A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
-Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”
September and leaves are already falling, only slightly less rapidly than the standards of civic decency.
Something unusual has happened recently: I’ve stopped enjoying politics. For someone who began watching C-SPAN at age 12, this is a bit of a traumatic self-discovery. Admittedly, my political enthusiasm has always been tempered with a lumpy dose of irritated cynicism, but lately this has flared into actual distress. Especially on the internets: it’s gotten so that I need only glimpse the name ‘McCain’ or (especially) ‘Palin’ anywhere in a blog post and I begin cringing in anticipatory revulsion.
Let’s be utterly clear about what I’m now to say: I fully acknowledge that the haters of Obama et al. are just as capable of vomiting clouds of uncharitable abuse into the aether. But I don’t know those people. I don’t read their diatribes, half-truths, their hooded jeremiads. Doubtlessly I would find their claptrap equally disturbing, if not more so, were I to encounter it. But I don’t run in those circles.
Instead I read insinuations that John McCain has lost higher cognitive function, that Sarah Palin is a ruthless moron, that anyone who would even consider voting Republican cannot be anything but the most foolish, vile, degenerate specimen of proto-human. Political discussions seem nothing more than contests amongst ideological clones to offer the most nastily emotive expression of hatred for their mutual enemy, a great echo chamber for badly-informed belligerent self-righteousness.
Living as I do on the great blue isle of Manhattan, my encounters with such attitudes are not confined to the web. At a picnic a couple weeks ago, one guest laughingly remarked of McCain that “crashing your plane on your very first mission doesn’t qualify you to be president!” The audience chuckled, but I did not: “After that plane crashed, McCain was stomped, beaten, and stabbed by the locals, was handed over to guards who systematically tortured him for years, and refused early release out of fear for how this would affect those left behind. No matter what you think of John McCain, you do not mock him for anything even remotely connected to this incident.” I didn’t say quite all that, being insufficiently spontaneously punchy. But I said some of it, and wish I’d said all.
Demonizing conservatives has become one of the few expressions of prejudice still acceptable in tolerant communities. Yet it’s still nothing more than the ancient ritual of ostracism, the union of a group of people through their mutual effort to pointedly deny even the signifiers of simple decency to a ceremonially designated Other. Justifications will be proffered, reasons frantically thrust forward, rhetorical covers drawn over the ugly primal motives thundering below. Fine. But when you write that you “hate Republicans” and enjoy the approving comments, bear in mind the spiritual kinship that verb forms between you and earlier groups who have bonded by hating those outside the bond.
The right has been a bit too gleeful in its seizure of Barack Obama’s unwise statement about “bitter” middle American voters who “cling to guns or religion”. Yet there is something of substance here. Obama’s comment reveals a disturbing myopia (in himself and his liberal San Francisco audience), a smug inability to appreciate that others’ refusal to share one’s views may be motivated by anything beyond the most base or foolish instincts. Republican voters are not grimy caricatures or hoodwinked yokels. They are real people with real concerns, real values, real perspectives on a world that can bear the weight of more than one conception of human existence. If you find yourself completely incapable of empathizing with them, then that is your failing, not theirs.
In the end much of the offensive materials could be explained by a few concepts from psychology: confirmation bias, ‘my side’ bias, correspondence bias. Over and over, when I see blog posts enthusiastically declaring that the latest McCain gaffe or Palin revelation shows the Republicans to be indubitably unfit for office, I just know that these same bloggers would dismiss as irrelevant these same mishaps, had they been committed by Obama or Biden. Perhaps what most pains me is watching this election season reduce otherwise fair and nuanced observers to binary detectors whose tunnel vision is sensitive only to the variable of party affiliation.
All that said, I don’t expect anyone to cease the partisan gesticulation on my account. Whatever it is – catharsis, distraction, social totem – it plainly has a purpose for its authors. But my reserves of effortful indifference and prudent selective illiteracy are approaching their end; I cannot read much more. And it is only September.