It was Christmas Day. As always, I sat in the living room with my family members, who were ready to exchange gifts. This year, I folded my arms sheepishly. I’d spent my December buried in job applications, and then the week before Christmas (which is when I normally do my shopping) I’d caught the same horrific flu that everyone seems to be catching this winter. For the first time ever, I hadn’t managed to buy a single present. For anyone.
“Don’t worry about it,” my mother said kindly. A devout Catholic who has never been a fan of consumerism, she was not going to let my negligence make any of us forget the reason for the season. “And honestly, there’s only one thing I want from you. I’ve bought you a book for Christmas, and the best present you could give me would be to read it.”
I felt a knot tightening in my stomach. Whatever this book was, she was definitely not giving it to me for my reading pleasure. I knew this gift would be an attempt to convert me to her views on some controversial issue. Probably political, I cringed as I began undoing the ribbons. Nevertheless, I promised her I’d read it. Despite our differences, my mother has always been the most loving and generous parent I could ask for. The least I could do was to read a book that might help me understand her better. A few seconds later, the wrappings were removed and I held a thick hardcover volume entitled Stop the Coming Civil War, by conservative radio commentator Michael Savage, between my hands.
“Ooh,” my mother observed with a slight laugh. “You’re making a face.”
Yes. I was. A quick glance through the chapter headings warned me of what kinds of views I could expect to encounter – fear-mongering about undocumented immigrants in the US, an endorsement of the English-only movement, militarism, homophobia, climate change denial, and a general “my country, right or wrong” nationalism that has long irked me. No, Michael Savage was definitely not my kind of guy. And, as I began to read through the chapters, I soon found that I was not his kind of gal, either. “Let me simplify things. If it’s illegal, Democrats are for it. Period,” he says on page 48. “We live in a society in which our civil rights are being eliminated, even as we must make our way through a leftist-dominated culture that has become even more hedonistic, amoral and degenerate than that of Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s.”
I’m not a registered Democrat, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable being labelled as left-wing. But, admittedly, my opinions generally lean well in that direction, and as I read the book, I found myself feeling more and more defensive. Throw-away lines about “loony leftists” and “greedy socialists” kept making me feel that, despite the book’s title, Savage is not setting out to stop the hypothetical civil war that threatens his beloved nation. He is not trying to heal the wounds that divide right from left. Instead, like so many pundits, he is trying to win the war for those “true patriots” on his side: the Republicans, particularly the Tea Party.
This aggressive, grandstanding, hooray-for-my-side approach is certainly not unique to Savage. I’ve seen it all over the media and especially online – on feminist websites and men’s rights ones, Christian blogs and atheist ones, The Huffington Post and The National Review. It has been argued that instead of uniting us, the age of personalized media divides us further, allowing us to surround ourselves with people who share our views and blocking out the rest. And, of course, the ability to post comments anonymously allows us to give free rein to our most vicious, aggressive selves. (I must take a moment here to express my gratitude to those readers who comment on this website – in my brief blogging experience, I have found you to be incredibly polite and sensitive while still expressing yourselves honestly. Thank you!).
Psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander has done a great job of summing up the greatest social division that plagues the United States today. Alexander purports that our country consists of two distinct tribes, and he offers us these tongue-in-cheek descriptions:
The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.
The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country.”
Alexander’s analysis of this tribal divide is textured and complex, well worth reading in its entirety. For my purposes here, though, three points stand out as particularly salient. The first is that members of the Red and Blue Tribe rarely encounter each other. Scanning his social circle, Alexander finds he doesn’t know a single person who holds evangelical religious beliefs or opposes LGBTQ rights. For him, Red Tribe members are like dark matter – he knows they’re nearby, but he never meets them.
The second point is that both sides deny their enmity toward the other. Perhaps they cloak it in a positive value – such as the Red Tribe’s devotion to “true patriotism,” which, in their view, left-leaning sillies like me lack. Meanwhile, Blue Tribe members pride themselves on being open and tolerant to immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ communities, and other marginalized groups…But, as Alexander astutely notes, these “tolerated” groups are generally part of the Blue Tribe anyway. Meanwhile, Blues often give off a sense of disliking America, constantly taking a critical stance toward their home country. But in Alexander’s analysis, it’s not true that they hate their own country. The word “America” is used as a cover for just one half of it – the Red Tribe.The third point that stands out from Alexander’s observation is that these two groups, despite being socially isolated from each other and perhaps despising each other, actually have a lot in common. They drive on the same roads, send their children to the same schools, and eat in the same restaurants (I have managed to order arugula salads in steakhouses). And from here comes Alexander’s most chilling observation. Our worst enemies are generally not people who live on the other side of the world. Rather, they are our neighbors – the same neighbors we’ve been commanded to love:
Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.” Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.
