How to Go High?

Dear Joel,

Years ago, I was visiting the home of a politically conservative couple in rural Kansas. They were a generation older than me and very gracious hosts. We were on the patio, eating dinner, when the wife suddenly picked up a fly swatter and used it to smash a box elder that had landed on her chair. “Damn Democrat,” she muttered as she shook its guts into a nearby planter.

I’d never heard the term before (maybe you, a native Kansan, have), but apparently the term is used in the central states for these bugs, which appear around the time of the national political conventions.  (This may be the only time I get to use my limited knowledge of etymology and entomology in the same sentence!) But the glee with which my host smashed that bug, then swore at it, let me know that she very much enjoyed thinking about members of the opposing political party as detestable, destructive objects that she could kill.

Image result for boxelder bugs

Above, a box elder bug. What happens when we use metaphors that show contempt for people with differing political views? When are such metaphors funny or useful? When do they shape our feelings about actual people?

I tried not to give that moment too much credibility, but I replayed it many times in my mind since, especially since the 2016 primary season. Around that time, I began a side project following “Deplorable” Facebook pages, pro-Trump social media spaces that, in the words of one, are for anyone who has been accused of having an “-ism” (racism, sexism, nativism, etc.). The total disrespect that members of these boards have for others (including other members who sometimes ask them to stop with the most violently racist and sexist memes) seemed another version of smashing of the box elder bug.

And your comments earlier this week, about our race to the bottom, our movement from tribalization to demonization to the Russia scandal, reminded me of it again. You argued that both Democrats and Republicans get tribal and demonize each other. Consequently, we justify whatever means we can use because, after all, the “other guy” is going to do it too. Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power. It’s a game of controlling the ball but never moving it forward, just as GOP leadership has done in these first 100+ days of the Trump administration.

I don’t think it’s too Capraesque to say that we can have leaders who do good well. We just have to want that more than we want the other things we are voting for, including racism. We have to say that playing fairly matters to us, that we won’t defend politicians who cheat, fearmonger, scapegoat, obfuscate, undermine democratic participation in our institutions, and obstruct justice. Why would we want leaders who do those things? (And, trust me on this one, there are plenty of people on Deplorable social media sites who see Trump’s lies, bigotry, and cheating as absolute positives. Their support for Trump as “God Emperor” is evidence, I think, of the need for civics education.)

Did voters get what they deserved in the 2016 election? Until the shadow of Russian interference in the election is gone, we won’t know. At minimum, though, it was clear in the primary line-up that we didn’t care enough about character to support candidates who were competent and had the character both to serve and to lead a divided nation forward toward a more perfect democracy.

Can we get there? Yes. You asked, though, how. How do we go high when they go low, whatever our party affiliation and whoever we see as the “they”?

I think we have to punish politicians who lack character by voting them out of office and calling them out when, during their tenure, they fail to live up to basic standards of civility and decency. That also means, though, that we need better options–which means more people of character stepping up to serve in elected roles, which means lowering the financial barriers to running. We can also improve civics education, making public service integral to civil life, so that the question “How do I serve?” is one everyone asks.

Rebecca

Political Anger and Political Violence

Dear Joel,

Let’s talk about threats of political violence.

No, not Kathy Griffin. (Though we can talk about her, too. I think a severed Trump head is a fine form of political speech, not a threat against the president, and I wish that someone cleverer than Griffin had done it, that the image had been more meaningful, not less graphic. In fact, I’ve been warning conservative Christians about the risks of a symbolic Trump beheading for awhile now.)

I mean Kim Weaver, a Democrat running who was running against Iowa’s Steve King for a seat in the House. King is a racist and a nativist, and he’s quite open and proud of those beliefs. Weaver had run against King in 2016 and was gearing up to run against him again for 2018. She dropped out of the race this week, though, citing, in part, the toll that constant threats–including death threats–was taking on her.

And I mean Stephanie Clayton, the Kansas House Republican who was threatened with hanging on social media after she announced that she was voting with her moderate colleagues to keep guns off Kansas’ campuses, a choice that most faculty on those campuses support.

And Clementa (“Clem”) Pinckney, a Democrat serving in South Carolina’s House, who was killed when a white supremacist opened fire during his church service two summers ago.

And I mean Gabby Giffords, who had been targeted by violent right-wingers high on the violent rhetoric of Sarah Palin and others long before she was shot in a mass shooting that killed 6 others, including a Judge John Roll–who had also long faced death threats–and a child.

And Robert Smith Vance, a federal judge killed in his Alabama home by a mail bomb sent by a man who’d also been bombing civil rights advocates.

