Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Politics Ain't Beanbag

“Politics ain’t beanbag. ‘Tis a man’s game; an’ women, childher, an’ pro-hybitionists ‘d do well to keep out iv it.”
~ Finley Peter Dunne, 1895

Politics are nasty and complicated, and I doubt most of us could weather the election process or the day-to-day decisions that must be attended to in leading one of the world powers. I’ve always thought that I wanted to use my vote to elect someone much, much smarter than I am, not someone whose intelligence I could easily eclipse. I also want someone who can be both rational and intuitive: someone who cares about people but also has the ability to think about the greater good. If I voted today, I would vote for President Obama, just as I did in 2008. In my mind he embodies both those qualities.
I think it’s safe to say, “I’m liberal.” I’ve been called a bleeding heart, a socialist, a communist, and some good adjectives, too, such as empathic, humanistic, and caring. Caring is an important moral value for me, as it is for countless liberals. We are all about creating a safety net and a level playing field for those who are oppressed, victimized, or otherwise left on the fringes of society. I realize that my liberal leanings mean that sometimes I will sacrifice my better judgment in order to assist others.  I’m not ashamed of that, but I know I lead with my heart and not with my mind on many occasions.  
I remember the doorbell ringing at my apartment in the spring of 1979, when I was a senior at Syracuse University. I was the only one home of the four of us women who lived together. I opened the door, and it was a woman and her daughter. They were Jehovah Witnesses. The mother handed me a copy of Watchtower, then prodded her daughter to speak. The little girl was five or six, shy, and severely developmentally and physically disabled. My heartstrings plucked a melancholy tune as she struggled to get her words out. I ran over to my purse and dumped out the contents of my wallet into the woman’s open hand.
Unlike two of my other roommates, whose parents bought them cars, paid their rent, and sent them monthly spending allowances, I paid for my share of the rent and my food out of my work study money and the additional money I made taping books for visually handicapped students. I worked thirty hours a week and carried a full course load. Except for the daily rides I accepted to and from the school where I student taught with one of my roommates, I walked every place else I had to go. After dumping out my wallet in that woman’s hand, I would go without that week, perhaps eating more peanut butter and jelly and less meat sauce and pasta, but my heart felt good.
Thirty-four years later I answered my doorbell again today. It rained all day today. When I opened the door, holding my dog Ru by the collar, a man around thirty years old stood in front of me, his umbrella upside down on my porch, and his large red knapsack at his feet. He wore khakis, a plaid shirt, and a knit tie. His teeth sported a lot of gold fillings, and several chipped teeth caused a distinct lisp. He was selling “Grandma’s Cleaner” at $48.00 a bottle. I listened to his whole story, watched while he sprayed the window on the door, wiped with a towel, and left nary a streak. Then he spritzed a little on my wedding ring and shined it up. He sprayed the cleaner on his clothes and in his mouth to prove its all-natural makeup. He pulled my heartstrings, and I bought a bottle, after which he took my hand and planted a kiss on it. My daughter Mackenzie, staying with us while in transition to a new city, said, “Ma, why did you buy a bottle? It’s probably a scam.”  The seven years she lived in New York City have perhaps made her cynical.
“I know,” I said. “But I don’t mind.”
He was polite, and he worked hard for his money. It’s no different than when Ronald picked up a couple begging for a ride to the soup kitchen. He said that the place was about to close as he dropped them off, and, had they walked, they would have probably missed the only meal they’d get that day. Or when he handed the homeless couple we often see downtown a twenty so they could get something to eat. See my post Get Up, Stand Up: Redemption Songs.
We both have soft hearts.
Ma taught me to champion the underdog, even though we were underdogs ourselves. Maybe that’s why I understand it so well. I never thought being poor was bad, and Dad worked really hard to support us, until he had his first heart attack and we were on Welfare until he could go back to work. He cried the day the social worker came and inspected our home as part of the application process.  He was ashamed neighbors left bags of groceries on our doorstep and rang the bell before running away. They knew Dad wouldn’t take the groceries if he knew to whom to return them.
He didn’t think of himself as one of the “victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Mitt Romney, who said the above quote in a closed door meeting with wealthy campaign backers, never knew Dad. He doesn’t understand that you can live with dignity even when you don’t have wealth. He doesn’t know Dad dropped out of eighth grade to go to work to help his family. He doesn’t know how proud Dad was to put food on our table and a roof over our heads, or that he worked double shifts as often as they allowed him so we might have a little extra. He doesn’t know that Dad pulled his own tooth, a rotten, infected molar, because he couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. He doesn’t know that Dad suffered for days afterward, his face gray with pain, but he kept going to work anyway. Maybe it’s for Dad that I champion the underdogs.
Maybe it’s for my father-in-law. He finished high school, moved his family up north where there were more opportunities for black men, lived in the housing projects so he could save money to buy a house, and worked for Millbrook Bread and a rag dealer driving trucks. Then got his foot in the door at Niagara Mohawk, the power company, after a group of blacks staged a protest outside the main building because no blacks worked there. He worked as a janitor and studied at night to become an electrician. After he applied for a promotion to a better job posted on the bulletin board, he found his application in the job supervisor’s trashcan the next day. He went to human resources, and they posted a job especially for him. In the years that followed he became the first black foreman at Niagara Mohawk, and he supervised the building and maintenance of the sub-stations. He moved his family out of the housing projects and bought a house on the eastside of Syracuse.  Read my post This Life We Live In.
Maybe it’s for my mother-in-law who married at sixteen and didn’t graduate high school because she was having her first child. When the youngest of her five children went to kindergarten, she got a job as a bus monitor then worked her way up to being a teacher assistant. She finished her high school degree and went on to take college courses to obtain tenure.
