The man who shot and killed 11 people in a synagogue, the man who sent pipe bombs to 14 opponents of President Trump, the man who shot two African Americans in a Kroger in Louisville, all live in the same ball of hate. And they share that locale with the people want to erase the identity of transgender people, those work to deny the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans, those who demonize brown-skinned immigrants, and those who justify the daily examples of racism that Black Americans endure. I will not engage in the “oppression Olympics” and play the game of determining whose pain is worse.
Hate is hate.
The last three days have hit me at an emotional level that surprised me. After half a century of fighting against hate and for social justice I am no stranger to incidents like we have seen this week. Surely some of the impact is that as a Jew I have significant family history with the Holocaust and have studied it for years. But that was studying the past. It’s not that I feel personally fearful for myself and my family, but more a crushing sense of the reality of how little has changed in the minds of many Americans. More, even than that, is the combined weight of the three events and the denial of the POTUS to take any responsibility for the trigger effect his voice and actions are having on our country, or to make any attempt to control his own vile impulses.
Donald Trump cares about only one thing…winning. And he has determined that the way to win is by creating division and fear, and that is what he does virtually every single day. There is a difference between talking about your “opposition” and declaring them “the enemy” or “un-American”; there is a difference between disliking what the press says and even saying that you think they are biased, and declaring the press the “enemy of the people” and claiming that any story you don’t like is “fake news”; there is a difference between being worried about terrorism and concerned about our security, and demonizing and attempting to ban an entire religion, and then consciously using them as a threat to rally people against; there is a difference between having different interpretations of what is going on in our world and telling out and out flagrant lies in an effort to trigger hate and demonization(e.g. “There are middle easterners in the ‘horde’ of (brown) people that are threatening to burst through our southern border”); there is a difference between “patriotism” and “nationalism”; And, yes, there is a difference between shouting at people in public places, no matter how rude, uncivil, and unproductive we may believe it is (and I have previously spoken out against that behavior as well), and people sending pipe bombs and shooting people.
Yes, there are instances of violence on the left as well. They are just are concerning and just as horrific, but they are far less frequent. That doesn’t make them right, but context is important. A basal skin cell carcinoma and lung cancer are both cancer, but there is a difference in the threat they pose. The shooting of Congressman Scalise, sending of suspicious powder to Senator Collins, the violence of groups of Antifa are also terrible and unacceptable. But that is where the false equivalency ends. There is a difference between individuals doing something counter to what their leaders are saying, and those who follow a leader who says “knock em out!” and “I’ll pay for your legal costs” and who extols the virtue of a politician who body slams reporters when they ask a question he doesn’t like.
There is a difference between exhorting people to protest and confrontation, and exhorting people to violence.
I have tried far more than most people I know to understand the “other side” of our political spectrum. For my most recent book, Our Search for Belonging, I interviewed more than 100 people who voted for Trump. I regularly engage in conversations and sometime spirited debate with people from “the other side.” They rarely lead to name calling or insults and when they do I end them quickly. I am not perfect. I sometimes lose my temper in arguments and when I do I try to apologize and ratchet it back, or even end the conversation if the other person seems incapable of civil dialogue. I know the difference between people like David Duke and Richard Spencer on the one hand, and, on the other hand, people who despise their brand of hate but who simply couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton. I know that there are many good and decent people who see the world very differently than I do. Even as a political progressive, I see a reasonable case for conservatism and even the value of having both political ideologies. I do not believe that Republicans or Conservatives are inherently bad, stupid, or morally flawed. I have developed friendships through many of these conversations…some of which came from our debates, not in spite of them.
But let us not pretend that this is a “natural evolution.” It is not. It is part of a conscious and willful strategy begun by Newt Gingrich in 1978 to escalate the language of politics in a way that demonized the opposition. On June 24, 1978, Gingrich, then a 35 year old college professor, told a gathering of College Republicans “One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,” he told the group. “We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal, and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire but are lousy in politics.” In 1990, after being chosen as Minority Whip, Gingrich’s political action committee, sent out a memo titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” to several thousand Republican candidates running for state and local offices. It includes a list of words they should use to describe Democrats: decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, “compassion” is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocrisy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor…) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage.
This was not an “emotional reaction.” This was, and is, a strategic initiative to use the language of division to win. To use the language of hate to win.
Of course, people on the left have joined the fray as well. There is no shortage of language that flies back and forth across our ever present airwaves, and because of the lack of accountability of social media, anonymity allows for even more vile language than we would normally use in civil dialogue. All of that may be repugnant, but there is a difference between name-calling and calls for violence. There is a difference between challenging people’s points of view, and dismissing their right to point of view.
And there has never been a time in the modern history of the United States when the greatest proponent of hate speak was the President of the United States himself.
I have, like most of us, felt troubled by how “normal” hate speak from the POTUS enters our social order on a daily basis over the past couple of years. I understand the psychological phenomena of the “backlash effect,” that causes us to dig in even deeper to defend our point of view when it is being challenged. I know that, as John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “Most human beings, given a strongly held point of view and evidence to the contrary, will quickly go about refuting the evidence.” And yet I am horrified by what I have seen in the past couple of days. I am horrified by how quickly good and decent people defend against the obvious reality that this president has fomented hate in our culture more than any national leader in our memory. I am horrified by how they take examples of protest and confrontation and equate them to examples of violence and hate. I am horrified by how short their memories appear to be when they seem to forget that even members of their own party spoke out against this president’s hate speech when he was a candidate; that Sen. Lindsay Graham called him a “race-baiting, xenophobic bigot”; that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan described some of his comments as “the very definition of racism.” I am horrified by their lack of willingness to speak out when the POTUS whom they elected acts in a way that is so fundamentally un-American.
Where are the profiles in courage? Is “winning” so important that it justifies a deal with the devil?
I wish I could offer some deep wisdom as to what we can do about this. It is a systemic condition that we now all live in and may never escape from. There is no guarantee that it will not end up in the destruction of our country as we know it. I have just written a book that is fundamentally about bridging some of these difference, but the tools to do that require some desire on both sides to reach out, and I’m not sure that desire is still here for enough people.
And so I sit here wondering if all of the work that we do to try to bridge the gap can actually make a difference. But I also know that it is an act of privilege to give up. It is an act of privilege to stop trying, because there are those who have no power to influence but are more greatly impacted than I ever will be by the policies of a POTUS who consistently seems to work to undermine the rights of women, LGBT citizens and People of Color.
And so I will wake up tomorrow and keep working towards another future.
And I will also remember the most important thing for us to keep boldly in front of us at this time.