And James M. Hind, the first member of Congress assassinated. Hind, representing Arkansas in the House, was gunned down by a Klansman for his support of the rights of former slaves.

And John W. Stephens, a North Carolina state senator, who was murdered by Klansmen for his popularity among black voters, whose support had brought him into office.

And Tomás “Tomasito” Romero, a Pueblo who was assassinated after his capture for daring to rebel against US annexation of Mexico.

Above, Clayton, Hind, Vance, Pinckney, Giffords, and Stephens–all threatened or murdered by people whose political conservatism drove their violence. 

What do these folks have in common? They all represented a symbolic threat to the rule of conservative white men, and they were all threatened or killed because of it.

It’s not the political violence doesn’t happen to conservatives or that those on the left don’t commit violence (McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, as just one example.) But the violence and the violent rhetoric trends one direction: conservatives fomenting violence and hatred toward those they see as liberal or progressive.

Compare the rhetoric of the Women’s March to that of any Tea Party rally.

1[5]

Does he know he’s quoting Malcolm X?

[Above, a man at a Tea Party rally wears a hat indicating that he’s a Desert Storm veteran. Behind him is the Gadsen Flag, which has become associated not simply with the Tea Party but with anti-government extremist and hate movements. He holds a sign saying “By ballet or by bullet restoration is coming.”] 

Ask yourself: Do Democrats have to monitor their events to insure that participants aren’t unfurling a Confederate flag?

Consider the millions of racist images of the Obama family, including images of President Obama lynched. Or find the online images of a digital Hillary Clinton being sexually assaulted. (Better yet, don’t.)

In an attempt to find common ground in what feels like a very polarized America, it’s tempting for good liberals to suggest that we’re all guilty of othering our political opponents, that we’ve all engaged in debased language, that we’ve all been demeaned by the current political climate.

But we’re not all equally guilty. Not by a long shot.

Our pal Erick Erickson, in an article denying that we should be concerned about the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, said recently that he “would actually be really surprised if we make it to December 31st of this year without people in this country taking up arms against each other.” He’s part of the problem, of course–and he’s ignoring the fact that it’s almost always been social conservatives who have threatened civil war and see it unfolding with every new sign of equal treatment for women, African Americans, and LGBT people, not progressives. Factions of the right have been living in 1832 South Carolina for all their lives. They’re slobbering for a fight–all the time.

Speaking like a man in the first session of his court-ordered domestic abuser treatment program, Erickson goes on:

If the left really does believe the Republican Party is a criminal enterprise in league with the Russians, they’re either moral cowards without conviction in their beliefs or about to take up arms to defend their country. If the right really does believe the left is engaged in an unconstitutional coup against the lawfully elected President, they’re either moral cowards without convictions in their beliefs or about to take up arms to defend their country.

That’s right: If we really mean what we say when we say about our political opponents, in Erickson’s view, the only courageous option is civil war. Erickson, protected by his own privileges, doesn’t seem to understand what that would actually mean for the world. and doesn’t have the moral imagination to create solutions to these problems outside of violence. And Erickson is typical of many other conservatives in this regard.

So I’m not believing the crocodile tears of Republicans or their feigned horror over Kathy Griffin’s stunt.

And I’m not arguing that since they are propagators of violent rhetoric  we should be too. “When they go low, we go high” is a pretty good motto. And I don’t think we’re near to a civil war, despite Dennis Prager’s might tempt you and me to worry about.

But I am arguing, ever more forcefully, that we shouldn’t cater to the anger of Trump voters. So much post-election analysis expressed surprise at how angry these folks were, calling on good liberals to try to understand things from the perspectives of white voters in the exurbs and in rustbelt towns and places ripped apart by heroin and opioid epidemics. But underneath all that analysis was the idea that we should be afraid of these people. They are desperate… they are angry… they have guns…

And they tell us this themselves in threats veiled and explicit.

2A05011400000578-3141339-Gun_rights_This_southern_driver_s_flag_also_displayed_his_enthus-a-43_1435415500456

Above, protestors at a rally in defense of the display of the Confederate flag on public property display a giant flag from the back of a Cadillac SUV. Superimposed over the stars and bars is an image of an assault rifle and the words “Come and Take It.” I’m clearly supposed to be afraid of these people, who are just itching for a fight. 

But I’m angry too–and not just at Trump but at every fool who embraced his bigotry or willfully ignored it in order to get scammed by the biggest heel in reality TV.  That anger isn’t going away, and I’m not adding fear to it.

Rebecca