My father is a better man than I am. That’s not false humility talking, as anyone who knows us both can attest. Neither am I trying to suck up to him to rook my sister out of whatever inheritance might be coming down the line. I’ve already told him that when he goes – which I’ve adamantly discouraged - she can have all the furnishings, knickknacks, and personal effects. I’ll just take the cash.
My dad spent thirty years in the Air Force, making friends all over the world, from Greenland to (then) West Germany, retiring as a full colonel. He had another successful career after that, before retiring for good, making sure war veterans got the benefits they might not even know they had coming to them. We sometimes call him Honest John, as he’s the type of guy who, if he gets an extra ten cents back in change from a cashier, then realizes it when he gets to his car, will march the dime back in to return it. He’s the kind of person who, if he has an extra-attentive waitress at a restaurant, will write her manager a week later, telling them why she deserves a raise. (Sadly, he also insists on using food servers’ first names when their name tags give away the game, but nobody’s perfect.)
My dad is such an involved grandfather, that he gives each of his grandkids a three-ring binder - thick with laminated pages and color graphics - of spiritual and moral instruction, with periodic updates. It’s been nice having him as a wingman in the fatherly-duties department, as it frees me up to do more important things, like fishing or binge-watching Eastbound & Down.
Honest John is an elder in his church, and takes his elder chores pretty seriously. He reported for duty in his mask in the middle of the pandemic, even though most of his Bible study-group elected to ride bareback, pre-vaccines, tempting the COVID fates.
I tell you all this not because I’m a big fan of my father’s – though I am – but because of what happened not all that long ago after he pulled one of his elder shifts. His church, as they periodically do to their credit, spent a couple days inviting the homeless to come in. They fed them multiple meals, encouraged them to sleep in their church buildings, and stayed up with them all night if their guests felt like it, letting the less fortunate punch themselves out, telling of how life had beaten them down, broken their hearts, and stolen their crowns, in the words of the metaphysician, Tom Petty.
After he spent two days with them, I received an email from my dad, telling me to call, which I don’t do often enough. I did as instructed, and the conversation went like this:
Me: Hey, Dad. How’d it go? Any interesting stories?
Dad (distracted): You know, Matt, I’d really like to KICK THAT MITT ROMNEY IN THE HEAD!
Now I’ve known my dad a long time – since I was born, actually. And I’ve never known him to want to go around, indiscriminately kicking mild-mannered Mormons in the head. Which would be a dangerous proposition in Romney’s case, besides, on account of his hairspray-helmet. (You could easily fracture a metatarsal.) I don’t remember what Romney’s precise infraction was. Probably speaking up (which you’re not supposed to do in respectable Republican circles these days), Romney pointing out that our then-emperor, Orange Julius Caesar, had gone one toke over the line. As I recall, this was during one of Trump’s impeachments. I can’t remember which, since they’re now multiple choice. It could have been the one where he asked the Ukrainian president to fix the Hugo-Chavez-doctored voting machines in Fulton County, so that he wouldn’t have to hang Mike Pence. But they all run together now.
The point is, my father - respectable military officer, pillar of his church, apple of his grandchildren’s eye, a half-interested, not terribly-fanatic conservative most of his life – had now been seized by The Fever. Anger Fever. As has a good chunk of the rest of the country, many of our countrymen suffering the same side effects that hyperpyrexia (or a very high fever) brings: dizziness, sweating, rapid breathing, nausea, changes in mental state, extreme confusion…..you get the idea.
We don’t need the polling data to tell us this – we can feel it in the air – but it does. As CNN’s Chris Cillizza has pointed out, a recent CNN poll showed “three-quarters of respondents (74%) said they were either ‘very angry’ (26%) or ‘somewhat angry’ (48%). Those numbers are similar to what an August 2020 CNN poll found, with 79% saying they were angry roughly a year ago……Almost 9 in 10 Republicans (88 percent) say they are angry – including 44 percent who describe themselves as ‘very angry.’” (Sixty-seven percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Independents are angry to boot.)
A September University of Virginia Center for Politics poll, conducted along with Project Home Fire, showed that 41 percent of Biden voters and 52 percent of Trump voters at least “somewhat agree that it’s time to split the country, favoring blue/red states seceding from the union.” Which means, not to put too fine on a point on it, that roughly half the country has gone batshit-crazy, as we would spend the rest of our life as a nation (or two), squabbling over who gets what in the divorce. Real question: Who gets Florida? Another real question: Who would want it? (JK, Florida. Don’t send any more invasive species my way – two alligators have recently turned up in my southern Maryland marshes.)
