A conversation with my conservative friends

It’s been a while since I posted here. I, like many of you, have been distracted with events swirling around us. The noise has reached deafening levels, and as a result, I am doing some unplugging. But I also have some things I need to say. I’ve decided to say them here, where you can choose to read them or not and choose to comment or not. (While I am trying to unplug, I am always open to respectful conversation. I check email regularly and will be happy to talk to you about this or whatever else is on your mind.) Maybe this post will be helpful, or maybe it will just add to the noise. If it’s the latter, I sincerely apologize. I know you’re already bombarded from all sides. This is a long one, so hang in here with me.

If your social media feed is anything like mine, it’s recently been full of two broad groups of people utterly failing to understand one another. I’ve probably contributed to some of that myself, because I haven’t understood. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at events and wondering how things could possibly be happening the way they were. How could anyone think this way? How could anyone dream of voting for that man? 

But the unfolding of those events has shown me I’m clearly missing something big. The hand painted, billboard-sized, floodlit Trump sign a few doors down has shouted that I’m missing something. The views of members of my own family, people I love dearly, have shown me I’m missing something. So, I’ve been trying really hard to listen.  It’s not easy. I have very strong views of my own. Discussions can get tense. I get emotional. I don’t always hear what people are trying to say. I talk (or more often, write) too much.

Despite all of that, I think I’ve learned a few things. Trump supporters, I’d like to talk to you for a little while. Let me tell you first what I’ve been hearing from you; I’m sure you’ll tell me if I’m not in the ballpark.

You’ve felt for a long time that people in government – in Washington, maybe even in your own state capital – are worlds removed from you. The policies they debate and the laws they pass intrude but have little chance of making your daily life any easier. Maybe you’ve personally faced some hard times, and you’ve felt like Washington has made it worse.  You’ve seen opportunities you expected for yourself and your family disappear, and maybe it seems the government is taking them from you and handing them to someone else according to some twisted idea of fairness. But it’s no real surprise. These politicians don’t sound like you, they don’t come from backgrounds like yours, they don’t share your values, they’ve probably never held a job like yours. They’ve become a class unto themselves, existing to scratch each other’s backs, cater to wealthy special interests and big donors and perpetuate a godless system that places an increasing burden – of taxes, rules and limits – on the backs of citizens like you.  Everything you hear from Washington and from liberals says that you should be someone other than who you are, that you should believe differently than you do and that your way of life and values aren’t respected. 

Then, a candidate came along who sounded a lot more like the people you talk to day-to-day. He didn’t speak like every word was vetted by committee for its political impact. He made you feel like you could be proud again in who you are. He made you feel your grievances were real and justified, and he gave you hope that maybe your voice was being heard. He told you he was going to give back the opportunities that had been taken from you. He explained the world’s problems in terms that made sense to you and talked about solutions that sounded simple and straightforward. He seemed like the kind of guy who wasn’t beholden to anyone and did what he wanted, without the endless calculations of the politicians you’re used to seeing.

And yes, I know many of you voted for Donald Trump reluctantly, feeling stuck between two bad options. You chose to optimistically hope he would settle into the role, and that perhaps his outsider status really would be good for our entrenched system. 

Am I in the ballpark?

 I actually identify with some of that. I, too, feel that Washington is too insular, too far removed from the daily lives of “we the people.” I agree that donations for access and favor trading have become the status quo, leaving too little room for the voices of the people to drive agendas and shape policy. I think the executive branch of government has become too powerful and Congress ridiculously inept. I know our laws and regulations have become overwhelmingly complicated, and I know that many liberal voices in America have become increasingly removed from or even hostile to traditional Christian beliefs and values. I hear the condescension; maybe I’ve even sometimes been guilty of it.

But now I’m going to ask you to stay with me as I try to answer the question I have been hearing in various forms from so many conservative friends and family members: “Why are liberals so upset? Why the need for massive demonstrations? This is how it works. Your side doesn’t always win. I don’t remember this happening when Obama won. What’s with the whining/hysteria?”

 I’m not going to talk about what happened after Obama’s election. I’m not going to try to convince you that Trump is awful and you never should have voted for him. I’m not going to accuse you of being a racist. I’m not even going to rehash all the things he’s said, because most of you admit you don’t always love his big mouth/Twitter account. This is a conversation about understanding each other’s viewpoints. There will be no sarcasm here. I’m asking you to lower your defenses and step into shoes that may pinch a little.

I’ll start with the Trump campaign slogan, which has now become the mission statement for his administration: “Make America Great Again.” We’ve seen it everywhere for many months now. My friends who support Trump hear it as a rallying cry they can get behind after years of disillusionment.

Let’s break that message down. “Make America great again” contains at its core the idea that America was at some point in its past greater than it is now. In fact, it directly states that America is no longer great. Clearly, this resonates with many voters. But let me ask you a question: If America is not great now, when was it great?

I’ve heard man-on-the-street interviews on this question, and the responses vary. Some point to the Reagan years, some go farther back. I read an interview today with someone at the inauguration who pointed to the 60s as our golden era.

