Reading Yahoo comments or watching right-wingers on T.V., or reading spectacular bits of wingnuttery quoted in DK diaries, one is struck not only by the shallowness of the arguments, but much more by the attitude revealed. Kos and others have described it on many occasions as living in a bubble, and that is certainly accurate. But what fascinates and terrifies me is the boiling pool of emotion that causes wingers to live in the bubble: hatred of others, especially to the extent they are “different”; hatred not just of facts, but of reason itself; hatred of nuance, shades of grey, and above all, uncertainty.
Human complexity, and the importance of balancing deep commitment to principle while always listening to that little voice that says “But what if you are wrong?” is what this essay is about. Follow me below the orange spaghetti if you would like to ponder this with me. Spoiler Alert: I have no firm answers to give, no links for evidence. This is just an essay, for better or worse.
As a teenager in late 60s Piedmont North Carolina, it struck me forcefully that the
evangelicals all around me, including especially the fellow high school students who tried and failed to convert me, were far more eager to see “sinners” burning in Hell, and to enjoy their suffering, than they were to enter Heaven themselves. My textile-mill working relatives were more interested in seeing union organizers and black people beaten up and degraded than in improving their own working conditions and standard of living. My best friend in high school called me the night of the MLK riots to express the hope that if any “nigger rioters” came in through his bedroom window that he would get to shoot one. This same guy was quite amiable in other ways, playing the entire 17 minutes of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” over the phone to me. Yet he enthusiastically endorsed bombing Vietnam into the Stone Age (North or South didn’t really concern him). He went on to a successful career as a minister. Hypocritical? Maybe. Full of complex and often contradictory feelings and ideas? Yes.
How does one maintain a strong commitment to principle necessary if one is to get off of the sofa and act for justice, freedom, equality--- how does one avoid following the right wing off of the cliff into the abyss of absolute certainty in one’s own righteousness? Graduate students in History slowly learn the rather schizophrenic trick of simultaneously holding multiple and often contradictory ideas in one’s head. Thus a student of the Third Reich can, at the same time, as a human being find Nazi ideology repulsive, coldly analyze it with pure rationality, and enter into it through imaginative empathy to the extent necessary to understand it. That this is difficult is an understatement. It requires humility to say, when looking even at the most horrific actions in history: “This is what I think and I am very sure that I am right, but I could be wrong.”
One of my A.P. U.S. history students--a permanent resident Canadian, actually--came up to me with tears in her eyes after a lecture on the last year of the Civil War. She said, “I feel so sad to think of the Confederate soldiers, ragged and starving in the trenches at Petersburg, risking their lives for a cause they knew was doomed---but then I think, but they were fighting to maintain slavery and to reject democratic majority rule, and they should have lost...and then I just feel like crying for everyone.” I told her she had learned something precious. To judge those who came before us--and those who live now with us--is a terrifying thing, and sadness at the human condition in all of its tragic grandeur is appropriate.
I could be wrong.
So many of the Obama Rox/Sux diaries on this site--and yes, I read them the way a motorist can’t help but peek as he drives by a terrible crash--are filled with bitterness and invective because they are fought on this very battleground, central to all who seek to bring their values into reality. Without a passionate commitment to a cause, to a set of principles, perhaps a candidate, how does one become motivated enough to act? And yet when that passionate commitment collides with a cold, rational analysis of means and ends, short-term and long-term goals and methods, uncertainty and nuance quickly disappear. Thus Obama rox diaries argue that criticism of the President risks depressing turnout on the left; Obama sux diaries argue that unless one sees clearly the failures and mistakes made since January 2009 there is no hope of correcting them. The “both sides are wrong” diaries argue....well, it’s obvious what they argue. In the course of the sux/rox debate I have read comments in which Lyndon Johnson is slammed as a war criminal, Andrew Jackson depicted as a monster, Harry Truman as a mass murderer, and Robert E. Lee dismissed as a traitor. And there is truth in all of these judgements. But what is missing, what seems ever less present as the heat rises, is nuance. What is missing is an acknowledgement that the full story is complex. What is missing is humility.
I could be wrong.
Make your opinions known, pass judgement on politicians and generals present and past. But as you do, never forget that we are all twisted and contorted by our upbringing and the events of our time. Never forget that each of us has ugly and brutal impulses but also a capacity for love and kindness. Never forget that things almost never turn out as we expect they will. No one participating in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1954 really grasped that it was the beginning of the end for segregation, and yet it was. No one shaking Robert Kennedy’s hand in the spring of 1968 realized that a generation later liberals would be fighting desperate rear-guard actions to save something of the New Deal, and yet it is so. No one involved in designing and producing the first electric air conditioners realized that they were unleashing vast tides of population movement and consequent political change, and yet it was so. Never forget that the past is an alien place to us, full of different customs and beliefs and just as ignorant of what is to come in the future as we are now. When I graduated from high school in 1969, I had never heard of--because they had not yet come into existence---personal computers, the Internet, food stamps, the EPA, 9/11, MRI scans, Roe v Wade, hybrid cars, foodies, female Secretaries of State, Walmart Supercenters, gay marriage, extreme Bircher right-wing control of the Republican Party, Peruvian restaurants in North Carolina, and....well, a lot more. Perhaps particularly well-informed specialists could have seen some of these coming, but as Joe Average Guy I certainly could not.
I could be wrong.