May 15th, 2018
Yesterday I sent Hans a text: “I hate talking to liberals.”
Just seconds later, Hans replied, “Why?”
That’s a good question. It’s kind of funny too, because in most circumstances Hans thinks of me as an old school, hippie-style liberal. My redneck son considers me to be a classic peacenik. So, he wants to know: why would I hate talking with other liberals?
I didn’t answer Hans’ text, so he called me later in the evening, brimming with curiosity. We had a long conversation. In order to explain myself, I had to tell Hans about a discussion I had earlier in the day. I will have to describe it to you too. It went like this:
The traffic on I-43 was heavy between Port Washington and Milwaukee, and I had an older woman in the passenger seat of my car who insisted on talking politics as I changed lanes on the freeway. I don’t multi-task, so I found it stressful trying to avoid an accident while responding to her various remarks. At one point I attempted to simply ignore her comments, but the woman was uncomfortable with silence, and kept sucking me back into an interminable argument. It’s not that I actually disagreed with her so much, it’s just that she wouldn’t quit.
In a way it’s my fault. I started telling her about a person who is important to me, and that this individual is currently in jail. I mentioned that this young woman is looking at three years of probation, and possibly two years in prison if she can’t stay straight.
My passenger asked, “Will she get psychological help while on probation?”
I answered, “I don’t know. Possibly.”
“Well, they really should offer her some services.”
“You’re right, they should, but often they don’t.”
“Our criminal justice system doesn’t help these people.”
“No, not really.”
“There was a wonderful special on PBS about the German prison system. Did you watch it?”
“No, we don’t watch TV”, I replied, as I attempted to watch the car next to me.
“It was really an excellent show. The Germans have a system that doesn’t harm the dignity of the the people in prison. Any developed country should have a system like in Germany. But, then maybe our country really isn’t so developed”, and then she laughed at her own joke.
I responded irritably, “But we don’t live there. We live here.”
I became frustrated at this point. For one thing, I almost hit the guy in my blind spot as I tried to change lanes. Second, my loquacious passenger was discussing the justice system from a safe distance. I saw it up close and personal. I was going to the jail that evening to visit the person I loved. I am dealing each day with the experiences of a specific individual who is firmly enmeshed in a fucked up government organization. I don’t care about what other countries do with their prisoners. I only care about one particular prisoner in one particular system.
I knew very little about my passenger. I still don’t. I do know that she lived and worked in Bolivia. I got the impression that she cares about other people, although in a different way than I do. Our disagreements were mostly a matter of style.
There was time for my passenger and I to talk about other topics, with generally the same result. She had opinions on nearly every subject. (So do I). It seemed that she thought any social ill could be solved by a committee of well-meaning zealots. Anything can fixed with a new law or a new program.
Somehow we found ourselves discussing white privilege. That was a mistake. I told her about our youngest son, Stefan, who was working as a welder in a shop with no ventilation in the Riverwest neighborhood. Most of his coworkers were black or Latino. I told the woman that sometimes they would needle Stefan about his white privilege. Stefan would respond to them by saying,
“If white privilege is so good, then why I am working in this shitty shop with the rest of you guys?”
(By the way, Stefan has a long time Latina girlfriend, and he speaks Spanish. Just sayin’).
My copilot wasn’t buying Stefan’s comment. She told me in great detail about economic inequality and racism. Everything was based on environment: schools, transportation, available jobs. Fix the system, and you fix the environment, and it’s all good.
Anyway, I told Hans about my long conversation with my friend on the left. He then told me about when he was laid off in the Texas oil fields, and he became both homeless and jobless for a while, that he was not able to get benefits that he believed were available to other people in his situation. Hans didn’t seem perturbed that other folks got help from the government, but it bothered him that he didn’t qualify for the same assistance. Tom him, it was a question of fairness.
I asked Hans, “You are aware that there is such a thing as racism?”
He sighed, and said, “Well, yeah… “.
“Okay, I was just checking.”
It’s strange. The conversation I had with my copilot was not unique. I have similar arguments with conservatives, like Hans, but for the opposite reasons. I know people who are absolutely convinced that everything is determined by human freedom and responsibility. While my passenger was determined to show me that people are products of their society, and often victims of that society, my right wing friends will tell me that each person has the ability and duty to decide their own fate. They use the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” argument. I knew an Evangelical woman who talked to me once about someone who was in trouble, and she told me earnestly,
“She just needs to learn how to make good choices.”
Sometimes there are no good choices. Sometimes there is only a spectrum of bad choices.
Both sides are right. Both sides are wrong.
Some people get dealt a lousy hand. They start life with health problems, or family problems, or race problems, or whatever. Other people seem to have it made right from the beginning. The playing field is never level. We can and should strive for equality, but we will never completely attain it.
Some people make good decisions and they prosper. Some people screw it all up and suffer the consequences. Some people do everything right, and life still kicks their asses. And others break every moral code and succeed beyond their wildest dreams. At times there seems to be no rhyme or reason for how our lives turn out.
I don’t deal well with groups. I don’t understand groups. I can’t identify with groups. I can identify and care about individuals. I can care about a specific person who is hurting. I can care about Hans and his struggles. I can care about Stefan. I can care about a young woman in jail. I can care about any person when I recognize that he or she suffers.
That’s all I can do.