Pool party with the Tea Party! Who’s in?
Hey, where is everybody going? Is there a doody in the pool?
I am a progressive who hails from Minnesota, the political breeding ground of Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Michele Bachmann? Never heard of her.
I believe in the goodness of government. I believe that Obamacare is manna from heaven. I also believe Obama’s hawkish drones and bewildering defense of the NSA Surveillance State are the personification of evil. (Sorry, Mr. President, you’re smoking Bush Weed on those policies.)
Sometimes I stare northeast and imagine what life would be like had not my butter churner and cobbler ancestors hopped on a ship and fled their native Norway at the turn of the previous century.
I presently reside in Columbia, South Carolina. Perhaps you have heard of Strom Thurmond, Mark Sanford and my current U.S. Representative Joe “You Lie” Wilson, who, I am ashamed to inform my fellow progressives across the Fruited Plain, ran unopposed in the most previous election. Send me a message, and I’ll send you a photo to prove it. (Shame on Democrats in the Palmetto State.)
Two blocks from where I work is a statue, publicly erected, of Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, a former South Carolina Governor and U.S. Senator who once made the following comments about African-Americans in a debate with a Dairyland Senator from my neck of the woods (back when Wisconsin actually stood for something good):
“I believe they are men, but some of them are so near akin to the monkey that scientists are yet looking for the missing link.”
I moved to Columbia on January 1, 2003. When I drove past the South Carolina State House on MLK Jr. Day of that year, I nearly crashed my truck when I spied a Ku Klux Klan rally gathered on the Capitol steps. Until that moment, I had no idea it was possible to suffer culture shock in my own country. A few years later, I learned that one of the bastions of the American Nazi Party is in the nearby city of Laurens.
All to say, perhaps you will understand why I tend to avoid political conversations with my neighbors. In 2012, South Carolina voted for Mitt Romney (after it voted for Newt Gingrich). There is a Republican Governor. The State Senate is Republican (28-18); the House also Republican (76-46). Both U.S. Senators are Republicans. The U.S. Representative Delegation is Republican (6-1). The overall state demographics are 44%-33% Republican, and if I had to guess, I would say the other 23% are Randy Randians (followers of Rand Paul and Ayn Rand).
I find it fatiguing to defend what seem obvious principles of enlightenment with individuals who believe society should be founded on The Golden Rule, yet who would not hesitate to decimate every Muslim majority nation on our Little Blue Planet if the nuclear football fell like manna from heaven into their laps. Nuke unto others as you would have others nuke unto you.
Thanks for sticking with me through this preface. Tonight I feel like I deserve the political brownie—though honestly I am well aware that this week the brownie should go to Reverend Carter Dary, Kentucky educators and anyone who is still allowed to vote in North Carolina.
On to business.
My daughter is a fish. As is Chuck’s daughter. Both of our girls swim in our community pool practically every afternoon.
Chuck floats about in his giant rainbow inner tube, relaxing in the glorious South Carolina sun, while his middle school daughter splashes about like a dolphin. I swim laps and keep a watchful eye on my younger daughter, who has just reached the cusp of independent swimming.
Our pool is literally an American melting pot. One mile away is the entrance to Ft. Jackson, which trains half of all U.S. Army soldiers. Many of my neighbors are preparing to defend our nation for reasons beyond my personal philosophical reasoning. Even closer to my residence is one of the only medical schools in the state, so my neighborhood also includes an abundance of Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern families by South Carolina standards.
G.I. Joes and ESLers alike seek daily relief in the pool’s soothing cool waters. We swim in peace, albeit it with a bit of traditional Palmetto State racial tension.
Back to Chuck. I am guessing he is a single father. He speaks kindly to his daughter. She speaks kindly to him. As a single father myself, I interpret this as a general sign that Chuck & Daughter live a fairly positive family life.
Over the past few months, I have developed the suspicion that Chuck and I have nothing in common politically. Floating by in his Amazing Technicolor Inner Tube, Chuck has released enough invectives about Obama and “damned government” to establish that he is a faithful member of the Tea Party.
I realized that unless I pretended to be mute, Chuck and I were ultimately going to have “the talk.”
Yesterday that talk happened. Our two daughters managed to wrest Chuck from his inner tube and transform it into a diving toy—which left Chuck and I facing each other in the pool.
We established general ground rules:
Chuck is private sector. I am public sector.
Chuck is a “no offense, but I believe in limited government” kind of guy.
I am a “no offense taken but I believe that an educated populace is the key to societal prosperity, perhaps you’ve heard of Scandinavia” kind of guy.
“Oh, I know all about Europe,” Chuck replies. “Just look at Spain and France and that city somewhere in Europe where they’re burning down all the houses and trees. You know what I’m talking about, right?”
“Um, no,” I reply honestly—though in my heart I secretly hope this means that someone has set Disneyland Paris ablaze. “So where does your daughter go to school?”
Chuck explains that he moved to our community because his previous residence was zoned for one of the worst school districts in our metro area. He complained, wrote letters, even contemplated appealing to the Governor’s office, until finally conceding and moving to a better school district. I reply with the proverbial understanding of a parent to place his child in the best possible school district.
Several minutes later, Chuck declares that the worst thing that has ever happened in our country was the creation of a federal agency devoted to education. Whose idea was it to wrest away from states the authority for education?
I think: Um, Chuck, weren’t you just bemoaning your state’s education policies? But I bite my lip.
