Last weekend, on Saturday and Sunday, I spent a few of hours by the New Trier Dems’ table at the Wilmette Sidewalk Sale. It was the last of the sidewalk events held each summer in New Trier’s three largest communities, volunteering for it never gets boring. And this year because we offered the passing crowd a chance to fill out a straw poll rating President Trump’s job performance, we had plenty of visitors.
As usual, all of us at the NTD table swapped ideas and opinions with interesting passersby. But there was one lengthy conversation I had in Wilmette that I’ve continued to think about since then. It inspired some thoughts I want to pass on today. The fellow I spoke with may have been apolitical, simply a gadfly in any conversation. However, he seemed more than that. He tended to approach our conversation like a debate, stating premises about the Democratic Party that he hoped would draw a response.
For instance, he asked me about “how Democrats fail to recognize the role that biology plays in today’s society” (I can’t remember his specific wording). After I said, “Huh?” I asked him, “When you say ‘biology,’ are you talking about race?” He gave a vague response and promptly turned to another question. However, later he condemned the violent protests by college students objecting to the campus visit of Charles Murray, the co-author of “The Bell Curve.” (The book is an “academic study” that many respected scholars now view as a scholarly permit for racism.)
Somewhere in this part of our discussion he also mentioned last spring’s New Trier Seminar Day and repeated the belief that it was all about pushing a left wing perspective on our local high school students. I tried to disabuse him of that view, sighting facts about what motivated the event, but I didn’t succeed.
At another point in our dialogue, I pointed out how protests and the refusal to accept a status quo have resulted in the human rights progress we’ve seen in our lifetime (which I assumed he favored). How the dogged efforts by thousands of determined women (I learned he had a daughter) over the past 150 years achieved the opportunities for women we see today. Somehow, this reference to a quest for equal rights led my discussion partner to ask me “if I then thought a fair world would be one in which 50% of all executives should be men and 50% women?” Once again I responded, “Huh?”
I tried to explain that such a concept would clearly be foolish, however every person, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., should have a 100% opportunity for equal consideration for a job. Soon after that we both decided we should turn our attention to the event going on around us. So we shook hands and he went on his way.
The reason I’ve spent time writing about this exchange is because the longer we talked, the clearer it became that this opinionated person seemed to have a perception of Democrats, and liberals in particular, that was built on a brain full of sound bites: Liberals don’t want conservative scholars to ever be heard; Liberals who want equal rights for women have a naive goal to see every opportunity divvied out between men and women 50-50; Our public schools are working to indoctrinate our kids with left wing propaganda.
Thinking back on it, I don’t remember anything said to me that wasn’t a generalization, an assumption or an accusation (all delivered in a friendly way). And each statement sounded like it was a paraphrasing of someone else’s words – perhaps Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Dan Proft. There were few actual ideas and counter-ideas shared between us and in the end, we learned very little from each other.
I was thinking today, how does one deal with a conversation between yourself and a person whose general view of the extremely important subject of our democracy is built solely on anecdote “bullet points.” So in the future, here’s what I hope to try in such a conversation:
I will steer away from any dialogue that’s little more than a ping pong game of accusations and responses. Instead, I plan to immediately give my conservative counterpart a chance to talk about his or her vision for America. I’ll ask, “If you could reshape the United States into the nation of your dreams, what would it look like?” I would encourage him or her to get into as much detail as they wanted and talk for as long as they wanted. And I’m guessing that in most cases, for better or for worse, I would find what I heard enlightening. – Then to keep things fair if asked, I would try to share my own vision.
Today’s political environment consists of one hot button issue after another so it’s easy to lose sight of what our end goal is. What is that big-picture “United States of our dreams?” With so much cynicism surrounding us can such a thing be articulated? I still believe so. And although it will no doubt vary from person to person and from conservative to liberal, I’m holding on to the hope that we’ll find many of those dreams are close to the same.
NTDO member since 1973
P.S. Writing your own personal vision of “the United States of your dreams” might be a worthwhile exercise for each of us. I plan to try.
Donald Trump recently spoke to 40,000 Boy Scouts with a message that featured guess who?…. Donald Trump. (He promised the crowd of scouts that someday they’ll all be able to say, “Merry Christmas.” — The Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu scouts in the audience were thrilled.)
He also praised the “Scout Law”:
A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
Can you spot the qualities listed about that describe Donald Trump?
— Didn’t think you could. (Maybe “clean.”)