Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November 30, 2016--Bereft of Better Angels

From our town in Florida, a close friend called, saying he wanted to talk off the record.

Many of the people we know in Delray are among a dying breed--moderate Republicans. He, on the other hand, is a Democrat and a rather liberal one.

"What's with the off-the-record business?"

"I've been struggling with something that I'm a little embarrassed to talk about. To confess."

"I promise, without your permission, I will not tell anyone what's on your mind."

"Not write about it if I ask you not to?"

"That too. So shoot."

"I've been struggling to understand why this recent election has caused so much anger. How friends and families are being split apart, including any number of people I know who opted not to join their families for Thanksgiving. Something they've never done, including when there have been other divisive elections or during the war in Vietnam which caused great angst and polarization."

"I too know quite a few people who are no longer talking to each other. Including with me!"

"I'm stymied, though I think I'm beginning to figure out some of it."

"I'm listening."

"First, since I know you have been trying to understand the undercurrents that have been affecting so much of our recent politics, I'm curious to hear what you think. Why so many are furious about the results and not willing to talk dispassionately about them. Or, if not moderately, at least civilly."

"I think it's largely because of all the caustic things Trump has said. More than his position on the issues, though some of them are so extreme that many can't force themselves to take them seriously. More, it's because of the horrible, unforgivable things he said about women, Muslims, handicapped people, immigrants, and just yesterday how people who burn the American flag should be jailed for a year and perhaps lose their citizenship. Also . . . "

"These are the obvious reasons," my friend cut me off, "I'm sensing something deeper must be going on to produce so much rage, to propel so many to the point that they won't talk with people with whom they disagree. To end lifelong relationships. Are there examples from history where divisiveness of this kind has been generated?"

"Nothing quite like this," I said, "Though there was the election of Lincoln. Obviously, in the aftermath, the Civil War, things were much more than just divisive. But we're talking slavery. There's nothing thankfully equivalent today. Still, I agree, the level of residual animosity this time is almost unprecedented. So, once more, what do you think is going on that you're embarrassed to even talk privately about?"

"To illustrate, I'll use myself as an example. This, the very confidential part, was triggered by the attack Monday at Ohio State University." He lowered his voice, "How I immediately thought of it as an act of terrorism and suspected before knowing that a Muslim extremist was the perpetrator. And of course that turned out to be true."

"I suspect many, maybe most had similar thoughts. I'll confess that I did and thus wasn't . . ."

"This is just the first layer of what I felt."

"Go on."

"I also thought we should send them all back to where they came from."


"Muslims," he whispered. "I'm ashamed to admit that I felt this way. I like to think about myself as a tolerant person who relishes America's diversity and openness. Look, I myself am the son of immigrants. My parents are from Hungary. They came here as refugees when the Soviet Union had brutal control of their country."

"I know that but I think you're giving yourself too hard a time. In moments of crisis we, all of us, are prone to feel and say things we'd later like to take back."

"Now you're getting to the worst part. I don't want to take these feelings back." He paused to let that sink in, "The crisis such as it was is thankfully over but I still feel the same way. Send them all back."

"I can only imagine how hard it is for you to tell me this."

"What about you? You're OK with our open approach to welcoming refugees, even from countries where large parts of the population may wish us harm?"

It took me a few moments to reply. "If I'm honest in weak moments I have some of the same feelings. I won't call them thoughts. And . . ."

"And that might be among the reasons many are so frustrated and angry. I'm talking now not about the so-called Trump people but liberals like me. . .  and you."

"This feels as if it's heading in an intense direction."

"Well, it is," my friend said, "Because it could be that at least some progressiveness, maybe more than we feel comfortable acknowledging, in their heart-of-hearts agree with some of Trump's most corrosive rhetoric and some of the nasty positions he's staked out, pandering to his base and, worst of all, as I examine my soul, resonating with me and some other seemingly tolerant people as well."

"I haven't thought about this enough," I confessed, "Though some of this rings true. And if it is even only partly true it is very disturbing and something we had better get a handle on. How at least in part most of us share some of these bigoted and nativist feelings. Hum."

"Hum, indeed. And this may explain some of the fierce anger people are feeling about the election. Part of the reason so many are realizing that the differences are irreconcilable is because of how Trump has ripped the scab off of what so many, including some liberals, are feeling deep within themselves--dare I say both of us as well. That they're angry, we're angry in substantial part because of what is being exposed about ourselves to ourselves."

He paused again. "What does feeling this way say about us? Maybe that we're less tolerant than we pride ourselves in being. And this makes us as angry about ourselves as we are with Trump. We are being forced to face the stark reality that we are bereft of better angels."

"Which means," I said, "that many, too many of us have a little bit of Trump hiding inside ourselves." That literally made me nauseous. "If true, though I promised not to tell anyone about this, since I think it's important to grapple with, I want to think about it some more and then maybe write about it."

"Think away, type away," he said. "And be sure to keep your head down."

Ohio State University

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