Maybe it’s for my husband Ronald who proved that you can grow up in the projects to serve your community with honor and integrity while putting your life on the line every time you show up for work. Ronald retired in 2006 as a Syracuse Fire Lieutenant after serving for twenty-five years.  Read my post Fighting Fires.
I have a soft heart, but I also know that being poor and uneducated is not the equivalent to being worth less than those that came from wealth, privilege, and entitlement. I know that a country that provides equal opportunity is stronger because its citizens are more able. I know that if someone has a problem such as losing a job, going through a divorce or a catastrophic illness, or living in poverty, that, as a people, we should help that person until he or she can stand on his/her own.
The conservative view differs from that. It isn’t that conservatives are more heartless, at least not all of them. But they view fairness as proportionality – if you work hard enough, you will get your just rewards. If you don’t work hard, no one will carry your load for you.
I get that, but I also believe that when you are down and out, no amount of hard work will get you through if no one gives you the chance to do the work. There may be people who abuse the social programs we have established through the government. There will always be people who take advantage. There are just as many wealthy people, or maybe more, who use loopholes or keep their money in the Cayman Islands so that they pay less than their fair share of taxes, or they cook the books to increase their profits illegally. But why punish those, like my dad, who just needed a safety net to get back on his feet? If we didn’t get Welfare back then, I can’t imagine where I might be today. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone on to college, or become a wife and mother, or become a manager for a multinational corporation, or gotten two master’s degrees. Maybe I would not have been an upstanding, contributing citizen who pays my fair share of taxes and also helps out others when I can.
I read a wonderfully informative book titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, a professor at Stern School of Business, New York University. He has spent his adult life researching moral psychology. He wrote this book to explain why we find ourselves in this time of division, suspicion, and uncooperativeness.
There are three principles to his moral psychology theory: 1) Intuitions come first, reasoning second; 2) There is more to morality than harm and fairness (there are actually six foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression); and 3) Morality binds and blinds.
Long story short, we react to something a certain way, partially due to heredity and partially to environment, and we develop reasons to back the reaction post hoc. Liberals tend to view the world through a moral code that is based on the foundations of care and fairness – they often take up causes of inequality and victimization. Conservatives are more likely to see the world through a moral code consisting of loyalty, sanctity and liberty.  They believe in the individual, freedom, and being American.
That’s how we can look at exactly the same situation and come away from it miles apart in describing what we’ve just witnessed.
Haidt, a self-identified liberal, says that conservatives are better able to rally supporters to their causes since they are more likely to frame them using all six foundations of morality, while liberals tend to tick-off conservatives because their appeals tend to rely on just care and fairness. We have to learn to strengthen our liberal stances using the other moral foundations, e.g. emphasizing how we are part of the same group and that all group members will benefit.
He also quotes from the Bible when talking about our differing moral stances.
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew, 7:3-5)
We have to stop hating and accusing one another, and take a moment to listen and try to understand our differing views. Why is that important?
Haidt says liberals and conservatives are part of a whole, like yin and yang. They need each other. In the past in our country, they worked cooperatively and got a lot of wonderful things accomplished. Liberals push forward socially progressive programs, while conservatives help shape fiscal responsibility. It’s been a successful collaboration that helped build America into a world power. At this time in our history, we are at an impasse and our country and our people are hurting for it.
Humans formed groups tens of thousands of years ago and began acting cooperatively. Groups protected members and distributed labor, so groupism, as Haidt called it, or tribalism, is an important trait. It is also a trait that leads to a kind of blindness, because it is easy to become suspicious of outsiders or non-group members and react with hatred and violence.
Now it seems our tribalism has divided us in America. We’re blinded by our own group loyalty, liberals vs. conservatives, and that causes us to dislike the other group. We need to learn to work cooperatively again.
In an interview conducted by Bill Moyers, Haidt said, “[We need to] share a conscience not an ideology.”
I could use a friend who isn’t afraid to tell me when my heartstrings are singing so loudly they drown out all reason, and I am sure I can be a friend who can help convince another that we need to fight for the underdog. At one time or another, we might be that underdog.
Politics ain’t beanbag. I want an intelligent leader who is both intuitive and rational and who builds his moral conscience on all six foundations. Mitt Romney has proven he has group loyalty and authority as his foundations, as well as liberty, e.g. he has fiercely defended his right to keep his tax returns private, but he missed out on caring and fairness when he said that 47% of Americans are not deserving of his interest and leadership. President Obama is my pick. His moral conscience includes all six moral foundations.
For more information on Jonathan Haidt, his book is titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, ISBN: 978-0-307-37790-6. Here’s the wonderful interview conducted by Bill Moyers.


  1. Thank you, Dianne. My Dad, too, faced discrimination and a legacy of poverty, and was proud to work his way up to becoming a machinist, a foreman, and then a small-business owner in "retirement." He never shirked. My mother gardened and canned and worked in factories and sewed. they struggled so that their daughters could grow up to achieve more.

  2. We need to keep telling our stories. Our experiences are what America is all about. We weren't unique or even rare, and the same story is played out over and over in millions of families. Romney's story is rare, and he is too pompous and out of touch to know it. Thanks for commenting!