I’m not Gautama Buddha, but I do believe in compassion. I believe in loving and respecting everyone, even those with whom I disagree. Which is most people.
Perhaps because I was a middle child–third of six–I often try to mediate, find the middle ground, achieve the happy medium. I want everybody to be happy, to the extent that sometimes I piss everybody off.
Recently I had a kerfuffle with my union because I thought one of our union leaders was being unnecessarily confrontational, too polarizing, too extreme. A good friend explained to me that my emailed response to that union leader was too confrontational, too polarizing, too extreme. Oh, well.
Forced to choose sides in an argument, I’ll say, “You’re both right,” then when told they can’t both be right, I’ll say, “You’re right.” I want other people to be right. Even those on the Far Right–which is, as any sane, reasonable, educated person will tell you, is Way Wrong.
Here’s my question: Is it remotely possible that some of those on the far right could be… uh… maybe a teeny bit right on one or two points?
It’s probably easier for me than for many of my liberal friends to empathize with right-wingers because I used to be pretty conservative myself. In the early 1980s, I was a registered Republican. I supported Reagan even when my liberal cousins were bashing him. And I was a member of the N.R.A. I also owned nine guns. (I now own seven. Two of them disappeared after I lent them to friends, who were by the way staunch conservatives.) During my Reagan Years, I believed that Taxes Were Bad, that Socialism Was Bad, and that Religion and Privately Owned Businesses Had All The Answers. I believed that the Federal government’s only real job is to build a strong military that will kick our enemies’ asses.
So how did I become a liberal? Well, I shall offer a detailed explanation in another blog, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s just say that: a) I was injured in an assault by gang members, and was helped greatly by a government-funded program; b) I went to work for the Los Angeles Unified School District, a government-funded program; c) I studied history; and d) I got involved in the teachers’ union.
Now I’m kind of–some would say very–liberal. I support gay marriage and taxing the hell out of the super-rich, especially those who benefit from sending jobs overseas, from harming the environment, and/or from ripping people off, and I think we need to spend much, much more on education and infrastructure and much, much less on the military.
But sometimes when my liberal friends are talking politics, I get annoyed. They talk about all Republicans and conservatives and Tea-Partiers and Tea-Baggers in the same breath, paint them all with the same brush, lump them all together in the same lumpy, vomitous mess with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Dick Cheney, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter.
Well, this is partly the Republicans’ fault, because many of them, especially in Congress, have signed pacts and made sacred oaths of loyalty, so they’re all kind of in the same fascist gang. Progressives are naturally nervous about this, especially after what W. Bush and his Republican Congress did with our country. Actually, I think we should all be kind of outraged about that, but perhaps that’s another blog, too.
Speaking of other blogs, you might have seen my two rather nasty satires of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Part of me feels bad for launching such attacks.
There are many ways of treating people with whom we disagree. I have obviously chosen a biting-dog approach in those satires. However there’s a side of me that sees a beauty and kindness in Michele Bachmann, and part of me wants to sit down with her, have a cup of tea, and say, “Michele, are you really comfortable with the degree to which you appear to be fudging the separation of church and state?” We could have a nice, person-to-person discussion.
One problem, of course, is that soon after being elected to the House of Representatives, Michele Bachmann got my back up. She started appearing on cable news channels with monotonous frequency, expressing views that I found kooky, in a wide-eyed, fanatical manner that I found kooky, and still do. More than kooky, I find Michele Bachmann’s evangelical fundamentalism to be narrow-minded, antiscientific, anti-progress and homophobic . To me, the religious right is trying to turn back the hands of time. It is, I think, an irrationally fearful reaction to many new developments in human history (e.g. gay rights, environmental awareness, religious tolerance, etc.) that I find hopeful.
All that being said, however, I sorta like Michelle Bachmann. She’s kind of… cute. Even though most of my friends think Michele Bachmann is not just crazy, but downright evil. Back to my kerfuffle with union people, one of the reasons I opened my big mouth and criticized our leader was his frequent statements about administrators to the tune of, “He is a bad person,” or “She is a bad person.” Sounds kind of tribalistic to me. We’re good. They’re bad.
Tribalism is so… last millennium.
I think we should have compassion for all beings, and those who would pollute the environment, deny gay people the right to marry, deny unions the right to organize, deny women the right to end unwanted pregnancies, and bankrupt our nation on misguided adventures overseas.
And here’s why.