Then arrives the predictable conversation about local municipal government. “After all, look who’s running the city.” Sigh. How does one counter racism while our daughters play together? Not two minutes later comes a remark about the damned Muslims who are about to overtake Planet Earth—as if they were some sort of bacterial growth on a stale bagel.
Finally, an opportunity for clear interjection. I state that I know many wonderful people of the Islamic faith. This gives me an opportunity to inform him that our neighbors to the immediate north have recently proposed adopting a state religion. I opine that “the problem” is not one of Islam but of religious fundamentalism in general. Here we find some common ground.
However, Chuck next thanks God that the U.S. military—even Obama—is taking care of all those damned fundamentalists in the Middle East. I remind him that the Iraq War was founded on a lie. He insists that nearly every American war except World War II has been founded on lies. Oddly, I find this impossible to refute. Yet he professes abidance by these lies—while I want to throw the liars into a courtroom in The Hague.
We agree to disagree. I search the pool for my daughter. She is splish-splashing in accordance with all pool rules; my immediate attention is not required. Damn.
Chuck believes that the worthwhile fruit of war is technology. I insist that $1 trillion-plus invested in NASA and oceanic exploration instead of Middle Eastern bloodbaths would have produced just as much intellectual property. We agree. Again I am shocked; clearly I am in the midst of a Gingrichean “Mars Explorer” Tea Partier. I’ll take consensus anywhere I can get it.
We turn next to the loss of manufacturing in the Deep South. I propose that advanced manufacturing is a hopeful prospect to fill the void left by the departed textile industry. Yet I suggest this is problematic: as companies relocate to the South, they are having trouble finding an educated workforce to fill their employment recruitment needs. Why? Because education is not a budgetary priority in states with Corridors of Shame. This leads to talks of unions. He is a bullheaded Dittohead on unions. I am an equally stubborn Sacco-Vanzetti unionist. I play the “unions gave us weekends” card. Full Point Progressive. Next subject.
Another left field miracle of consensus: Greed. We both agree that greed is a leading cause of societal evil. O, the Evil Big Banks and Mortgage Derivatives! I remind him that a lack of regulation led to the Great Recession. He offers generously that W’s bank bailout was the quintessence of Government Gone Wild, yet even so, he plays the standard Fox News “Barney Frank is gay” bullet point. Even Chuck seems to realize that this is a rubber chicken point, so he detours back to Islamic fundamentalism. I provide an historical survey of U.S. global foreign policy since World War II, including the division of post-WWII Middle Eastern borders and throw in some quotes by Eisenhower cautioning against the military industrial complex.
Soon we are onto the U.S. propping up of third-world dictatorships in order to counter Soviet Communism. Ah, the Cold War. I list a string of madmen whose carnage carnivals were funded by U.S. dollars. Chuck seems to know something about Duvalier and Haiti. Maybe he took a missionary trip there once. He is incensed about Haitian dictatorship.
I drop my ace. I have been to Haiti many times. I explain that when one flies over the island of Hispanola, the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republican is apparent to the naked eye. From the sky, the Dominican Republic is green; Haiti is brown. Why? Impoverished Haitians need charcoal to cook their food. How does one make charcoal? One cuts down trees and burns them. When 10 million people are spread out over roughly the square mileage of the state of Maryland—all needing to cook food—soon all the trees are gone. Yet the Dominican Republic long ago recognized the danger of denuding the environment and made charcoal production illegal, simultaneously pushing propane and electricity into even the most rural regions.
Chuck nods vigorously. Dominican Republic wise. Haiti foolish.
“And that,” I conclude, “is why limited government is so dangerous.”
A pregnant pause. We both realize that Chuck is Haiti and I am the Dominican Republic.
And it’s pretty clear how that’s working out.
Chuck plunges into religion again as a last resort. He tells me that whether I believe it or not, we will all face an Eternal Judge in the afterlife. “The problem,” he says, “is that we are all sinners.”
“I don’t disagree, Chuck.”
Chuck is flabbergasted. For whatever reason, he has assumed I am an atheist.
I explain that I too believe in a metaphysical reckoning. I clarify that there is no anthropomorphism to my personal belief, but I do believe there are metaphysical consequences to my actions. Which is why I follow the Christian principles of socialism, anti-poverty, pro-environment, anti-greed, pro-education, etc., et al.
I confess that my fingertips have become raisins. We agree it is time to collect our daughters and head home to our respective dinner tables. We exchange Southern pleasantries while drying off and bid each other farewell.
I take no joy in defeating Chuck. I like Chuck. He clearly loves his daughter. He dislikes greed. He expresses a disdain, however muddled, for religious fanaticism. I think he is close to seeing the light.
What I do take joy in is that I finally emerged from my resistance to engage my neighbors in political conversation. It is so easy to take to social media and have our safe “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” moments.
What is damned hard, however, is engaging individuals whose political philosophy drives us to such hellish madness.
Not too many years ago, I was Chuck. In fact, I put Chuck to shame with my religious fanaticism and right-wingery. But people took the time to engage me. While Chuck was generous in his dialogue with me, I was an overbearing prick with those who helped me. But after enough conversations with some very determined and patient individuals, I finally saw the light.
If there is a point to this essay, it is that the Chucks of this world are not going to convert to progressivism because of the latest shared Facebook meme. It takes one-on-one conversations. It takes time. It takes a personal political plan. It takes a lot of things.
But most of all, it takes stepping out of our virtual worlds and engaging others around us in as positive a manner as we can muster. There are a lot of Chucks out there, and we need to start reaching out to them.
Civilization depends on it.
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