I saw a picture of a childhood friend today, shaking hands with president Trump. He said he was proud to be shaking the hands of a president – this or any other. I spend so much time in a given week learning about or thinking about the travesties that pass as governance, and feel sometimes like I am stuck in an Orwellian nightmare. I can’t help but feel that if one agrees with Trump as a person, that they are a part of a social group that is diametrically opposed to my sensibilities and philosophies and instincts. And that if they support him as the leader of the free world, they are lost as to what values and virtues such as freedom, responsibility, and the rule of law really mean. I felt much the same way when Bush was in office. It raises some interesting questions not only about friendship, but also partisanship, principles, and temperament. As I reflect on this friendship vis-à-vis the problems in America today, I am asking myself questions about the virtue of moderation – not one of my most familiar values.
In the same Facebook foray – which I only take a couple times a month now, since I think it is such a waste of time and is so bad for one’s sense of gratitude, tranquility, and feelings of normalcy – I came across a firebrand who told me where I could stick my ignorant viewpoints. She was locked and loaded to give me a double-barrel blast of knowledge, and was primed to engage in partisan bickering. It’s the whole “You’re either with us, or against us” that Bush made famous in 2001. She went so far as to suggest that I was “butthurt”, which as you know is an appalling term for those of us who are against rape as a general rule (that is one of the weirdest sentences I have ever written). We made amends a little bit after I accused her of being rageful and hyperbolic. She admitted she was, to some degree. But this was only after I think she looked into me and realized that I was not a raging conservative, but pretty much progressive. She was fighting as if her back was to the wall, which, on Facebook, it often is (artificially so). Moderation is usually no virtue on social media.
So it raises the point: to what degree should I criticize my friend in the Border Patrol, who has become much more conservative and against the media and progressives? It is both a matter of the degree to which one travels outside one’s familiar territory of folks who are of the same political stripe, religion, social class, and so on. I fear we rarely deal effectively now with folks who are different than us. It’s far too easy to uninvite that relative to Thanksgiving, to engage in the kind of heated self-assurance one sees in a Bill Maher or Sean Hannity, or to rehearse beliefs that one developed at some distant point in the past. No one has a shirt that says “Moderation Is My Thing.”
We are quick to assume something that has more judgmentalism and fundamentalism than moderation is truer or purer. Something like: “My childhood friend is happily shaking Trump’s hand in this photo, and engaging in order-taking from him as Commander in Chief with only minor levels of resistance – if any. He spent more time apprehending illegal migrants than he has reading or engaging in progressive political philosophy. He seems to be lost in a haze of order-taking and loyalty and entrenchment in a very unique and small social setting. We have seen how supporting fascists has worked out in other societies and it’s not good.”
That, or: “My friend is a so-called liberal, but he really doesn’t know what’s going on here at the border, nor does he know what it is like to have to follow orders because that is the nature of one’s job. I took a pledge to honor my superiors, and that goes all the way up to Trump. The media can try to alter perceptions for their own commercial purposes, and liberals can lob lemons from ivory towers, but I have my duty, just as the samurai had for generations. Support your master with fealty because you took an oath. Die by the sword if necessary.”
SIDEBAR: Fascism, according to philosopher Jason Stanley:
I think of fascism as a method of politics. It’s a rhetoric, a way of running for power. Of course, that’s connected to fascist ideology, because fascist ideology centers on power. But I really see fascism as a technique to gain power.
People are always asking, “Is such-and-such politician really a fascist?” Which is really just another way of asking if this person has a particular set of beliefs or an ideology, but again, I don’t really think of a fascist as someone who holds a set of beliefs. They’re using a certain technique to acquire and retain power.
We who are decidedly progressive or conservative can all see the errors that the other side makes. The middle ground seems like a no-man’s land rather than a philosophically safe place. Our predetermined notions and favorite biases are what we consider a vista from which we believe we can see the truth off in the distance. We develop biases and algorithms that we feel help us make sense of the world and function better. We human beings are tribal, passionate, biased, prone to mental error, and ready to fight. We’re chimpanzees with computers and clothes.