Again, I get it. You are likely thinking of more stable jobs, simpler family and social structures, foreign conflicts that had clearer moral grounds, fewer government regulations, a time when traditional Christian values bound us together.  We could argue about the accuracy of those associations, but I understand where you’re coming from.

But imagine now that you are a person of color in the south in the 1960s. What is life like for you? You are not able to eat at the same lunch counter, drink from the same water fountains, use the same restrooms or travel in the same rail cars as white citizens. You ride at the back of the bus, where the exhaust and heat are most oppressive. Your children’s “colored” schools receive a fraction of the funding of white schools. You will not be admitted to most colleges or universities. You live with the constant fear that you (or your husband or daddy) could be beaten or hanged from a tree because someone thought you looked too long at a white woman. You are expected to show complete deference to every white person you meet, no matter how you are treated. You face limited job and economic prospects. (And let’s not kid ourselves that it was much better outside the south.)

 Now imagine you are a woman in the 1960s. Many of your friends marry young and begin having children right away. Maybe you choose to go to college, where career options center on secretarial, nursing or similar occupations. If you choose a typically male area of study, you know to expect constant harassment from fellow students and an all-male teaching staff. You are barred from attending most Ivy League institutions. Once you are in the workplace, you face persistent sexual advances from male colleagues and may be limited in your ability to progress if you reject them. Once you marry, you are expected to quit your job to care for your home and husband. Birth control pills are still illegal in many states. If you are able to keep working after marriage, you may be fired as soon as you are visibly pregnant. You are not able to open a bank account in your name, and in many states, you are not able to serve on a jury.

What if you are a person with an intellectual disability? You are almost certainly hidden away in an institution to face torture and abuse, never to be seen or heard from in civilized society again. If you are lucky enough to have family who defies doctors to keep you at home, you have no access to education and certainly no hope of employment. It is assumed that you are incapable of even the most basic learning or independence. Predictably, your life expectancy is around 18.

If you are gay, you will likely never be able to publicly admit that identity, living in fear of being ostracized, beaten or killed. Any relationship must be conducted in absolute secrecy. You spend enormous amounts of energy keeping up pretense, feeling deep inside that something must be horribly, irreparably wrong with you.

I could keep going for pages; I’ve left out many, many groups. The point, my friends, is that the times you look back on as examples of American greatness were times of severe oppression and marginalization for many, many people. It is no coincidence that these times are long enough ago to have been softened by the haziness of memory, the sharp edges worn dull and the complexities simplified by forgetfulness. But for many people, those sharp edges and complexities were daily life. Can you understand why many of your fellow citizens quell at the idea of recapturing those days? Do you understand why the “make America great again” message, reinforced by divisive rhetoric and a reenergization of hate groups, feels to many like a rescinding of their rightful place in America? 

I know many of you feel the pendulum has swung too far; that deference is now given to minority groups out of fear of offending. You believe we have more than addressed historic inequities and members of minority groups are overly sensitive. But my friends, that view lacks the perspective that comes from experiencing that the lives of people like you always have been valued less than other lives. We do not live in isolation from our past. Our society was built on the authority of white, straight men over all other groups. When you complain about black pride because white pride is racist, you deny the entire historical context in which we live. When you talk of despising political correctness, we hear you saying you don’t want to have to consider the feelings of people who aren’t like you. You and I are not responsible for the inequities of the past, but we must live in a world shaped by them.

I know your climb has not been so easy. You hear the term “privilege” and feel angry, because you know how hard you’ve worked and how many challenges you’ve overcome. I’m not here to take that away from you. But please, try to understand: so many groups of people still face incredible hurdles just to reach the place where you started your climb. The progress our country has haltingly achieved toward rights for the marginalized is not guaranteed to remain or continue. Progress toward equality requires deliberate understanding and exhausting work to sustain. Maybe you feel the concerns and efforts around you are misguided. That is certainly your right, but please try to at least understand their origin.

On my news feed and in my daily life, I hear the voices of people from all walks of life, all races and all political persuasions who feel ignored and unheard. My friends, we must find ways to listen to each other and find common ground to make our government more responsive, more connected to the lives of its citizens. Gains for one group need not come at the expense of others, but that will be the result if we continue to operate from a place of fear and anger.

We live in a very complicated world and in very complicated times. We have no hope of facing the challenges ahead unless we begin from a place of kindness, listening to understand, giving each other the benefit of the doubt and valuing people more than ideas or identities. This is my prayer for myself, for you and for my country.

Not a John Wayne movie

For the second time in recent history on this blog, I am going to weigh in on a hot button political issue. In fact, I’m weighing in on the same hot button issue. I will try not to make this a habit, for those of you who avoid politics like the plague or who disagree vehemently with me and find this spoils the rest of the content for you. I promise, a nice Christmas/New Year’s post is coming.

