(Or A Brush with Acute Tunnel Vision)
A set of right-wing talking points was casually "rebroadcast" over dinner one night. The perpetrator, a friend of my wife, thought he had a sympathetic audience. He was wrong. Sparks flew, as they do whenever I encounter Republican and Tea Party talking points that offer comfort to the comfortable. This armchair patriot pontificated on the evils of taxing the rich, and spoke from the high end of a playing field that he insisted was level. At such moments I cannot resist the urge to shove aside an “offensive line” and sack such a pompous right-wing quarterback.
Among the more odd details was the setting: a Mexican restaurant. His meal was being prepared and served by “have-nots”, people whose opportunity for economic advancement, the American Dream, was being throttled by the xenophobia and the predatory, tireless avarice of this man's political party.
Easy words and lazy, borrowed ideas, flowed from the mouth of this man, who lapped up his daily dose of talk radio like it were the porridge that was just right, and now he was feeling satiated, sleepy, ready for a nap.
He and his wife had gone to high school with my wife, had married while in college, and kept in touch with Jane as they raised children. I only knew them as a consequence of meeting and marrying Jane, and I lacked the emotional connection, longevity of friendship, and the sense that conversing with them served as any kind of a landmark or touchstone.
Conversation over dinner began well enough. There were children to speak of, now grown and testing careers, news of our own parents and their maladies, talk of vacations past and to come, including the sights to see out west and “up North” a Wisconsin expression denoting the top half of the state.
All socially pleasant and safe topics, these, calculated to keep digestion on track, even liable to nurture bonds of friendship between me and Jane's longtime friends. How did the conversation go so wrong...
Can't blame the mariachis. They stopped by with guitars to serenade this booth of middle-aged, third and fourth generation European immigrants, and I surprised everyone, my wife and the mariachis included, when I recognized the song “Guantanamera” and sang along in Spanish.
So, we could even have a little fun together. Encouraging sign...
The exchange that arose soon after is not rendered verbatim. My memory is clouded by flashes of anger over what I heard, and the level of social and moral obliviousness it signals. But I suspect state politics crept sideways into the conversation because of the husband's occupation: downsized out of a career as an airline pilot some two decades ago, he had opened a local gas station/mini mart and over the succeeding years had opened several more.
“High” taxes, that popular delusion of the self-righteous, “I-did-it-myself” crowd, intruded into our dinner chat. The husband complained about the level of taxation his business incurred, and about the property taxes he paid on the couples' decidedly upscale McMansion in the glacially-carved Wisconsin countryside. These conspicuous “haves” who were sitting with Jane and I always know where their next meal is coming from, a frame of reference that far too many Americans, especially Republicans, ignore...
The husband was clearly excited to talk about his prosperity and his plans to increase it. So enthusiastic that he forgot my wife is a public school teacher, has been for decades, and that the Republican Governor and Republican-dominated legislature had recently lowered the standard of living for public sector employees while quietly legislating massive giveaways, incentives and tax breaks for corporate and big business interests.
When he made the mistake of saying that voting Scott Walker, a morally and ideologically diseased son of a minister, into the Governor's office, was the best thing Wisconsin had done in a long time, I shot my wife a glance. No question about it, my blood was beginning to boil.
Jane is far more tolerant of the ignorant than I am. Perhaps decades of having to deal with the occasional clueless, self-centered and disengaged parent has cultivated in her what is at least tolerance. I take a different tack. Yes, let the ignorant speak. If they want to reveal their perspective, expose it in public to the marketplace of ideas, they should be ready to have those ideas parsed, weighed, critiqued even.
Jane's face wore a mask of attention, and when he stopped talking she said nothing.
“So, Scott Walker is the best thing that has happened to Wisconsin in a long time, you say?” I asked. “You voted for him?”
“You approved of Act 10.”
“That law the Republican majority railroaded through the legislature. The one that lowered Jane's income and slashed her benefits.”