While the crazies have always warned of and even rooted for civil war, thus allowing them more shop-ops to buy paramilitary gear, Gadsden flags, and Antifa balaclavas (being a revolutionary can be both fun and fashionable!), even the formerly sane seem to be entertaining the possibility, or inevitability. Everyone from the newly-minted fire-breathers of the Claremont Institute on the right to our favorite bowl-cut-headed documentarian Ken Burns on the left, seem to be girding themselves for what could turn out to be Jets vs. Sharks behind the gym after school. This is not something we should be giving voice to. And not just because Burns’s documentary on the coming civil war, if it happens, will likely be as long and self-righteously punishing as the war itself. The nation might want to think long and hard about heading to the hills, living rough, and eating hardtack, which doesn’t pair well with their SommSelect wine-of-the-month selections. And as patriotic Americans, we should likewise keep in mind that all-out-war could really slow down Amazon Prime deliveries.
One of our fundamental problems, of course, is not that people don’t care, but started caring too much, just as our politics grew more polarized, meaner, and worst of all, dumber. My professional medical advice for those wishing to reduce their Anger Fever (I did not, technically, go to med school, though I did watch a lot of St. Elsewhere as a kid), is to stop caring so much. Not about people. Or especially about people who need your help. That is worthy of our concern and attention.
But the hyper-obsessiveness over how smart your guy is (not likely) vs. how dumb the other side’s guy seems to be (more plausible), has dulled people’s good judgment. Over the last decade or so, too many have ceased to see their fellow countrymen as individuals – with flaws, personality quirks, ideological idiosyncrasies. Instead, they want to carve the world into two camps: ours and theirs. You’d better pick one, and stick with it, no matter how much baby you should be throwing out with your own side’s filthy bathwater. And believe me, your side, whatever side you’re on, is dirty, too.
Roughly a half decade or so ago, I started noticing that everyone began to believe that their political opinions were the most interesting thing about them. When it’s usually exactly the opposite. As a journalist, I always found that talking to people about their actual lives – their hurts, ambitions, failures, families, amusing asides – produced infinite and pleasant surprises. Only when they started talking politics could I finish all their sentences. As a right-leaning person throughout my life, I became unwittingly involved in more and more conversations, feeling like a trapped rat all the while, in which my conversational companions gave me their harangues on how biased the liberal media was. In fairness, the mainstream media does lean liberal, and often is biased. (Who isn’t, these days?) But if every other sentence you utter ends in the refrain “liberal media bias,” it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lying or wrong, just that you’re boring me to death over dinner. I get it. But that’s been settled law for decades. Try to be more interesting.
Besides, achieving equanimity isn’t just a natural state, but a choice. These days, it very much involves swimming against the tide. You nearly have to choose not to get riled by all the manufactured outrages, Kabuki-theater conflagrations, and faux-Twitter fights that are conducted by catty people, for catty people. The rage merchants abound, and are all too willing to make a buck from stoking your anger and wet-nursing your resentments over “issues” you’d never even heard of five minutes prior. Don’t be such an easy mark.
Take critical race theory, as but one example. I generally think it’s insidious and dopey, a racket practiced by charlatans, which largely attracts aspiring charlatans. I’ve written it up as such in the past. But do we really think our average truck driver, who is now seething-mad about critical race theory, has ever met a critical-race theoretician in his life? Or could explain it in a paragraph or less? Possibly so. They do tend to listen to a lot of talk radio. But generally speaking, a truck driver spends his or her time actually doing productive things that make our country a better place. (Unlike most critical-race theoreticians). Like transporting essential goods to market, to make the rest of our lives better. Or providing for their families. Or nailing lot lizards down at the Flying J before swallowing a fistful of amphetamines to stay awake during a 20-hour run. (Didn’t want to give truck drivers too many virtue points. They are flawed human beings like the rest of us.)
My point being not that a truck driver isn’t just as entitled as say, a silly-ass Substack writer, to notice what’s good and bad about America. But to say that neither of us should be willing to break up the country over these fine points, or to rupture our friendships over the same.
My hands aren’t clean, either, in this latter regard. Looking back objectively on most of 2020 and early 2021, I realize that in the heat of the moment(s) – the raging pandemic, the contentious election, the near up-ending of democracy that followed the election - I got a little too……excitable, intense, insufferable. I became so obsessed with proving to my COVID-denier friends that in fact, COVID was not the same as the flu and actually was the deadliest pandemic in a century, that my kids, who call me “Big Cat,” actually pasted a label on the back of our house calculator: “Big Cat’s COVID Calculator.” I laughed, for about a second. Then I had to get back to tabulating how that lying sack of goo, Ron DeSantis, was jerking our chain on the Florida death counts.
