Most of us, as adults, have many responsibilities. We have a responsibility to our communities, locally, nationally and globally, and although we view those responsibilities in varying ways, we must share the responsibility to co-exist.
We have a responsibility to family, friends, and employers to be the best person we can be in the different ways that they may depend on us. And, like every parent, my paramount responsibility is to my children; to be strong, wise, fair, and to imbue the principles of character.
I have a responsibility to be honest as I write this blog and as a columnist for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. I’ve also run for public office which, at its best, is a responsible endeavor.
Those credits, however, have exposed me to a few surprising confrontations that challenged that resolve.
On one occasion a couple years ago, I was enjoying the company of friends at a restaurant when someone from another group called me out as a “stupid liberal.” No reason to bait me except that they felt a need to vent because liberalism, they said, was “the undoing of America” and apparently that was on their mind at Christmastime.
Last year I was dining with friends and a person I’d never met before passed our table and said without provocation, “I can’t stand your politics.”
My friends were aghast that anyone would be so rude, but were particularly floored since, as one friend put it: “Your politics are about civil rights and helping people. How is someone against that?”
I’m a grown up, I can take it, and these encounters don’t rattle my cage or cause me consternation; what they did, however, was make me aware of a societal knot that is getting tighter and tighter. A knot that could unravel at such a velocity that “the undoing of America” will be a very real possibility.
Civil discourse is being replaced by the language of fear; an extreme rhetoric, rooted in a fear of egalitarianism, a fear of secularism (the fear of Islam, in particular), a fear of government, and a fear of change to the status quo.
It is amped and fanned by media, by unchallenged web information and communication cells that share only the most extreme perspectives. Those perspectives are turning into actions; sometimes violent actions to counter those fears.
Recently I went to a friendly bar to relax when an old friend appeared. This fellow and I are on opposite sides of the political fence, but we’ve always enjoyed each other’s company. On this particular evening he was with a friend of his own and I was introduced.
After a few pleasantries I was left alone which is what I hoped for that evening. I saw the two of them converse quietly for a minute and then the young man, to whom I was introduced, came over to me.
“I just have to ask,” he intoned. “Why are you a Democrat?”
I really wanted to be left alone, but I have a responsibility since I’ve chosen to be in the political arena to, at least, be respectful of any inquiry.
“I have a lot of reasons, “I replied, “and they would take up the rest of this evening, but I will give you this. Social justice. Whatever I do relates to finding the respect and opportunity that I believe all people deserve.”
He laughed. “That’s the biggest load of horse s#!t I’ve ever heard. Explain yourself.”
“Oh boy” I thought to myself. “But this comes with the territory…here goes….”
(Not to myself: ) “Let’s start with the history of systemic racism and sexism in America. It is a fundamental flaw in a presumably free society, predicated on justice, and we must continually examine justice and equality until we can transcend prejudice.”
That was too much for this fellow. He bellowed: “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. You’re saying that government will take care of everything. I believe in individual liberties and your Big Government is telling me what and who I have to believe!”
“I said nothing of the kind, “I replied. “You are putting words in my mouth and answering a false premise.”
“Are you saying I’m stupid?” came his response. His brow was now furled and he was in my face. I should point out that this young man was probably over 6’ 2” and clearly a body builder.
“Not at all. Why don’t we just let this be and we’ll get together to talk at another time?”
“I will knock those f*@#in glasses off your face!”
The rest of the bar was very aware of this situation and my friend came over to take him away. The angry young man marched out the front door and didn’t returned.
“He gets that way around Democrats. That’s happened before” was my friend’s conciliation.
“Not a problem” I said, but in reality it was. The problem wasn’t the disagreement itself, but the intensity of the anger that came with it. The same anger I had witnessed before that stepped outside of the realm of respect, but this time there was a physical threat from an intimidating source. It wasn’t the thought that I could be nursing a broken nose that bothered me as much as the senselessness if I had.
What is happening in America when a man in Michigan robs a convenience store and calls an Indian American employee a “terrorist” as he shoots him in the face? That was not an anomalous reveal of violence and anger, it is indicative of an epidemic of irrational behavior in bars, restaurants, churches, mosques, schools, clinics, stores and city streets. They are the acts of people inflamed by fear.
But this kind of fear is not rational. Not to such an extreme that uncontrollable rage should strike out at a distortion of reality. Where is this insanity coming from?
The noun “insanity” is quite possibly the most overused, misappropriated and misunderstood word in the English language. It is used to define everything from serious mental illness to simply making a subjectively questionable judgment.
There is a wide berth in terms of what insanity implies, but a definition can be refined to this: A mental illness of such a nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.
We are all capable of shades of fantasy and impulsiveness, but it is clear when someone steps over the line into the fog of genuine insanity. The trouble is that an overt act of insanity is not the only measure of its existence; insanity is being created right before our eyes.
The extreme fear that is cornering our socio-political reality is being trumped up (pun intended) and fanned by irresponsible, irrational, demagoguery.
What I hear, instead, are unfounded claims: “You liberals care more about the rights of Islamic terrorists than Christians.” Or I hear a justification: “That’s how upset people are with liberal policies.”
Or: “Liberal protesters are just as bad.”
I didn’t condone the violence in Seattle when thugs emerged from the Occupy Movement and broke windows, nor did I turn a blind eye to violent riots that resulted from protests against racism in cities all over the country. I may even agree with the fundamental causes in those cases, but violence, destruction, or harm to anyone, is not justifiable in any context.
I didn’t consider the protests in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere to have been party specific, but the reaction to them did fall along ideological lines; the left being sympathetic to the protesters cause and the right aligning with the status quo and a denial of the racism in question.
The crucial distinction is that the protests themselves (like the National Anthem protest) stemmed from extreme dissatisfaction with institutional or systemic failures that deny justice. That doesn’t make a violent outcome any more justifiable, but the root issues stand on rational ground.
These extreme acts of violence like the convenience store in Michigan, the church in South Carolina, a mosque in California are clearly a manifest of ideology born from hatred construed from fear. The root issues that lead to xenophobia, sexism or racism do not stand on rational ground; it is an emerging cultural insanity.
Insanity gives a perverse peace of mind to those who are most susceptible to being programmed by extreme rhetoric, especially when that rhetoric plays upon the very real instinct of fear. Fear is a vital, emotional response to perceived danger, but it also triggers the most primal, non-intellectual part of our psyche.
So where does responsibility lie?
Policy starts at the top, but our leaders are forged from popular opinion, and so culpability for dangerous dysfunction falls to all of us. When President Trump moves to ban Muslims from entering the United States he cannot be absolved from the Islamophobia that results. His policy is based in fear that causes many people to stop looking for truth and to settle on the most shallow and superficial reasoning.
The shallow reasoning that gives sanctuary to insanity. For this to stop, our political rhetoric has to be held accountable to reason and facts; it has to be scrutinized by historical truths, honest reflection on our intentions, and the reality of our circumstances.
Unless we start to unravel this knot, it only gets tighter. Another responsibility that we all must bear.