Friday, October 9, 2009

Political Culture: Seeing the Best (And Worst) in One Another

As a wired citizen of our not-terribly-United States, you’ve no doubt received your share of cranky, mass-distributed partisan e-mails. I get them all the time, and my favorites (a phrase I use here ironically) are the ones that purport to show the differences between two viewpoints by offering the best possible description of one side and the worst possible slander of the other. The preponderance of these seem to come from the right side of our political discourse – the side that’s much better at name-calling and manipulating good ideas to sound like terrible ones. (But there I go again…)

One might think I have better things to do than take personal offense when one of these anonymous hatefests appears in my inbox … but, no, I can never seem to let these things pass without a response. Sometimes I offer a reasoned debunking of whatever bilge is contained in the diatribe, but too often I crank up the flamethrower and launch a torrent of my own uncivil rantings. The latter was the case recently, and as soon as I hit “send” I regretted my contribution to the coarsening of the national dialogue … even if it was just between myself and a friend.

And then I thought it might be interesting to conduct a bit of a thought experiment. (Actually, it’s just a cut-and-paste experiment, but whatever.) What if we compared only the “best” views of both sides, and ignored the “worst” views? Might that reflect the true essence of the body politic? Or, alternatively, is a comparison of the “worsts” more representative of how blue sees red, and vice versa?

Here, then, is my cut-and-paste job. It’s not perfect – even I could make more profound arguments for conservatism or against liberalism than the anonymous creator of the e-mail blast I received this week – but you can decide for yourself how well any of the statements represent prevailing viewpoints on the issues and attitudes of the day. (In each of the following comparative statements, italics are used not for emphasis, but for differentiation.) First, a look on the bright side:

If a liberal sees a child killed by gun violence, he looks for ways to stop the next such incident through responsible restrictions.
If a conservative doesn’t like guns, he doesn`t buy one.

If a liberal is a vegetarian, he hopes that his meat-eating friends will consume food that’s grown with respect for animals and the environment, that’s handled cleanly during processing, and that’s eaten with consideration for the health of the consumer.
If a conservative is a vegetarian, he doesn’t eat meat.

If a conservative is homosexual, he quietly leads his life.
If a liberal is gay, he wants to enjoy the legal rights and choices everyone else has.

If a black man or Hispanic is conservative, he sees himself as independently successful.
If an African-American or Hispanic is liberal, he proudly places himself within a tradition of civil-rights activism and tolerance, and expects equal opportunity.

If a conservative is down-and-out, he thinks about how to better his situation.
An unemployed or working-class liberal strives — together with his wealthier counterparts when possible, in opposition to them when necessary — to find ways to make life better and more equal for himself and those who share his status.

If a conservative doesn’t like a talk show host, he switches channels.
If a liberal doesn’t like a talk-show host, he laughs or complains and then finds more intelligent sources for information (usually not involving talk-show hosts).

A liberal non-believer expects his non-belief to be respected as much as the beliefs of those around him, in a free-flowing marketplace of ideas.
If a conservative is a non-believer, he doesn’t go to church.

If a conservative decides he needs health care, he goes about shopping for it, or may choose a job that provides it.
A liberal believes that affordable, high-quality healthcare is the right of every individual, and that if the private sector won’t do the right thing, then government must.

A conservative considers himself a child of God, endowed by Him with the freedom to make his own choices in life for himself and his family.
A liberal recognizes that America is a land of many faiths and creeds, and that favoring one over another is inappropriate in the public sphere.

A conservative believes in individual responsibility and free choice.
A liberal believes that society functions best when all Americans receive equal treatment and opportunity — and that government is often needed to counterbalance man’s baser instincts.

So much for live-and-let-live. Here comes the hammer:

If a liberal doesn’t like guns, he feels that no one should have one.
If a conservative sees a child killed by gun violence, he wishes the kid had had a gun, too, because more guns ALWAYS result in fewer dead people.

If a liberal is a vegetarian, he wants to ban all meat products for everyone.
No matter what a conservative eats, he believes that considerations like conservation, safety and health should be secondary to the accumulation and retention of wealth by the businesses that grow, process, sell and serve food.

If a liberal is homosexual, he loudly demands legislated respect.
If a conservative recognizes and accepts that he is gay, he quickly becomes a liberal, because there’s no place for him amidst conservative intolerance.

A liberal who’s black or Hispanic sees himself as a victim in need of government protection.
If a black man or Hispanic is conservative, he automatically gets a place in the Republican leadership (because there are so few minority conservatives, yet the GOP loves to pretend it’s a “big tent”).

A down-and-out liberal wonders who is going to take care of him.
A working-class conservative allows his political and religious leaders to convince him that minorities/immigrants/gays/Jews/atheists/liberals are to blame for his plight, which gets him so worked up he ignores the way those leaders are perpetuating his own troubles.

If a liberal doesn’t like a talk show host he demands that those he doesn’t like be limited or shut down.
If a conservative doesn’t like a talk-show host it’s usually because that host points out the idiocy, intolerance, corruption and hypocrisy of the conservative’s leaders.

A liberal non-believer wants any mention of God or religion silenced or removed.
A conservative non-believer wonders why he doesn’t get invited to parties, and questions his affiliation with people who are so intolerant.

A liberal demands that the rest of us pay for his healthcare.
A conservative believes, “I got mine — now you get yours. And if you can’t afford it, get out of the way. And keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

A liberal believes that he is qualified to make everyone’s choices about how to express their faith (whether they like it or not).
A conservative believes that the tenets of his own faith should be the law of the land, all others be damned (literally), and that every other American really ought to convert.

A liberal believes that he knows what is best for everyone and wants to use government force, in totalitarian fashion, to compel them to comply.
A conservative believes it’s every man for himself, and that he has a right to feel aggrieved and throw around words like “totalitarian” if minorities or the poor are granted “special rights” to the freedoms and privileges he himself already enjoys.

A quick observation: The positive characterizations sound entirely reasonable on both sides … but the negative depictions sure are funnier, aren’t they? I suppose that’s the point of such dumbed-down partisanship, as reflected in mass e-mails and extreme talk radio and TV – to legitimize your own argument by making the other side look ridiculous. But it’s nice to imagine that while screaming pundits and internet nasties continue to amp up the negativity – and I freely admit my too-frequent participation in all of that – there might still be a few actual statesmen in positions of power who are not only able, but willing, to see the merits (or at least the humanity) in both sides of these arguments.

Like I said, it’s nice to imagine.

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