I lost old friends, and newer ones, too. I never threw them over, myself, mind you. I have a firm policy: never excommunicate a friend over politics, no matter how wrong you can prove they are. But I made it easy for them to hit the eject button. When one old high-school buddy, a Trumpster to his core, wouldn’t stop sending me a steady stream of the-election-was-rigged conspiracy nonsense from every “unimpeachable” source from Gateway Pundit to FingerSniffingPatriot.com, I finally snapped by telling him he should probably give it a rest, as it was making me want to punch him in the throat. It’s a figure of speech that he took literally. I didn’t actually want to throat-punch him (well, a little). Though this caused him not to just sign off from my inbox, but from our 35-year-long friendship as well.
It’s not that I’m conceding he was right and I was wrong on the issues. In fact, I’ll double down: he was wrong, and I was right. (Though I would say that.) It’s that I failed to remember the Proverbs: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” I’d not only abandoned my even temper, my willingness to extend grace to people who didn’t ask for it and maybe don’t even want it, my ability to appreciate the ridiculous in others and myself, but I’d forgotten how to give a soft answer. To deflect, to de-escalate, to subscribe to the spirit of let’s live to disagree another day. I didn’t turn away wrath with this friend and many others. I didn’t extinguish the fire. Instead, I threw some fatwood on it, stacked on fire-starter squares, then soaked it all in gasoline, and lit it with a blowtorch. Then I did a war-dance around the bonfire that I helped stoke.
Why? Well, it’s fun to be right. It’s fun to pound facts and logic and reason and rhetoric, like masonry nails, into your combatant/friend’s cement head. It’s great fun to feel righteous, which beats all the-feeling-dead-inside that is the stuff of humdrum existence. Yet beware of the man who is too convinced of his own righteousness. That’s where the trouble usually starts.
But whatever or whomever I lost during my high-fever spell, I’m pleased to report I didn’t lose my dad, who is still a better man than I am, no matter how wrong I think he is. As you likely guessed by now, he’s a Trumpster. As you may have also ascertained, I am not. We argue politics, sometimes loudly. I tend to think he’s a blinkered enabler of a seditionist pyromaniac with an acute narcissistic personality disorder, who would just as soon burn the country down as let anyone else have it, and who has caused even many good men of faith to ignore everything they ever purported to believe in.
And though I didn’t vote for Joe Biden, the current object of all my dad’s ire, he probably thinks I’ve gone squish, and that I just don’t understand that we’re in a war - whether I’m willing to acknowledge it’s already started - and that our country is under siege by commie critical-race theorists who want to conduct door-to-door abortions while making us all gay-marry our transgendered lovers. I get on his nerves, and he gets on mine. But that’s what family’s for - irritating each other. It builds character, and as Heraclitus said, character is destiny.
One thing that both me and my father understand, however, while much of the rest of the country has ceased to, is that even when we’re on different sides, we’re still on each other’s. No matter what. We are still family, and despite sometimes less-than-polite disagreements, we’re going to stay that way. Even after he reads this, all will (mostly) be fine, with the requisite ten or twenty mild objections. Yet I will happily see him this Sunday for dinner.
Ain’t that a kick in the head?
The best mini-disquisition I’ve ever read on empathy - what we’re missing - comes from an old buddy of mine named Eddie Dean, who also happens to be one of the best music writers in America. He wrote this over two decades ago during a Slate dialogue. (This was back when publications still had dialogues, instead of just windy monologues.) So I’ll let him take us out, followed by Johnny Cash.
Eddie Dean: Let's put politics aside for a moment, and talk about what really matters. A couple of well-wrought sentences, or something that shines and opens up the world for an instant. I believe in all that stuff the ancient Greeks said, that poetry soothes the savage beast. Not necessarily a poem, but anything that stops time and really moves you, like a stoic Gary Cooper staring off into the distance in some nameless Western or Miles Davis's compassion on Blues for Pablo or Johnny Cash asking for water to clear his throat between songs at Folsom and, after his offhand request gets no response, there's a flash of anger ('Can I get some water? The last time I was here I got some water') and he's in the prisoners' shoes and they feel it, too. Then he takes a swig and mutters, 'They must have run this off Luther's boots' (as in Luther Perkins, a member of his band). And the prisoners respond with wild applause and whoops and acknowledge the bond. Yeah, Johnny Cash understands. Empathy is everything.