I also have a friend who is decidedly against abortion rights. He believes that life starts at the moment of conception. The other day, he pointed out that no matter how young a lifeform is – a zygote, for example – it only grows into one thing. “These fetuses don’t grow into cars, do they? They grow into adult human beings.” There is little moderation in an argument that says “No one should have a right to choose abortion,” and yet there is a point to be made that there are a half-dozen or more good methods of birth control. How dumb do you have to be to get three, four, five abortions? This demonstrates how dicey a social issue abortion is (and I personally decry the involvement of organized religions in the mix, since their #1 goal is growth in their ranks and financial support of the growing flock). Somewhere between “It’s murder!” and “Have as many 7th month abortions as you can afford, society doesn’t care a whit” lies the ideal position.
Guns, gays, and God are all extremely divisive social issues. We live in a time of disintegrating social norms, evolving sensibilities, and an inadequate educational system. One can see Barry Goldwater’s dictum wearing very thin in this day and age; he famously said: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
We have overwhelming personal and communal debt, the media finds a niche and hammers at it, and politicians and corporate leaders desperately try to feather their own nests, even at the expense of the Commons. It’s a tough time to be alive, no joke. If you don’t quite believe that, think of the way that kids now have never seen a world without constant screen time and social media; the social safety net is always under the gun when conservatives get their way, and yet the wealthy hold sway over their hearts; we are for the last three years experiencing negative population growth due largely to opioid deaths; we now have to accept that the “American dream” is dead for the foreseeable future (and the entire planet is on its way to extinction).
So there is a lot going on. It is easy to fight amongst each other. At one point, David and I were close friends and never let almost anything get between us. Now, we haven’t talked in a year. It’s a very stressful time to be American. And we know what rats do when they are under stress due to space limitations, food scarcity, or hierarchy aggression: they fight. Rats have been known to eat each other, chimps engage in warfare, and human beings – well, there has never been a more violent and tribalistic lifeform in the known galaxy than homo sapiens sapiens.
If one’s friendship dies on this cross, that is deeply lamentable. It bothers me to no end to think that someone as obnoxious and repugnant and Trump has caused damage to my friendship with David the Border Patrol big-wig. It makes me fighting mad. And yet, friendships have survived worse stressors than Trumpism and hyperpartisanship, and as my friendly abortion foe notes, America has always seemed to overcome the challenge of the day. He might point that the Civil War was a tremendous conflagration, and now the battlefields are all quiet. I would point out, though, that perhaps the war was never really successfully brought to a close, because we are fighting about many of those same issues even today.
I think the best one can do, though, is keep an eye on the fact that there are values such as strength, courage, decisiveness, and loyalty to one’s philosophy or cause, but that peace, gratitude, humility, a philosophical attitude, and love are values, too. We on the Left feel that the Right has been pulling the wool over our eyes in the name of money, power, and social control since Reagan (and would point to Nixon as a low-water mark for the principles of Republicans). Conservatives, on the other hand, ask why free speech on colleges is verboten, why a responsible person owning a gun is such a threat, and see the support of Hillary Clinton to be foolishness and naiveté of the highest sort. Religious folks feel that the atheists and agnostics among us are unprincipled and misguided, and folks like me tend to see the religious as dreamers who see what isn’t there because it feels good.
I sooo wish that money did not hold such sway over the hearts and minds of Americans (especially those in power), that education was taken seriously in this country for once, and that conservatives were truly conservative (as in, wished to conserve the planet and entitlement programs and good values such as decency, propriety, and humility). Pete Buttigieg is now a bellwether candidate for the issues in America: gay rights, the behavior of evangelicals since George W. Bush, and humility versus arrogance. It’s going to get interesting… (Here Buttigieg criticizes evangelicals for supporting Trump and hate, and in this link, a commentator suggests liberals not forget that free speech is a high virtue).
Fighting for a cause is something that we often extol the virtues of, but remember that white nationalists and strident student millennials are both driven by the same feelings. We must remember that fighting is most valuable when Nazis are sweeping across Europe, but in 99% of situations, softer virtues such as forgiveness, self-reflection, and moderation are virtues. Is character more about standing up for what one believes in, or being open to being wrong and being willing to take responsibility for mistakes? As I reflect both on my friend who is supporting a fascist in the Executive Branch of the U.S. government, and the earnest left-winger who told me where I can stick it, I really do hope America can find its better angels before we go the way of Rome. Ω
RELATED BLOG: CRITICAL THINKING and ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM. Here is a snippet, by David Niose: What Americans rarely acknowledge is that many of their social problems are rooted in the rejection of critical thinking or, conversely, the glorification of the emotional and irrational. What else could explain the hyper-patriotism that has many accepting an outlandish notion that America is far superior to the rest of the world?