First of all, having been raised in the Quaker belief that each human being has within himself or herself a spark of divinity; and having later adopted the yogic philosophy that each human being has with himself or herself a divine energy that can be released through spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation; and further having experienced over and over again that even people with whom I strongly disagree or whom I strongly dislike can suddenly become amazingly agreeable and likeable; after many, many years of getting to know thousands of people through my work as a teacher, I have come to see over and over and over and over again that human beings–not just kids, but adults, and even senior citizens–are capable of changing, adapting, evolving, and learning. And right-wing Republicans are fellow humans, even though they often act in ways that to me seem inhuman, inhumane, dehumanizing, anti-humanistic, sub-human, and even demonic, especially in their relentless attacks on our President while claiming to be patriotic; in their relentless attempts to manipulate voting outcomes and steal elections; and in their increasingly laughable and deplorable tendency to lie, twist facts, ignore facts, and manufacture “factual” support for their increasingly preposterous assertions and untenable positions, which are often transparently designed to enrich millionaires and billionaires and/or multibillion-dollar corporations, to placate religious fanatics, and/or to ensure that Republicans will win the next election. (It sounds like I have a lot of stored-up anger, doesn’t it? See my blog on violence.)
But really, who knows? Maybe some right-wing extremists might find enlightenment, and realize that we’re all in this together, and that we must work together for a better future. I know, I know, some will say I’m starting to sound like Obama, who has been ridiculed by Bill Maher for trying to sing “Kumbayah” with the House of Representatives, many of whom are ruthlessly focused on his demise. Short term, Bill Maher is probably right. Short term, nobody in the Tea Party is likely to change his or her mind. Short term, they look like stubborn, intractable, intolerant, unreasonable, unrealistic, brainwashed, ignorant, pig-headed fanatics. But miracles happen. Sometimes it takes years, maybe lifetimes, but in my short life I have seen evolutionary changes in myself and the people around me. I moved from a farm oustide a small, white-bread Pennsylvania town to Los Angeles in 1981, and was initially shocked and scared by all the brown-skinned people. Now I love the racial and cultural diversity of this vibrant metropolis. My Chinese wife, who was once very homophobic, now respects gay rights and even has gay friends. A fellow teacher who was raised in a strict fundamentalist Christian family, and went to strict fundamentalist Christian schools (including university), has become open-minded, open-hearted, and, well, socially liberal.
Sometimes people need a second chance, and a third chance, and a fourth chance. I had a brother-in-law who I thought was the worst asshole ever born. He said to me once, “People can change,” and he proved it, by becoming a much nicer person, who also incidentally sacrificed much of his time and comfort to take care of our mother-in-law during her final months, even cleaning up her geriatric incontinence messes while she disrespected him in her senile dementia.
My second reason for insisting that we not dismiss or demonize right-wingers, but rather treat them as fellow humans capable of redemption, is for strategic advantage. Don Corleone is quoted by son Michael in Godfather II as saying, “…Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” There’s a practical reason for keeping our enemies close. To beat them, you need to know them. If you underestimate your enemy’s intelligence or ability, you will probably lose. If you paint your enemy with a broad brush, you might miss the specifics, the details you need to defeat him. Lumpy generalizations are really a symptom of lazy thinking, and a cause for more laziness. The following sentence is a pastiche of lazy, lumpy generalizations that I have heard from others and from a tiresome voice in my own head: “The Republicans are financed by really, really rich but mean-spirited white people, and they control the banks and the media and the lobbyists and the military, not to mention the voting systems, so there’s nothing we can do about the growing power of the Tea Party and their super-rich backers, such as the Koch brothers.”
Even if you agree with all or much of that lumpy pastiche sentence, I think you will concede that even the Koch brothers are, or at least might be, human beings. Yes, even those multi-billionaires who have profited from polluting our environment, from giving people cancer, and from manipulating the government so that they can get away with it. Maybe even they have souls. Maybe even they are capable of awakening to our need to protect Earth’s fragile ecosystem, before it’s too late. Or maybe it’s already too late. Who knows? But my point is that if we refuse to acknowledge that they are three-dimensional human beings, we refuse to really know them, and so we empower them to use our ignorance against us. By dehumanizing them, we actually make them stronger. We give them mythical, superhuman power. Like the Wizard of Oz, who was really just a pathetic little man behind a screen.
