Like sex, politics makes almost everybody stupid. With a presidential election in the offing, Americans are increasingly inclined to divide into rival tribes contemptuous of the “other.” It often seems that the higher the stakes, the more foolish the national dialogue.
Sometimes it feels as if we’re living in Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput, with Big-Endians perennially at war with Little-Endians over the proper way to open a soft-boiled egg. Of course, Swift himself engaged in furious political and religious controversy all his life. He could also laugh at himself.
But hold that thought.
Recently, I wrote a column in praise of rusticity and the values of my rural Arkansas neighbors. A surprising number of readers saw it as what one called “reverse elitism” — an attack on Yankees and city people generally, although no comparison was stated or intended. Yes, white country folks mostly lean Republican, although readers couldn’t have known my neighbor’s race, and I have no idea how he votes. Therefore, to a tribalized sensibility, he must be a bad person, and I an apostate.
Lighten up, y’all: If I praise my wife, it’s not an attack on gay marriage.
Soon afterward, I received a communication from a friend in the city. He linked to a news item about scientists at HRL Laboratories in Malibu discovering a new super-light material.
“In search of profits,” he wrote, “‘Big Business’ routinely does that which our bloated federal government could never conceive of doing — inventing. This single accomplishment has more potential for improving lives and the economy than any Super Committee. Our response? ‘OCCUPY THE RICH — down with the 1%!!'”
Clearly, my friend styles himself a conservative. I responded that I was pretty sure that the Pentagon invented pepper spray, along with the Internet over which our brilliant repartee was being transmitted. As he’s a physician, I also mentioned the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which conducts or funds most basic medical research in the United States.
As for HRL Laboratories, it’s a subsidiary of General Motors and Boeing, neither corporation innocent of government largesse.
No big government, no big science.
A born straight-shooter, my friend admitted using hyperbole and joked that “right-leaners” like him normally “exclude the military from the federal government. Also NASA.”
He’d been blowing off steam. No harm, no foul.
Hippies, after all, can be very annoying. My friend felt besieged by sentimental leftists in college. He once dubbed me an honorary conservative because during a campus crusade against “lookism,” I remarked upon the irony of exclaiming over a beautiful poem or a magnificent sunset, but being expected to pretend that I didn’t notice a beautiful woman.
It’s of such moments that friendships are made.
Speaking of hippies, George Orwell once complained that “the mere words ‘socialism’ and ‘communism,’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, ‘nature cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.”
Feminist, mind you.
Orwell soon volunteered to fight in a Trotskyite brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Yet it annoyed the hell out of him that to “an ordinary man, a crank meant a socialist, and a socialist meant a crank.”
Orwell also once apologized to the (gay) poet Stephen Spender for coarse insults about “so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging.” Having met and liked Spender, he explained that “when you meet anybody in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas.”
He thought it unfair to treat friends with the kind of “intellectual brutality” for which he later became famous — caricaturing the Russians as pigs, their followers as bleating sheep, and furious that no publisher would print “Animal Farm” until World War II was over and Stalin no longer Churchill’s ally.
Thankfully, we don’t live in a terrifying era like Orwell’s. Nevertheless, it seems to be crucial for progressives in a functioning democracy to keep that distinction between human being and caricature always in mind.
In his New York magazine essay “When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?,” former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum basically says Republicans have made the terrible political error of believing their own propaganda: portraying a mild-mannered centrist like President Obama as a hardcore revolutionary.
“The business model of the conservative media,” he writes, “is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel).”
Trapped in a world of “pseudo-facts and pretend information,” even “Republican billionaires are not acting cynically. They watch Fox News too, and they’re gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base.”
Should dogma force them into nominating a satirist’s daydream like Newt Gingrich, the winning side in 2012 could be the one that kept its sense of humor.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.)