gladiator’s antics. The outcomes of any given match just don’t matter as long as the spectators continue to cheer or boo for their favorite “fighter.” That’s not to say that the wrestler’s aren’t athletes who could do some damage if they wanted to, nor is it to say that people don’t sometimes genuinely get hurt in the ring through bad luck and happenstance — but in the end it just doesn’t matter because the overall goal has nothing to do with who wins or loses.
A lot of people believe that what we need in this country is more political parties to reduce the influence of the two parties currently in power. The only issue with that notion is that the parties we see are not red and blue, they share one common color: green. With the current way our political system works the only people who can get into high office are ones who have made deals with the exact same people who fund the current batch of politicians. If the same guys are paying the piper then we can’t expect a very different set of tunes.
President Obama himself acknowledged this reality in his book The Audacity of Hope when he wrote about his first campaign for Senate: “Absent great personal wealth there is basically one way of raising the kind of money involved in a U.S. Senate race. You have to ask rich people for it.” (p. 110) One funny thing I’ve noticed about rich people I’ve known is that they’re very keen on getting something in return for the the dollars they spend. There are always strings attached, votes to cast, and favors to repay. In this land of special interests common sense solutions can never prevail for common sense is no respecter of persons.
This new-found awareness of the political gamesmanship puts me in a very strange circumstance of seeing the country divided into two basic political parties: the people who finance the machinery of government and everybody else. I have no other way of explaining why no matter whether we’re having 8 years of Bush or 8 years of Obama that the one overriding factor is that the wealthiest citizens remain mostly unaffected by the things that happen to the rest of us.
The decorations and slogans change. The world moves on more or less the same. Taxes go up and down nominal amounts. The debt continues to climb unabated. More or less largess is thrown from the public coffers in order to keep the poorest citizens from outright revolt. Meanwhile those of middle class continue sitting at their kitchen table trying to figure out how to pay the bills and wondering where the safety net is that seems to care for both the rich and poor but never the working class people who are just scraping by.
I don’t have answers. I don’t know if this can be fixed. All I know is that I can no longer play the game.
It’s Columbus Day today, the day when we celebrate the occasion of Christopher Columbus
discovering arriving at some place that was vaguely in the general vicinity of America where he was greeted by sign-wielding natives chanting “Speak Arawak or Go Home!” To which Chris responded “oh, yeah?” and then gave them all smallpox.
To this day, however, the tradition remains that when new people arrive on our shores a certain contingent of our population becomes highly offended if the new arrivals continue speaking their mother tongue. Or as they put it: “Them furriners ain’t even trying to speak gooder English.”
Notwithstanding that the immigrants today are actually learning English faster than many past immigrants, it’s strange to hear such controversy over having a multi-lingual culture such as is enjoyed by most of the world. In fact according to a 1999 study from the Center for Applied Linguistics “there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual.”
So why all the fervor? It’s really quite simple: very few things are more personal to us than our language. The idea that “liberals” will “force us” to have to accept a bilingual (because make no mistake, this is about one language: Spanish) society is a great way to scare people into voting against relaxed immigration policies. They can’t force me to learn that jibber-jabber! No, siree!
Yet today we celebrate an Italian who sailed here from Spain. How very unAmerican.
I remember hearing a somewhat apocryphal story of a boy who’s father caught him puffing on the end of a discarded cigarette. To teach the boy a lesson the father purchased an entire pack of cigarettes and made the boy smoke all of them until he was so sick that he swore he’d never touch them again. As I puff along on heavy drags of the news of the what’s going on in Washington these days I rather imagine how the youngster felt.
Politics is making me sick.
I’m tired of politicians who want to rewrite the rules on the fly. If a law has been legally passed by both houses, signed by the President, and upheld by the Supreme Court then that law is binding. If you don’t like that then you should have done better at the polls, done better at rallying your troops in the Congress, or done better at making your arguments in the courts.
If you didn’t then trying to hold parts of the government hostage in some last ditch effort to prevent the law from taking effect flies in the face of the very intent of the Founders you claim to revere and sets a horrible precedent for our political future.
By the same token, attempting to use the shutdown of some small amount of the government as an excuse to stage political drama at our monuments is just the most base kind of opportunism. I’m looking at both sides here. A Representative shouldn’t be yelling at a park ranger for a shutdown that he helped cause. And park rangers shouldn’t be blocking off views Mount Rushmore for no discernible reason. This game of point and counterpoint is just stupid.
You know what the worst part is? Given a different law and a different set of circumstances the Democrats would be the ones stubbornly shutting down the government and the Republicans would be in the position of trying to make the shutdown as annoying to the public as possible. The game would go on.
Puff. Puff. Gag.