One defensive tactic against perceived threats from fellow humans is a little thing called judgment. We judge them. We play God and condemn them to eternal hell, at least in our imaginations. Thus we create what feels like a safe distance between us and them. The only problem is that the “safe distance” is in fact our comfortable way of staying ignorant about them. Are they really so bad? We’ll never know, because we’ll never speak to them again. Are they enemies? Or possible friends? Well, we could find out. But no, they’re over there and we’re over here and there’s this big minefield between us, a DMZ strung with barbed wire and pockmarked with bomb craters where human beings used to stand.
My third reason for recommending compassion with conservatives is my belief that the real enemy is not “them,” but the very belief that we have to be enemies, because enmity–even the perception of enmity–tends to be self-creating, self-reinforcing and self-regenerating. The paradigm of enmity is a recipe for endless conflict and attrition, gobbling up energy and time that we desperately need to focus on solutions to the desperate situations we face right now: high unemployment, crazy weather, and a sociopolitical system that is veering ever deeper into polarization and dysfunction.
Unless we recognize another person’s shared humanity and possibility of growth and learning, how can we expect anything positive to happen? Think about it. How can you work with somebody who negates your humanity, who dismisses everything you stand for and believe in as pure bullshit? That somebody kind of sounds like a Tea Partier, doesn’t it? Well, if we think, talk, and act like them, then we have become the enemy.
In what other ways could I possibly feel any empathy for arch-conservative reactionary fascist elitist classist greedy-ass bastards who are raping the lower and middle classes just so they can avoid paying taxes and thus buy that fourth house in the Bahamas that they never use?
Well, my fourth reason is to preserve and promote our own health, happiness, and peace of mind. I, and many of my progressive friends, get so angry with the right wing in this country that we could spit, but as Buddha said, carrying anger around in our hearts is like holding a red-hot coal in our hand with the hope that we can throw it at our enemies, but who gets burned the worst? We do. Who suffers the most from our political rage? We do. I say, Don’t get angry, get organized. Take all that anger, hatred, rage, frustration, and focus it into actions, words, and attitudes that make us more effective.
My fifth reason for not demonizing conservatives is that parts of their philosophy might actually have some merit. Conservativism pushes back against the tendency for government to keep growing bigger and bigger and taking over and controlling more and more parts of our lives. Never mind that conservatives want to give big government the right to read our emails and listen in on our conversations (see the Patriot Act), regulate our sexual practices (anti-sodomy laws), define our relationships (banning gay marriages), and tell us what we can and cannot smoke (illegalizing marijuana). Never mind that conservatives want to spend more money on the military (except for taking care of wounded veterans). But the conservative point of view is part of our nation’s political dialogue (some would say shouting match). I take issue with not only most of what they say, think, and do, but how they express their views, and where they seem to want to take our country–in Rick Perry’s case, back to the days of the robber barons.
But I still say we need to maintain a sense of Buddhist compassion and Quaker pacificism as we totally destroy the Republicans and the Tea Party in the next election. In fact, I would say that the more we have compassion for them and understand them, the better our chances to kick their asses in 2012 and beyond.
Most conservatives are from small towns and rural America. They’re afraid of big cities and all that grows there. They’re afraid of Washington D.C., especially with a Negro in the White House. They’re afraid of change. Afraid of immigrants. Afraid of brown people. Afraid of Muslims. Afraid of gay people. I know I was. My wife, too. And her mother. All of us have evolved. Conservatives can also evolve. But it will take time.
Meanwhile, let us show them kindness and educate them. Let us show them that, even though we are brown or gay or Muslim or atheists, that we are still good people, capable of kindness, generosity, maganimity, patience, and wisdom. Let us explain to them, without a hint of condescension, about history (because we have read more than just the Bible). Let us remind them that it was during George W. Bush’s “triple-whammy” Presidency (when Republicans controlled all three branches of the U.S. government) that we got our current recession. Let us remind them that in the 1920s, the last time pro-business Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, and the Republicans gave banks and Wall Street freedom to do whatever, we got the Great Depression. Let us remind them that during the liberal, Democratic administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that our nation created some of its best movies (among them Gone With The Wind) and heroically fought a just war to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. To my mind, that was one of our nation’s finest hours.
A big reason the religious right wing has gotten so strong in this country is that they have faith and belief. Where, fellow progressives, is our faith? I have faith, a burning faith, in the human spirit. That faith is based on love for all humanity, which you can give the name “compassion.”
One of Old Testament commandments is to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is echoed in the New Testament of the Bible:
“…All the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one
of another.” — Galatians 5:14-15
I call on all thinking people, to–yes, get involved in the political process and, yes, get organized, but–more importantly, I think–bring back balance, reason, civility and compassion to our government, before hatred and meanness of spirit consume us all.