In 1930’s Germany, Nazis and Jews lived in the same communities and moved through the same social spaces; the same was true of Hutus and Tutsis in 1990’s Rwanda. While I am quite dismissive of Michael Savage’s alarmist stance, I concede that he does have a point. The polarization in today’s US does indeed contain the seeds of civil war.
As Christians, we have been called to love our enemies. It’s easy to care for those people who love us in return. It’s easy to “tolerate” people whom we already empathize with to begin with. But our enemies? That’s a different story. Both Alexander and Savage reveal that we rarely know people who are different – I mean truly different – from us. We may think we know what they stand for. It may repulse us. But, have we ever sat down to talk with them, to find out where they are coming from?
With these thoughts in mind, I gritted my teeth and struggled to suspend judgment while reading Savage. And – believe me – it was a struggle (by this point my flu had taken on asthmatic overtones, and I found that every diatribe against amnesty for illegal migrants threw me into another coughing fit). But, eventually I discovered that Savage had some fair points to make. President Obama’s overconsolidation of power, the scandals around the 2012 Benghazi murders, and the threat to medical and military personnell’s right to practice freedom of conscience with regard to their religion are concerns of mine as well as his. He also touches on some points that leftists might actually agree with, such as the corruption of Wall Street executives and the injustice of NSA spying.
I also gained some insights into why a man like Savage – who was born during World War II and thus lived through the entire Cold War – might fear the left more generally. He views socialism as an international plot to create a totalitarian one-world government and consolidate all wealth and power into the hands of a global elite. At first glance this idea sounds absurd to me (how could such a one-world government even function?), but when I think back on 20th century history or reread Orwell’s 1984, his fears do seem plausible. Overall, I disagree with Savage, and I doubt that he and I could become close friends. But, I can at least try to understand where he is coming from.
As Catholics, we are in a fortuitous position to bridge this gap between Red and Blue. We walk under a big umbrella alongside pacifists and just war proponents, socialists and capitalists, reformers who’d like to have the Mass said in Latin and other reformers who’d like to see women’s ordination and marriage equality for LGBTQ couples. Looking at my mother and me, it’s not too hard to see how we ended up in different political tribes while remaining within the same Church. For her, abortion is one of the most serious wrongs plaguing the modern world, and she has devoted a fair amount of her energy to the pro-life movement. Given the US political climate, should I be so surprised that this work has led her toward a close affinity with the capitalism-endorsing, immigration-fearing Reds? Meanwhile, my education in Latin American studies has led me to care deeply about the pursuit of peace and social justice – causes like closing the School of the Americas resonate with me in a personal way. Is it really surprising, then, that over the years I’ve become more and more Blue?
For me, it is extremely hard to approach people in the Red Tribe – including my own family members – without fear, contempt, resentment, or judgment. Even within the Church, I am often scared to ask questions or voice my views. Will I be judged? Will I offend someone? What if my friend turns out to be an enemy? And yet, these difficult, uncomfortable conversations are just what we need if we’re going to heal the divisions that plague our world.
Many years ago, I attended a lecture by Frank Meeink, a former skinhead who travels around the US speaking about his personal journey from hatred to compassion. “It’s so easy to focus on how we are different,” he said. “Instead, we need to look at how we’re the same.” Those of us who identify with the Catholic Church are united by our faith in a God who loves us, who loved us so much as to assume our form and live among us, who called us to create a kingdom of justice and goodness that begins on earth and has its fulfillment in the realm beyond. Outside the Church, we are united by something even more basic: our common humanity. If we want to prevent a civil war, if we want to create a culture of compassion, I’d say that the first step is to turn inward. We must recognize that we all have enemies and ask ourselves just who they are. The next step – and this is the hard one – is to reach out and get to know them. This knowledge is the starting point for love.