But for now, I find I have something to say that I’m not hearing in other places. As I discussed in my earlier post, public discourse on the issue of gun violence is at a place of complete inanity. Lobby interests and political agendas are so deeply imbedded that we as a nation appear unable to seek real solutions. It is discouraging beyond belief to the many of us caught in the middle, who simply don’t want to live with a pervasive fear that we or someone we love might die by gun violence in what should be a safe place.

In that context, I’m going to address the argument that seems most common among those who disagree with any attempt to regulate access to guns. I commented on this thought from a friend on Facebook today, and I want to say up front that I approach this subject with respect for those who hold this view. I want to engage in thoughtful conversation, not shouted arguments. We get more than enough of that elsewhere.

Here’s the thought I hear so commonly expressed: “Criminals don’t care what the law says about guns. They will get guns any way they can. Gun regulation only affects law-abiding citizens who are attempting to protect themselves and their families. We keep making more hoops for good people to jump through while criminals continue to arm themselves illegally. Then we ban weapons in public places, which means people who follow the rules are guaranteed to be unarmed when the criminals ignore the rules, as they always do.”

I get this. There is logic in the argument. But I think it’s based on a misunderstanding – or at least an oversimplification – of human nature. This line of thinking assumes one very problematic fact: That there is clear delineation between “good guys” and “bad guys,” and everyone is one or the other. Life simply doesn’t work that way.

Let me explain. Take, for example, the law passed in Tennessee a while back that allows patrons to carry firearms into bars. The result is that bar customers are now armed in an environment where they are guaranteed to have impaired judgement and lowered inhibitions. Why would we do this? Even the most law-abiding citizens can make terrible, life-ending mistakes.

What happens when a previously law-abiding employee at a local business faces a series of extremely stressful events and, in a moment of extreme distress, suffers a mental break while also having access to a deadly weapon? Here in Nashville a few years back, a video from a high school student made local news when a teacher had some kind of breakdown and started screaming and throwing things, including a desk.

My friends, this world is not populated by “good people” and “bad people.” It’s populated by a few really evil people, a lot more with a record of really bad decisions, and even more imperfect, everyday people who, given the right set of circumstances, can make really terrible mistakes. We know we want to try to keep guns out of the hands of the first two groups, but what about that third group, which almost certainly includes you and me?

Law-abiding citizens do have a right to defend themselves. But how do we also deal with the reality that so often, having deadly weapons on hand dramatically increases the likelihood that inevitable problem situations will turn deadly?

These issues are not simple. I don’t write all this to beat anyone over the head. Instead, I hope to provoke thought and start conversations that allow for nuance and complexity. Let’s stop demonizing and oversimplifying. We are not extras in a John Wayne movie. We are complicated people living in very messy times. Once we start dealing with that reality, we will already be much further down the road to a solution.

Let this be the final straw

Fellow Americans, we need to talk.

It’s happened again. Yesterday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California was the 352nd in the U.S. in 2015. There have been more mass shootings than there have been days so far this year. This time, a public health facility that serves people with intellectual disabilities was targeted, for reasons that will never make any sense.

But here’s the thing: We are all culpable. This keeps happening, and we keep having the same ridiculous, entrenched arguments that incapacitate our nation and leave the door wide open for more senseless violence.

The public conversation is the same every time: It’s a gun control problem. No, it’s a mental health care problem. Politicians and the media line up to take a position on one side or the other. Everyone has a favorite hobby horse and a favorite line of defense. We hash and re-hash the same, tired debate and wonder why this keeps happening.

We can blame the media. We can blame politicians. But ultimately, we are to blame. We the people allow this to happen. We align with a particular political agenda and fall in step behind the rhetoric. We allow complex issues to be oversimplified into easily-packaged 60-second segments. We quickly regurgitate lines and arguments that resonate.

I am a fairly informed and intelligent citizen, but I don’t understand why this keeps happening. My guess is you don’t, either. I don’t think any of us really have a handle on what this disease is that’s eating away at the soul of our culture, stealing the lives of far too many innocent people.

Let’s stop pretending we have the answers. Let’s stop jumping on political bandwagons, shouting the same old lines at each other. Let’s have a discussion that acknowledges the truth: This is a complex problem that’s pretty unlikely to have one simple solution. Yes, we clearly are facing a mental health crisis, with no apparent idea how to address it. Let’s also admit that extremely deadly weapons are regularly ending up in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, costing an unacceptable price in lives lost.

Let’s demand funding for research on gun violence so we have information instead of endless opinion. (See this article on why the CDC is not currently conducting that research.) Let’s fund serious mental health research and talk to serious people about practical solutions. Let’s acknowledge that solving this problem will likely cost money, and that we all have to have a part in that. (Emergency medical care and massive crisis response operations aren’t exactly free.)

I’m honestly not convinced we have the collective will to do this. Our nation is in a terrible place. We don’t seem able to work together to solve problems. We are very attached to our rhetoric and our hobby horses. Which is why I’m making this a very personal appeal: Put down that hobby horse. Step away from the rhetoric. Demand that your public representatives do the same. Let San Bernardino be the final straw. Let this be the event that galvanizes a nation to work together to find real answers.