“It sure as hell did. We “fat cat” public sector employees and our families had it too good, did we? Walker didn't give a shit about trying to raise living standards for private sector employees. That was the real moral, political and economic challenge. It took less gray matter to buy into the Koch Brothers twisted ideology, and Walker is nothing if not intellectually lazy, like Paul Ryan and Ron Johnson, so Walker decided to lower the living standards of leeches and "takers" like my wife here.”
The three people sitting with me returned looks of shock and confusion. But I continued.
“You voted for Walker? You stole money from me and my wife while you live lives of comfort and ease, take long vacations in your travel trailer whenever the mood strikes you, or stay at your cabin up north. And you complain about taxes? Are you serious?”
I was just warming up.
“Well, Ben,” I said, seething, “Let's take a look at your “grievance”. You say your taxes are too high on your business and on your home and acreage. You two arrived here separately, from your errands or whatever, you in that bloated SUV which carries around no one but you most days and gets just how many miles per gallon? Le Anne, you arrived in that upscale sedan, which you trade in every two years, since it seems I'm always hearing about your latest set of wheels.”
Now it was Jane's turn to shoot a glance at me.
“Ben, how much do your cashiers earn, per year let's say? A living wage?”
“Well, gross, about seventeen six. For full time.”
“Gross? Your definition of a living wage?”
“Well, no, but these are kids, still living at home.”
“All of your employees are minors, still living at home?”
“No, a few are working Moms.”
“Well, what do you and Scott Walker consider a living wage?”
“...Well, closer to thirty five thousand.”
“Would you consider driving a Ford Focus, each of you, if it meant the money you saved could be used to pay one of your full time employees a living wage?”
Husband and wife looked at each other.
“You're Catholics, right?” I asked.
It was clear they sensed a trap.
“Are you, or are you not, according to your faith, your brother's keeper?”
“So you,” I continued, “Mr. “My-taxes are-too-high”, pay your full-time employees less than half of what you consider a living wage, while you galavant around in a gas guzzling SUV or a late model, all-frills-included sedan that you trade in every two years.”
“Hey,” he said, growing alarmed, “I worked hard and took risks to build up this business. I've earned my reward.”
“How do people get to your business?”
“What means do they use to arrive at your business?”
“They drive through cornfields, through streams and over wagon trails to come and buy candy bars and cigarettes?”
“Of course not. They use roads.”
“Who pays for those roads?”
“We all do.”
“By paying our...?”
“So your business depends on an infrastructure, a system of roads, something we all pay for.”
“So when I pay my taxes, I'm supporting your business.”
“So stop with the “I-did-it-myself” line. The public has been propping up your business for decades.”
“Point taken. Mike, you're a bit worked up.”
“Let's take a look at your business. You sell gasoline, a product whose manufacture is highly subsidized by the federal government. The tax breaks big oil gets are an abomination. You also sell cigarettes, a known carcinogen, so you play a part in promoting tobacco addiction and driving up health care costs.”
“Hey, I don't force anyone to buy cigarettes.”
“No, you're just a pusher or a dealer. You make money off of other peoples' addictions.”
Jane put her hand on my wrist.
“Let's talk about the food you sell. Or rather the food-like items you sell. It's corporate crap.”
Jane began to squeeze my wrist.
“The garbage you pass off as “food” is high in sugar, high in fat, high in salt, and devoid of nutrition. Oh, and yes, it's also engineered to be addictive. It promotes obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.”
“Mike,” Jane said, lifting my wrist and putting her hand in mine.
“Bottom line, Ben. Your “business” is selling government subsidized petroleum, cigarettes and junk food. Have you calculated the social cost of running your business?”
“...I don't know what that is.”
“I'm not surprised. Social cost: the price you don't pay up front for the damage you cause. You promote cigarette and junk food addictions that cause higher health care costs, and you participate in a government-subsidized oil distribution racket, I call it corporate welfare, that damages the environment. The rest of us have to pay the price for your prosperity. Social costs.”
Le Anne wore a look of concern as she spoke. “There are plenty of problems to solve in this society.”
