Last year I was selected to be one of a panel of about 15 citizen columnists for the editorial page of our local paper. We were allowed to write about anything we wanted, and had three separate deadlines for our respective pieces.
My first column was about veterans. My second was about our state’s beleagured foster care system and the controversy surrounding the state appointed director of a watchdog agency, who was being disciplined for relatively minor transgressions–and the fact that the controversy was drawing attention away from the need for better care for state wards.
Both columns received pleasant reviews from people I ran into after they were published, and a few positive comments on the online forum of the newspaper.
The column I decided to submit for my final piece was an edited (for brevity) version of this piece, which I wrote specifically for the paper but ran on this blog ahead of time because I felt so strongly about it. It was, I felt, a relatively balanced piece, offering what I hoped was a moderate perspective on a divisive issue.
The polite reception that greeted my first two columns was not the case this time. In person, people were kind, but online, the discussion turned nasty. One person wrote: “Sounds like a good story about the value of birth control too. It is ridiculous for families these days to have more children than they can afford. People should have to pass an intelligence test, as well as have steady income for the past 18 months before they are allowed to have a child. If you don’t, you pay the fines. How’s that for socialism!?”
I was called a socialist liberal, naive and babbly. Hilariously, someone encouraged me to rethink my position, and commented: “Think about it, Mary. You’re still young and have time to wisen up about the world.” I guess the photo with my byline looked younger than I thought.
My husband, who had not read the blog post and had not yet read the column in the paper, did not react the way I thought he would. I presumed he would find the whole thing funny, but upon hearing that one commenter had suggested nobody would do business with a person with political ideas like mine, he became upset that my need to express my opinion publicly had not only endangered us financially, but that there was a very real possibility that I had put our little girl at risk by inviting abuse and retribution by weirdos and political extremists who would construe any support of healthcare reform and the current administration as an invitation to harm me, my family and my friends.
We started arguing about it, and both of us stood by our premise: we were both correct, we would not back down, each referred to the other as unyieldingly stubborn, and no compromise was reached. It got very heated and very unpleasant.
Funny, right? We both agreed that the current political climate is making it almost impossible for civilized and diplomatic discussion and agreement. We both agreed that extremism on either side is going to damage our society. And yet, inured to this, numbed by the very climate of dissent we live in, we blithely chose moral highground in this argument about the way we express ourselves, while completely disregarding the fact that, at its core, the argument was based upon something about which we were in complete agreement.
Does it sound familiar? I have for a long time felt that the difference between left and right is infinitessimal in most matters, and I cling to that notion. Idealistically, we are in agreement about more things than not. Unfortunately, in the matters where we disagree, the dialogue has turned into ALL CAPS, strident argument bereft of intelligent debate, and hyperbole.
A fantastic recent issue of Newsweek magazine today grabbed my attention. Ellis Cose wrote an article about how hate is drowning our politics. In the article “Drowning in Hate,” he writes that the ugly slurs and stubborn rage on both sides of the aisle is a result of our nation losing its ability to constructively communicate.
In the same issue, Alan Simpson is interviewed about his leadership role in Obama’s presidential commission to find ways to bring down the federal debt. Simpson, a well-known former Republican senator from Wyoming, spoke plainly when asked about what he thought of the current political climate: “No one forgives anyone for anything anymore.” He talked about the rise of entertainment politics: media commentators like Limbaugh who exist to cause high blood pressure. The scary thing is that so many people turn to entertainment politics as legitimate fact and don’t think for themselves, don’t research, don’t form original opinions. And out of politeness or keeping above the fray, those attacked don’t dignify their nutty statements with a response. Simpson pointed out “You’re entitled to be called a fool, idiot, bonehead, slob, screwball. But an attack unanswered is an attack believed.”
It is a very, very sad day when I can find myself being a little scared because someone made a personal remark about me online. Because I have to think to myself, what about the ones who think similar or worse thoughts who don’t comment? What will they try if they see as their moral duty the punishment or elimination of those who adhere to what they see as a socialist agenda? Do I really have anything to fear from people who complain about how healthcare reform was “rammed down our throats,” but who willingly open their gullets for the propaganda their political entertainment correspondents are funneling in?
I don’t know. But I do know this: to be afraid of stating my opinion because a fringe element has decided that anyone who disagrees with them is a threat to the country is to succumb to tyranny. Is that hyperbole? Maybe. Maybe not. But being the bigger person and not flinging trash back at them is one thing. Leaving an attack unanswered is quite another. You can call me what you want, but when you distort the truth, you have stepped over the line.
It is far past time for these attacks–on a personal and on a national level–to be answered directly and bluntly. As I said, we agree on more than we would admit. Finding the middle ground is not a difficult task. Stepping down from our self-declared moral high ground is what keeps us from getting there.