Random Acts of Outrage

A friend of mine once opined, “When it comes to politics, I think there are really two kinds of people: those who care, and those who don’t.” The more I think about it, the more I agree. I find I have a lot more in common with those people who hold completely opposite opinions than I do than with those who have none. There is a consideration and passion that fuels them that I recognize and respect, no matter how much we might disagree. And in our disagreements I often find myself admitting the weaknesses in my own arguments, and conceding some logic I might find in theirs. It’s an honesty that keeps things civil. Plus, it tempers the inevitable arrogance that passionate beliefs too often engender.
I recently witnessed two dear friends of mine have an argument about this year’s presidential election. One a Clintonite, the other a Trump supporter. It ended badly, one in tears, the other stomping off. It was as predictable as it was sad. Neither was even remotely interested in listening to the other, nor was either going to change the other’s opinion. But there was an important, missed observation. While each were horrified at the prospect of the election of the other’s candidate, at their core, one cared and the other didn’t.
Maya Angelou once said, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.” So I don’t think I’m stretching the truth to say that Donald Trump has revealed himself repeatedly to be a hypersensitive, bigoted, bullying, misogynist liar, without discipline or intellectual curiosity, uniquely unqualified to serve as president. And there are plenty of Republicans who’ve said all this long before I have.
Hillary is secretive, selectively honest, and seems without a moral compass. Yes, she has lied, but to compare her dishonesties to Trump’s is a study in false equivalencies. (Save your emails. I’m not telling anyone how to vote. I’m getting to something entirely different.)
But there’s something else that the candidacy of Donald Trump indicates: a sense of alienation and frustration on the part of a good portion of the American public. I’m not talking about (or ignoring) the loss of white majority and its advantages. I’m talking about the feeling that the system is broken and no longer cares for or even recognizes these folks. True or not, the feeling is real and pervasive and we, as a nation, ignore this at our peril. Feeding that feeling with paranoia and fear, as this election season has, is exactly the wrong prescription. And the continued gridlock in Washington only exacerbates the notion that no one cares about ordinary folks. The system is truly rigged.
When I was in “grade school,” everyone took Civic class in the 4th or 5th grade. It told us how democracy worked, from the local to the federal level. This was all indelibly informed by the civics lessons we were getting on the nightly news: the Civil Rights Movement. This provided us a vivid forum for seeing an organized and engaged citizenry leverage the structures we were taught in our Civics class. That combination forged an notion of citizenship that included both responsibilities and possibilities. Each required considering oneself a part of a larger community, something outside of and bigger than yourself, something in which you had a part to play.
Civics is no longer taught in most schools. And the prevailing ethos these days is one of individualism. “I’m smart” because I figured out how to game the system and not pay taxes. Is it legal? Sure. But it ignores a sense of civic responsibility. I don’t pay for the things that make my neighborhood, my town, my nation livable, safe, beautiful. In a community there is giving and there is taking. And it is that balance that you see in the most solid of communities. It takes work, investment, sacrifice, and a sense of involvement: skin in the game. And, not often included in such discussions, joy. I’ve seen too many efforts collapse under the weight of their own earnestness. Be serious, sure, but, if there is not joy in your work and in your outcome, you’ve got a hard sell on your hands.
We’re facing a stark task next month. And I don’t mean in whom we vote for. I mean in trying to stitch together this tattered union, so ravaged by polarization that a lot of people simply don’t care. And they feel no one cares about them. “The system is broken, so let’s send in the wrecking ball.” No one person, no one candidate is going to “fix” everything. Government is not a business, it is a civic trust. And the stakes and the responsibilities are entirely different. We have to reach out, listen, admit the faults in our own perceptions, find the truth in the other’s, and discover a way to work together. This isn’t the first time our nation has been dangerously fractured. (Read about the election of 1800…whew!) And it mightn’t be the last. But this is our time now. Come November 9th will we be dancing on the grave of our opponent, or trying to resurrect the notion of a great nation? How we respond to all this will tell us who we are. Believe it.