I turned to face her. “And for you, paying taxes isn't one of them. If you paid the full cost for the damage you do running this “business” as you call it, your taxes would be a lot higher and you'd be living in a smaller house, driving sensible cars, not wallowing in over-consumption, and not genuflecting every time Scott Walker farts.”
A canyon, vast and bottomless, had opened up where the table once stood.
“Honey,” Jane said, “Your inner Socialist is ranting. Put him away until the next party meeting.”
My wife...I will never understand the machinations of the universe that brought her to me. I will only be eternally humbled and grateful that it happened.
Conversation diminished for a few minutes while I climbed down from my pulpit. Ben had unwittingly provoked my predatory instincts. I responded by seizing a “gotcha” moment and unloading bile on him and Le Anne. After my tirade, they had every right to excuse themselves and leave.
...And they didn't. I had violated the social contract, picked the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong conversation, and the wrong people to consciously insult. I credit their respect and affection for Jane and her ability to bridge so many divides. I can't quite understand how she did it, but Jane soon had us all giggling, myself included, about my the alter-ego, the inner Socialist, a term she now says came to her tongue and escaped her lips before she knew what she was saying.
I didn't feel powerful, righteous and heroic about what I had said and done. I was confused, sad...and yet, I also felt the tiniest tinge of...pride. This is a piece of the mystery that surrounds being human, of holding in suspension the seemingly irreconcilable...
Jane and I met in our late thirties, and brought to our marriage the strengths, experiences and wounds of our former lives. One hard-knock lesson of those separate lives has been a conscious decision to make time to talk about confusing and troubling events, to unpack them and dig deeper into their causes and consequences. If this is the work required of adults, painful, humbling, even frightening at times, it is, ultimately, rewarding and liberating labor.
We unpacked this scene at home later, over the span of several days, and assembled a list of facts, admissions and discoveries.
1) I had ignored my own set of guidelines for engaging in conversation with people who hold political beliefs, and express political opinions, that differ from mine. Who will admit that one conversation, one debate, or one confrontation, has ever changed his mind? Far better to get to know someone and learn more about the origins of his beliefs, share your own in small doses, and begin to establish bonds of friendship if initial conversation seems promising and common interests or experiences encourage it. This is especially so when the setting is primarily social in nature.
2) I let Ben push my buttons, when he had no intention of offending me. I was the one with the problem. An obvious question, when I had calmed down, was, “Where (the hell!) did that anger come from?”
3) My ego overstepped its bounds, bigtime, and demanded that I win. Our conversation over dinner, a social setting, was interrupted when I drew my verbal sword of righteousness and began swinging it.
4) I was rude, way out of line, and didn't apologize. Jane's diplomacy, and ultimately, her love for all present, restored civility.
5) This scene never had to unfold, or unravel, as it did. I could have quietly said that I felt very differently about the topic, felt uncomfortable talking about it, and could we change the subject. This would have conveyed that I held different opinions. Jane's friends are astute enough to recognize and respect a boundary.
1) I had definitely set a boundary, in a caustic and harsh manner, and my technique had consequences. Any attempt I now made to broach the topic of politics with Ben and Le Anne would, for a very long time, be colored by my rant. I had put off, perhaps even strangled, any chance to offer a broader perspective on the profound level of dysfunction, economic, social and political, wrought by Republican and Tea Party ideology. I would be remembered as the raving “leftie”, unapproachable on matters of politics, at least for a while. This is the very opposite of what I want. Because...
2) Jane and I had much more in common with her friends than we did with the primary perpetrators of this supply-side, trickle down fiasco that is called the U.S. economy. My rant was mis-targeted. If the truly wealthy, and corporations, were paying the taxes they should be paying, ours would be lower. The rest of us are being cheated, have been for decades, forced to shoulder too high a tax burden while the rich have bribed their way into unearned entitlement.
