I had a conversation with an uncle last week about politics. We rarely see eye to eye on issues, and he has had to apologize in the past for racist remarks he made in the presence of my friends, when I made it clear it was unacceptable. The remarkable part of the conversation, though, was getting a glimpse at how he arrived at his worldview.
My mother had told me he had it rough as a kid, but I didn’t know how rough. It was after WWII, and his family was immigrant German. He lost his father young, and had to work every day to support his family. At age 11, his paper route helped fed the family. He was the punching bag of the class, mostly friendless, until the day he fought back from a punch in the face.
This man now walks around the town as if he owns it – not in the way of a braggart, but with a quiet confidence. His story of alienation was an absolute shock – a sort of punch in the face in itself. But the lesson he learned from his childhood was anything but compassion. As we argued back and forth on the points of what the responsibilities of a government should be, what is a right and what is a privilege, I kept coming back to the same question: “Would you really want to penalize a child? What lush life do you think someone has in the projects? On food stamps? Why would you want a child to go through what you did?”
He never had an answer for me. I know he loves kids – a big part of his life’s work was in caring for them – and that he understands the anguish a parent feels when a child goes astray or worse. Still, I couldn’t understand why it didn’t transform him in a different way.
Another person who endlessly posts feeds from Newt Gingrich and the gop’s Website lost her father to cancer in a European country which waited too long to treat him. When I responded both with sympathy for her father’s loss but also with facts as to how the public health system performs in Denmark (according to my brother-in-law who is a physician there), she only answered, “It runs better in richer countries.” Then she continues to post and comment on the evils she has yet to understand – she only parrots what she is told.
Another conversation was with a conservative who had the benefit of private education, one she earned. And her comment wrt rights v. privileges was “paddle your own canoe”. I know she never lacked for material things, and her prep school pedigree made it easier to transition to private higher education, no doubt underwritten by the burden of loans. At least she has made some effort to read and comment without heat and with some intelligence, but even there, all roads lead to tort reform, socialism, and something my uncle comes closest to saying out loud.
Many of these people are afraid. Afraid that someone they may have discriminated against in the past has re-emerged in the form of a president. And the same disrespect, fear, prejudice, becomes the lens to best observe him and his actions. The most fearful are those who never attained President or Mrs. Obama’s level of success, and refuse to acknowledge that they achieved those goals because of their abilities, because of their willingness to work harder in the face of others’ discrimination. They blame the folks they think got a pass – almost all browner and poorer than them – instead of people who are the same color but are unwilling to share what they have.
I see this in my privileged neighborhood, and wonder what it will take to help the fearful people see the truth – their worst enemy is the one they think they will be, since they look the same.