Most of us, as adults, have many responsibilities. We have a responsibility to our communities, locally, nationally and globally, and although we view those responsibilities in varying ways, we must share the responsibility to co-exist.
I am responsible to my employers to give them what they pay for, and personally, I feel a responsibility to go beyond those expectations.
We have a responsibility to family and friends to be the best person we can be in the different ways that they may depend on us. And, like every parent, my paramount responsibility is to my children; to be strong, wise, fair, and to imbue the characteristics of humanity.
If I were to be elected to Congress, I will have been given the responsibility of representing all the people of Iowa’s First District. As a candidate I still bear a responsibility, and that is to communicate and display my message to the district, and to allow for everyone’s concerns to approach me.
My candidacy is now 8 months running, but I have written this blog for many years and for several years I was a columnist for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. I became known in the community as a progressive voice, and as a visible Democrat. That profile has exposed me to a few surprising confrontations, but more often, enlightened me to the responsibilities that come with it.
On one occasion a few years ago, I was enjoying the company of friends at a restaurant when someone from another group called me out as a “stupid liberal.” No reason to bait me except that they felt a need to vent because liberalism, they said, was “the undoing of America” and apparently that was on their mind at Christmastime.
About a year later, I was dining with other friends and a person I’d never met before passed our table and said without provocation, “I can’t stand your politics.”
My friends were aghast that anyone would be so rude, but were particularly floored since, as one friend put it: “Your politics are about civil rights and helping people. How is someone against that?”
I’m a grown up, I can take it, and these encounters don’t rattle my cage or cause me consternation; what they did, however, was make me aware of a societal knot that is getting tighter and tighter that I believe could unravel at such a velocity that “the undoing of America” will be a very real possibility.
Civil discourse is being replaced by the language of fear. An extreme rhetoric, rooted in a fear of Islam, the fear of secularism, the fear of egalitarianism, the fear of governance, the fear of change, is becoming as common as an Oxford comma. It is amped and fanned by media, by unchallenged web information and communication cells that share only the most extreme perspectives, and those perspectives are turning into actions; sometimes violent actions to counter those fears.
Two days ago I went to a restaurant to relax before going to a performance of the New Horizons band, with which my mother plays the saxophone. I was taking the night off from politics when an old friend appeared, ready to engage. This fellow and I are on opposite sides of the political fence, but we’ve always enjoyed each other’s company. On this particular evening he was with a friend of his and I was introduced.
“How’s the campaign going,” my friend asked.
“It’s going,” is my usual reply. Campaigning is complex and always changing and so I find the expected response of “Great!” to be disingenuous. I know….I should always give the positive answer, but I’m wired to be more revealing. I continued, “Taking the night off to see my mother perform.”
After a few pleasantries I was left to my thoughts. I saw the two of them converse quietly for a minute and then the young man to whom I was introduced came over to me.
“I just have to ask,” he intoned. “Why are you a Democrat?”
I really wanted to be left alone, but I have taken on a new responsibility since I’ve chosen to be in the political arena to, at least, be respectful of any inquiry.
“I have a lot of reasons, “I replied, “and they would take up the rest of this evening, but I will give you this. Social justice. Whatever I do relates to finding the respect and opportunity that I believe all people deserve.”
He laughed. “That’s the biggest load of horse s#!t I’ve ever heard. Explain yourself.”
“Oh boy” I thought to myself. “But this comes with the territory…here goes….”
(Not to myself: ) “Let’s start with the history of systemic racism and sexism in America. It is a fundamental flaw in a presumably free society, predicated on justice, and we must continually examine justice and equality until we can transcend prejudice.”
That was too much for this fellow. He bellowed: “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. You’re saying that government will take care of everything. I believe in individual liberties and your Big Government is telling me what and who I have to believe!”
“I said nothing of the kind, “I replied. “You are putting words in my mouth and answering your own false premise.”
“Are you saying I’m stupid?” came his response. His brow was now furled and he was in my face. I should point out that this young man was probably over 6’ 2” and clearly a body builder.
“Not at all. Why don’t we just let this be and we’ll get together to talk at another time?”
