Talking to a dear friend on the left side of the political spectrum today (not far left) was painful, not only because politics is exceedingly painful these days (the temptation to hunker down into a stoical — and possibly armed — private life has never been so great in my lifetime), but because it brought uneasiness and alienation into what has always been a close relationship.
She said, “the stupid people on the right.”
She said Rush Limbaugh wanted Obama to fail, and she wished Rush would make good on his threat to leave the country.
She said that Obama had broken his heart trying to get bipartisanship on health care.
[UPDATE I: I remembered later that she also told me she had just heard that it had now been proven that last year was the warmest year ever.]
I recognized that these were tribal signals meant to elicit ritual agreement from me. Then that would be settled, and we could go on with our personal catching up in a happy miasma of accord.
Except that when she reached out, I wasn’t there. (Imagine! I, who think Rush has done a lot of harm, found myself restoring the context of his “fail” remark, explaining that it wasn’t about race but about ideology.) Instead, I found myself numbly trying to tell her about the different reality that was there behind the scrim of her assumptions. I felt stupid having to explain why people on the right fiercely resent being lumped together and smeared as “stupid.” I refrained from telling her what a stupid thing that had been for a smart person like her to say. But she wasn’t thinking when she said it. She was bonding. When I didn’t bond back, it was shocking and disorienting. Suddenly we were stumbling in this weird, mined DMZ.
It struck me as profoundly anthropological and even biological — like worker ants or naked mole rats comparing scent badges when they meet in tunnels underground. We touch antennae and find out if the other person is safe and approved and “one of us.” If not? We drive them out the nest, or kill them. If so? Nest solidarity is reinforced.
What business does this crap have between human friends? What bewilders me is that the signals that are exchanged (and on the right they would be: “the elitists and freeloaders on the left,” rah-rah Rush, and something about Obama’s leanings toward treachery and tyranny; I have close friends who reach out to me with those signals, and I can’t return them, either) are the crudest and most stereotyped and involve the least thought. They are knee-jerk, groupthink slogans precisely because their function is tribal identification in an era when the old identifiers like class and religion have become muted and muddled.
This is so hard to talk about.
Only if you’re jolted out of your original identification can you catch a brief glimpse of the whole picture. Class is the river that runs through it, class and family history. If you’re upper middle class and economically secure, a kind of noblesse-oblige indignation on behalf of the disadvantaged is part of your heritage. (I speak from experience.) You may be cosmopolitan and Jewish, or descended from the highly educated abolitionist and pacifist strains of Christianity. If your family was working class but unionized, part of the labor movement, you may have inherited a more collective common-man tradition that once carried a stirring idealism (if it also, in its heyday, veered uncomfortably close to idealizing the Soviet Union). And if you’re a member of a minority group, you may feel you, or your less fortunate cohorts, started life under a historical handicap that must to be redressed. On the right, you’re probably from the fiercely independent smallholder/yeoman/tradesman/craftsman class, and the “millionaires next door” that are so many of its sons and daughters; your ancestors’ lives were rooted in skilled labor or farming and hunting, homestead, church, and clan. (You can see that I still have a much more detailed picture of the left than the right.)
I think the one smart thing Karl Marx ever said was, “The conditions of existence determine consciousness.” That probably struck me so hard because the conditions of my own existence have changed so much, and because I’ve traveled so much, not only in space, but between worlds. “Determine” is a little strong, but it’s close.
I suppose it’s natural that these groups of Americans should be set against each other; in many ways, their interests are. And I can see (having grown up on the left) what drives the right crazy about “us”: our interests are not direct and forthright. We always purport to be doing things on behalf of others, often with admirable dedication; but insofar as we didn’t have to struggle to establish ourselves, our self-interest is in our self-image.
(To my friend, the opposition to Obama is self-evidently racist. It would be crazy to deny that any of it is. But to me, now, it seems evident that the convenience of being able to tar all opposition as “racist” was a major strategic weapon in the Democrats’ bid for power. Race jiu-jitsu. How racist is that?)
I’m going to have to leave this inconclusive. I need some sleep. My instinct is to reconcile, to find common ground. And there is some: it’s called America. The divisions are real, but those who exacerbate them for sport or profit, on both sides, will deserve the blame for what’s to come. Right now everybody feels warlike and heroic. Hardball is admired. Revolution is commended. Unyielding enmity is intoxicating. Compromisers who actually want to accomplish something that everyone can grumble and accept, rather than rant about some never-never-land Utopia of the pure left or right, are booed off the field. These are the signs of a country that hasn’t had a real war in too long.
UPDATE II: Sure enough, today I had to cut short a close friend on the right by saying that talking about politics makes me sick. While I could almost agree with her on “Throw the bums out — all of them,” she was seeking my agreement with the suspicion that the election of Barack Obama was only possible if “there was a plan” — a sinister, global plan, was the implication.