Walking Between the Labels

My husband and I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes Saturday night. The hero ape, after a lifetime of gentle living at the hands of benevolent humans, was cast into a cage of swinging, screeching, fist-banging members of his own species. As we watched his shock and dismay, I remarked to my husband, “That kind of reminds me of going to work.”

The reason my husband thought that was funny is because I had mis-matched the labels. If it has hair all over its body and walks with its knuckles dragging on the ground, it is not human. The knuckle-draggers among us are labeled “apes” and we know that no matter what the ape might be, it ain’t us.

This primal ability to distinguish “us” from “them” keeps us alive. It helps to know the difference between a rattlesnake and a cabbage, between giant spiders and your grandma. Labels not only keep us safe, they allow us to live together and cooperate with one another in how we order our society.

Unfortunately, people are smarter than they are wise. Whatever ability we have, we always seem to find a way to apply it for evil. Labels can be used to ostracize, punish, degrade and manipulate other people. Used this way, labels become shorthand slander. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the political world.

Political discourse has devolved down to scandal-mining one another’s histories, gaffe attacks and label slinging. Never mind the problems besetting our nation and the world; if you can catch someone using an off-color word when they thought the mike was off, or if you can get enough people to label them a “communist” or a “fascist” or whatever, why then you beat them at the polls. You can win the election. Take home the prize. Get your hands on the state treasury and the power of government.

The standard way for politicians to survive this is to pick a side and stick with that side. “Your” side will then stick with you. They will label, gaffe report and scandal-mine your opponents for you. They will be your tit for the other guy’s tat.

The one thing no politician in their right mind would ever do is venture out from under the cover of “their” side. With no one to protect them from the hail stones of public excoriation, they will be beaten to a pulp and carted off the field in nothing flat. The only way to survive in politics is to, as Okies say, “dance with them that brung ya.”

There comes a point in every political career where sticking with your side means doing things you know are wrong. It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a liberal, the day will come when your “side” expects and demands that you chose them over everything else you believe.

If you are a Public Catholic, this day will come soon and be repeated often. If you think you can hold elective office and never be forced to choose between God and your party, God and your friends, God and your “side,” you need to think again. You will have to choose, and you will have to do it over and over and over again.

If you chose Jesus, if you decide that the “side” you’re on is the Jesus, Joseph and Mary side, there will be payback. Your payback is that both sides will come at you. “Your” side will do everything they can to punish and purge the “traitor” in their midst. The “other” side will join in where they can and wish them success. You will be alone.

Public Catholics have to walk between the labels. They’ll call you a “communist” one day, and a “fascist” the next. What they really mean is that you are not “one of us.” It won’t be long before everybody on both sides is slander-mining your history, gaffe-reporting your speeches and labeling you everything but a nice person.

You will be maliciously misunderstood, misinterpreted, misquoted, and just plain lied about.

The only comfort you can take is that this is exactly what Jesus said would happen. It’s how they treated Him, and if you truly try to follow Him, it’s how they’ll treat you. Their labels don’t fit you. You’re not a “conservative” or a “liberal.” You are a follower of Christ in a world that hated Him then and hates Him now.

You follow a risen savior Who was beaten, mocked, tortured, despised and murdered. You follow Jesus. And His label is the cross.

It’s the Last Week of Session

It’s the last week of session.

What that means to me as a person is that I make arrangements for people to keep my mother entertained, kiss my family goodbye with promises of all the fun we’ll have “when it’s over,” and pack up my Timbuk2 messenger bag in much the same way I pack a carry-on bag for an ocean-crossing flight.

I know and my family knows that I will come home long after they’re asleep and wouldn’t be fit company for civilized people even if they did get to see me. The fights and conflicts I encounter this last week of session keep me so jazzed that I can’t converse or even think about anything else for days after it ends.

The last week of session is every bit of conflict and angst that the entire process has engendered, stuffed into a few days’ time. It beats me up emotionally, physically and spiritually. Not only is the work load overwhelming, but this is the time when all the ugliness comes down.

The last week is when leadership passes the bills with the hidden zingers and out-front corruption. It’s a week when crony capitalism takes over and we do the really big deals for the special interests. It’s a week full of “Swahili moments” when legislators refuse to hear that what they do affects millions of people. This is when we make the laws that make the rich richer, the poor poorer.

After seeing the things I see during the last week of each legislative session, I always feel as if I need to have my mind washed out with soap. Fighting and losing these fights year after year wears at me, leaves me half sick with indignation and anger. It takes a while after the session is done to get over it. I know I’m going to have to go to confession to cleanse myself of the anger I will bring home from my job. I do every year.

So I pack my messenger bag with my personal version of legislative survival gear, including things to use as a distraction when the tension gets so great that I have to pull back from it for a moment. Surviving this job requires that you learn how to take a break in place, sometimes in front of the television cameras. It’s a trick of the mind, of absenting yourself from the fight while still being engaged in the fight. I can’t begin to tell you how to do it. You just learn how, or you don’t make it in this job.

The last week isn’t a fashion show. I wear my most comfortable shoes and least binding clothes that can pass muster as “professional.” I usually start the week in slacks and end it in jeans. The “professional” part comes from the ubiquitous three-button blazer I pull on over the jeans and shirt.

That’s not exactly Vogue photo quality, but this is Oklahoma where most of the male legislators show up for work in cowboy boots and Stetsons. My sandals, shirt, jeans and jacket never cause a ripple in this crowd. We all know the work load in front of us. Besides we spend so much time together that we’re kind of past that.

In addition to packing a messenger bag to the point that its weight makes me walk lop-sided, I always, no matter how long the hours, pray the Rosary each day. I ask God to use me for His purposes and to not let me do anything really stupid. Then, I trust that I am under His protection and head out for battle.

I have no idea if I’ll have time to blog this week. I probably shouldn’t even try since there is no way to predict what I might say in the midst of a week of full-bore legislating.

So, I guess I’ll close off for a few days with the same promise I make to my family: I’ll be back, and we’ll have a lot of fun when it’s over.


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