“I will knock those f*@#in glasses off your face!”
The restaurant was very aware of this situation now and our mutual friend came over to take him away. The angry young man instead marched out the front door and never returned.
“He gets that way around Democrats. That’s happened before” was my friend’s conciliation.
“Not a problem” I said, but in reality it was. The problem wasn’t the disagreement itself, but the intensity of the anger that came with it. The same anger I had witnessed before that stepped outside of the realm of respect, but this time there was a physical threat from an intimidating source. It wasn’t the thought that I could have been nursing a broken nose that bothered me as much as the senselessness if I had.
This isn’t the first time I’ve asked, “What is happening in America?” and just today I read about a man in Michigan who robbed a convenience store and called an Indian American employee a “terrorist” as he shot him in the face. This not an anomalous reveal of violence and anger, it is indicative of an epidemic of irrational behavior all over America in restaurants, churches, mosques, schools, clinics, stores and city streets. They are the acts of people inflamed by fear.
But the fear is not rational, not to such an extreme that uncontrollable rage should strike out at a distortion of reality. Where is this insanity coming from?
The noun “insanity” is quite possibly the most overused, misappropriated and misunderstood word in the English language. It is used to define everything from serious mental illness to simply making a subjectively questionable judgment.
“Don’t be insane! The Packers will win the Super Bowl!”
There is a wide berth in terms of what insanity implies, but a definition can be refined to this: A mental illness of such a nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.
We are all capable of shades of fantasy and impulsiveness, but it is clear when someone steps over the line into the fog of genuine insanity. The trouble is that an overt act of insanity is not the only measure of its existence; insanity is being created right before our eyes.
The extreme fear that is cornering our socio-political reality is being trumped up (pun intended) and fanned by irresponsible, irrational, demagoguery, that is primarily coming from the Republican side of our national debate. That is confirmed by the fact that no Republican presidential candidate condemned any of these admitted hate crimes as having been motivated by prejudice. Marco Rubio, for one, blamed America’s anger at Big Government.
What I hear, instead, are unfounded claims: “You liberals care more about the rights of Islamic terrorists than Christians.” Or I hear a justification: “That’s how upset people are with liberal policies.”
Or: “Liberal protesters are just as bad.”
I don’t condone the violence that occurred in Seattle when thugs emerged from the Occupy Movement and broke windows, nor do I turn a blind eye to violent riots that resulted from protests against racism in cities all over the country. I may even agree with the fundamental causes in those cases, but violence, destruction, or harm to anyone, is not justifiable in any context. But there is a difference between the right and the left that I will not let slip by unnoticed.
I don’t consider the protests in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere to be from a specific political party, but the reaction to them fell along ideological lines; the left being sympathetic to the protesters cause and the right aligning with the status quo and a denial of the racism in question. The crucial distinction is that the protests themselves stemmed from extreme dissatisfaction with institutional or systemic failures that deny justice. That doesn’t make a violent outcome any more justifiable, but the root issues stand on rational ground.
These extreme acts of violence like the convenience store in Michigan, the church in South Carolina, a mosque in California are clearly a manifest of rightwing ideological positions born from hatred construed from fear. The root issues that lead to xenophobia, sexism or racism do not stand on rational ground; it is an emerging cultural insanity.
Insanity gives a perverse peace of mind to those who are most susceptible to being programmed by extreme rhetoric, especially when that rhetoric plays upon the very real instinct of fear. Fear is a vital, emotional response to perceived danger, but it also triggers the most primal, non-intellectual part of our psyche.
So where does responsibility lie?
Can Donald Trump say “Ban all Muslims from entering the United States”? Yes, he can. But can he absolve himself from the Islamophobia that results and has led to violence? No, he cannot. His comment is based in fear; fear that causes many people to stop looking for truth and to settle on the most shallow and superficial reasoning.
The shallow reasoning that gives sanctuary to insanity. For this to stop, our political rhetoric has to be held accountable to reason and facts; it has to be scrutinized by historical truths, honest reflection on our intentions, and the reality of our circumstances.
Unless we start to unravel this knot, it only gets tighter. Another responsibility that we all must bear.