Facts, contexts, curiosity, and empathy

I’m so delighted to be a small town mama blogging for Obama. (I fear that my burg of 60,000 would dwarf most small towns in Vermont, but out here in California, that’s still pretty small.) Thanks so much for the invitation, BG!

Where I’m coming from
My husband, Pete, and I were raised by two very different generations of parents: his dad was born in 1913; mine was born in 1944. As the son of a WWII vet, Pete was raised to respect the service of anyone in uniform. Pete’s people were small business owners. My people do not have long records of military service or much of an interest in business; instead, they were farmers and mariners, lifeguards and woodworkers, lighthouse keepers and teachers. I don’t mean to romanticize my family’s history, but we tend to be people who serve the country in very different ways from Pete’s people.

Despite his upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Pete is a latter-day hippie at heart. But despite–or again, perhaps because of–his progressive tendencies, he’s the most amazing person I’ve seen when it comes to understanding where someone is coming from. Case in point: He can converse fluently in evangelicalese with his mother, a born-again Pentacostal woman who contributes to the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the Republican Party, even though he has great difficulty with her beliefs and politics. At the newspaper office where we met, it was common for the receptionist to page into the production office: “Pete, you have a client.” Which meant: crazy person in the lobby; kindly escort him or her to the sports bar across the street.

I wish I could be more like Pete. There have been times–most notably the three months I lived in the Young Women’s Christian Home on Capitol Hill in fall 2004–when I’ve come close. Fascinated by the fundamentalist beliefs and politics of my fellow residents, I found myself ensconced in conversations about faith and politics that I would not otherwise have had access to. At the invitation of some of these women, I went to Baptist Bible study on Wednesday nights. I assured my new friends that their chances of bringing me to Jesus were infinitesimally tiny, that I just wanted “to go and listen and learn.” What I didn’t say: learn about their culture.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel I was being listened to as much as I was listening. I did manage to get a couple of the more open-minded ones to join me at D.C.’s Friends meetinghouse, where, even though I’m not a Quaker, I went to cleanse myself from the week’s evenings of political and religious talk. But mostly the conservative Christian residents of the YWCH–not all of them, but a majority–registered disbelief at my really-not-so-radical stances and became defensive because they felt I was implying they were wrong and I was right. When really, I was trying to say, “I think you’re wrongheaded, and here’s why. Here’s the world I come from. (We don’t wear pearls there.)” In brief: Growing up in a decidedly gay-friendly neighborhood in Long Beach, California. An urban high school (Snoop Dogg’s alma mater). A sojourn in a small Iowa college town decimated by Wal-Mart. Pursuit of a Ph.D. (later attained) in cultural studies. Marriage to a slightly older, decidedly working-class man who lost nearly two decades of his life to drugs and alcohol. Most of these experiences were foreign to them.

I was hardly qualified to argue theology with them, but we’d have conversations, for example, about the ethics of televangelism. Should the owners of the Trinity Broadcasting Network be frolicking on TV in full-length furs? Was that what Jesus would do? How could “Bible-believing” Christians like themselves buy into Republican politics and the gospel of wealth? (I later read What’s the Matter with Kansas and began to understand their stance a bit more, though these were middle-class, and not working-class, young women. Again, note the strands of perfectly matched white pearls.)

What’s missing from the American conservative movement

An ability to empathize. An ability to imagine–let alone step into–others’ cultural contexts. A curiosity about others’ race, class, gender, or sexuality.

The observations I made while living with these Christian women in DC have been reinforced repeatedly as the Republican campaign for president begins to fire on all cylinders. I’m not seeing a real empathy.

I’m seeing instead a politics of convenience. For example: the assertion that Hillary Clinton didn’t face sexism in her campaign, but that Sarah Palin is. Both women have experienced sexism in this campaign–I’ll grant that–but much of what the Republicans are calling sexism toward Palin is actually a questioning of her experience, beliefs, knowledge, and credentials.

I see a blindness to hypocrisy and irony. For years, many conservative Christians have sought to place restrictions on women’s autonomy, championing “submissive wives” and criticizing ambitious career women. And yet what made the McCain campaign suddenly appealing to these Christians? Sarah Palin and her conservative faith. I would love to believe that these people are converting to feminism, but I just can’t–just as I couldn’t believe a primary reason for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was Afghan women’s rights.

I see an utter ignorance–or at least a disregard for–American history. How else do you call the Obama Waffles box graphics “political satire”? How could you create a sock monkey Obama doll and declare it was inspired by the best of intentions?

I see an ignorance of white privilege. Democrats get criticized for even mentioning Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, yet if one of the Obamas’ daughters was pregnant, we all know the terror that would be visited upon the Obama family.

I see a disregard for intellectual endeavor. Just because I have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean I’m elitist, and sometimes people go to law school to pursue law in the public interest. Being editor of the Harvard Law Review shouldn’t be a disqualification for the Presidency–rather, it should recommend a person for the position.

What I’d like to see

I’d prefer a presidential campaign focused on facts and issues colored by the nuance of context. But as Pete reminds me every day, American presidential elections are not about facts; they’re about feelings and fears.

I’d like to see Americans display a genuine curiosity about their fellow Americans. I’d like to see this curiosity expressed through civic discourse where people aren’t just defending their positions but are genuinely open to listening to one another and maybe, just maybe, coming to understand why others believe what they do. Progressives as well as conservatives would do well to demonstrate more curiosity, embrace context, and show genuine empathy.

I’m voting for Obama in part because he is intellectually curious and sympathetic to the plight of the working and barely-middle classes. He’s not afraid of educated people, and he is one himself.

And now a question for you: Why are you voting for Obama, or what makes you hesitate to vote for him?

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One Response

  1. This is a terrific post, Leslie, and reminds me of how as a child growing up in New Hampshire, we saw all manner of presidential candidates in our midst, so much so that I’ve alway been able to see why someone could actually vote for the conservative candidate–out of a preference for that candidate’s slate of policies and record. I didn’t like it, but I respected differences of opinion when I heard cogent arguments about the core issues of the time.

    This time it is different. Way different. When I heard that someone rather close to me was supporting McCain, I wondered out loud how I would ever speak to that person again. I couldn’t believe I had such an extreme response. But that’s how dire things feel for all the reasons you put forth.

    I’ve got to go search for my empathy because I can’t find it right now for supporters of the McCain/Palin ticket. Thanks for being so reasonable!

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