3) When Ben was downsized out of his career as an airline pilot, he had to scramble to support his family. His efforts and accomplishments were, in fact, admirable, to a point. My observation about externalized/social costs remains valid. But the investment of time and effort he lavished on his new business had other undesirable costs. It limited his perspective, a plight that befalls all too many businessmen. He made the easy choice to adopt, without scrutiny or skepticism, a political swill of talking points proffered by talk radio weasels, who string together a word salad of cause-effect relationships that have a veneer of sense, and who deliver this verbal spam at high speed. This discourages casual listeners from parsing the contents and finding the fallacies. My reaction to his words stemmed in part from his notion that he and Le Anne were “victims” of “unfair” taxation.
4) As rude as I had been, I had also stung them with some unpleasant truths. These two lacked a sustained tendency toward introspection, common among Republicans and Tea Party types, often failed to put their lives in perspective, and tended to associate within a rather narrow social, political and economic spectra. Dinner with Jane and me was the infrequent opportunity for them to hear about lives lived very differently from what they took for normal. This was no excuse for me to step over a boundary and appoint myself their “Reality Instructor”.
5) What had kept Le Anne from pursuing a career, from entering the job market? What thinking, what unexamined assumptions, what archaic gender role beliefs, informed their decisions?
6) Ben often made jokes at Le Anne's expense about her appetite, strangely unaware of her reaction, or perhaps, sadly, he was aware of it. This baffled and irked me. But unlike this couple, I had lived through the dissolution of an earlier marriage, and as a result I try not to take Jane for granted. Publicly belittling a spouse is both alien and infantile behavior. Behind such “humor” is hostility, anger, issues that need a private airing, and perhaps a professional mediator/therapist. But in fairness, my own anger is baggage I've carried for decades, my desire to get even with those who mistreated me. All that Ben had done that night was repeat some ideas that he thought rang true. My reaction was an overreaction. I have work to do to liberate myself from the tyranny of this anger. It blinds me to the humanity of others.
7) Ben's singlemindedness about growing his business had negative effects on his family, another cost he had not calculated. Years of sixty-hour work weeks kept him away from many of the milestone moments in his daughters' lives, alienated them, and they saw right through his clumsy attempts to substitute cars and other material goods for his physical presence and genuine emotional involvement in their lives. He is still not fully aware of his neglect and its role in their distant behavior.
8) Ben's emotional intelligence is at a near pre-adolescent level. The big-toys-for-big-boys he surrounds himself with don't interest his wife or daughters anywhere near as much as they do him, but it doesn't occur to him to ask them about their interests, their ambitions, their feelings or their dreams for the lives they wanted, and still want...
Stepping back to survey the social landscape, it's fair to say the reign of the narcissistic sociopaths is in full swing. The unthinking masses may, for a time, be misled into seeing virtue in their vices. Remember that such walking pathologies are adept at self-promotion, though the content is lacking and the motivation toxic.
But the self-absorption and rank avarice of these clowns has already caused them to overstep, blunder and stumble. Time now to apply leverage in places and at times too numerous to count, and too numerous to counter. But even as we restore integrity to our government, and vitality and opportunity to our economy, by electing principled legislators and executives whose thoughts and deeds far exceed the pathetic norms now in place, we must state our case that the status quo is a disease, must provide the proof, and must not make enemies of those who would be our allies.
Zooming back in, Jane met Le Anne and Ben for dinner a few times after my “dinner theater” performance, and shared with me how her old friends were doing. My absence was not calculated, by the way. A job change has me on second shift these days. And we did meet again, the four of us, just recently. But that is the stuff of another diary...
I have made you party to a minor skirmish in a civil war. Remind your friends and family that this war is blind to “neutrals”. Noncombatants and “civilians” will suffer the further slights of the right and be swallowed up by an oligarchy committed, absolutely, to further devaluation of labor and of civil and economic rights, including the right to prosper. There are people and organizations who deserve endless waves of our anger, our defiance, our resistance. They support the status quo.
My aim is improving. I select my targets now with more patience, more care, more intelligence, more humanity. I remain an angry man, imperfect, clumsy, weak at times. But there is a fire in my belly, a cauldron into which I pour all the slights of the weak and the ignorant who thought to build themselves up at my expense. I commit their collected poison to the flames and forge the weapons I use to fight for peace and for shared, shared, shared prosperity.
Inner Socialist? No... American.