Wednesday, January 13, 2016

No SOTU for Me

For the first time since my early elementary school years, I had no interest in watching the State of the Union address to Congress last night. This makes me sad, as it was standard practice for me to count down the hours to this annual must-see TV and to have appropriate snacks at the ready. My decision instead to flip between the Maryland basketball game (which was hard to watch) and Modern Family reruns has nothing to do with the fact that President Obama was the man at the lectern. My feelings would have been the same regardless of who was delivering the speech.

I have spent most of my life following politics and working on campaigns and immersing myself in events at the state and local level. But, it’s all become so ugly. Where is the civil discourse to be found within the yelling and name calling and ten-second sound bites? We’ve replaced hours of standing and listening to Lincoln and Douglas debate the great issues of the day with a comments section on Facebook that is hateful and ill-informed.
I do not like politics in the digital age, as last night friends from one side of the aisle were posting about how it was difficult even to look at Obama on the screen while the other side made fun of Governor Haley’s smile, because that’s what matters, and called her a betrayer of her sex. Instead of this (almost) universal and unprecedented access to information and communication creating bridges for more dialogue and understanding, we instead now seem to take virtual cover with like-minded souls, dig in our heels, and create an increasingly divisive society.

My frustration can be illustrated with another detail from last night’s speech that I did discover today. Kim Davis, the small town Kentucky clerk who found international notoriety for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, apparently was the guest of some congressman and proceeded to look unimpressed throughout President Obama’s remarks. Take a quick trip through social media this morning and you will find thousands of comments making fun of how awful her hair looked and how she was dressed too casually for the occasion in a super tacky outfit and could have at least worn her best overalls. I do not agree with the stance taken by Ms. Davis and believe she should have done her job, but what is the point of mocking her appearance? How am I supposed to take your position seriously when your chosen tactics are to tease and bully? I stop listening when that childishness starts. Don’t you have logical and mature arguments on your side? Yes, you do. But yet this default response to belittling happens ALL. THE. TIME. 
Free speech is important, without exception, and especially must be protected when it runs the risk of offending someone. We do not (or at least should not) have the right in this country to be safe from being offended. I get that and support it. But where is the balance? Where are the thoughtful disagreements playing out in the public arena to counter the name calling and taunts?

There are countless examples of the devolution of discourse and respect in the political arena since the start of the new millennium (and the rise of the internet and cowards who hide behind a keyboard – not a coincidence), but I shall attempt to count a few here anyway:
1. Several years ago, Bush was a fascist and a Nazi. Now, Obama has been given the same labels. Guess what? Neither man qualifies. As someone who used to have such passion for government and discussion of the grand ideas that moved the beautiful experiment that is the United States, I am not exaggerating when I say it breaks my heart that people glibly throw around such horrific terms. It’s absurd and harmful.

2. Bush was drawn as a monkey. Obama was drawn as a monkey. There also has been toilet paper created with both of their images so that a person taking part in private bathroom practices can act on their displeasure accordingly. Some adults find this funny, much like a 12-year-old boy would.
3. The Dixie Chicks were called traitors and exiled from the country music community for years because they spoke of their displeasure with President Bush. Some of the same people who burned Dixie Chicks’ CDs and demanded they be taken off the airwaves ten years ago are now calling President Obama a moron and an a**hole and a global embarrassment. Engage in double standards much?

4. There are thoughtful politicians out there with great ideas for improving everything from our neighborhoods to our national security. You rarely hear them, though, over the voices of those who want to carpet bomb the Middle East until it glows (here’s looking at you, Cruz) and those who label all conservatives as people who want to bring back the plantation economy, make all women walk five feet behind their husbands, and give your entire paycheck to billionaires (hello, Secretary Clinton). Fear, stereotypes, hyperbole . . . both sides use these tactics to get television time and spectators.
5. Bakers who own a private business must be hateful and worthy of financial ruin because their religious beliefs restrict the work they are willing to do. Muslims in this country will have enough power in twenty years to implement Sharia law and adulterers will be stoned . . . and the President is leading this effort. People who are pro-choice hate babies. People who are pro-life hate women. Syrian refugees want to come here and blow up our cities. If you don’t welcome all refugees here without reservation, you are a xenophobic bigot. There is no gray, only black and white. Compromise and deference are considered weak.

6. Donald Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
Let me close by taking it out of the political sphere and summarizing my feelings this way – I want to live in a world in which both Caitlyn Jenner and Tim Tebow can live and express their worldview openly. Maybe this pairing seems odd and not well-thought out, but for whatever reason it’s exactly the sentiment that came to mind as I was driving to work today. You can think Jenner has a psychological disorder (I don’t agree with you), but respect her as a fellow human being. You can think that Tebow is na├»ve and foolish to believe in a mythical creature in the sky and to live his life by those set of morals (I don’t agree with you), but not mock him. Why are so many people afraid or threatened by either what they don’t understand or that with which they disagree? Why do people get SO ANGRY over differences before first trying to have a single conversation?
So, that’s it. When we arrive at a place where Jenners and Tebows live in peace and people actually want to discuss policy differences in a civil and educated manner instead of with absurd memes and graphics that get spread around the internet or through opinions expressed with a lot of capital letters but very little punctuation on Facebook and Twitter, then perhaps I will find my way back into the thick of it all. In the meantime, I will continue to vote (likely third party in the general presidential election if this thing continues to roll as it has been) and I will continue to talk with my children about the important issues and how others will disagree with them but still actually be nice people with valid points. I probably will still write about policy and personalities when a topic strikes me. I just will approach it all from a greater distance than I ever have before.