Political rights and responsibilities

I was in my mid-20s when I had my first real political exchange. In a morning news meeting, the (conservative) publisher of the newspaper I worked for had been railing against taxes and Social Security and, for some reason, looked at me to back him up. “How can you, a 20-something, feel good about putting money into Social Security?” he said. “It’s a waste: The program won’t be around by the time you need it.”

“My mom will need it,” I replied. “Why wouldn’t I feel a responsibility to contribute?”

He didn’t change my mind and I wasn’t about to try changing his, but it was a respectful exchange — perhaps because it occurred in front of a half-dozen other people in a conference room. (And also because he was my boss’s boss’s boss.)

I thought about it recently because it exemplifies something that is vital but missing from current political discourse: civility.

Maybe that’s not really the perfect word — doesn’t civility sound a little stuffy, like I’m asking for Robert’s Rules of Order at all times? (I never did master all of those parliamentary procedures. They, like higher math and science knowledge, remain mysteries to me.) Let’s just call it “good behavior.” That sounds right.

Like the guy who videotaped himself berating a Chick-fil-A worker for the company’s politics. I disagree with that CEO’s politics, too — but taking it out on a woman who’s working her shift at a drive-thru is poor form. (His employer thought so, too, and fired him.) I salute that fast food employee for being respectful throughout, even if the video camera made her nervous.

All politics is personal, which means it should be everyone’s responsibility to think before they speak — especially when misinformation can be so quickly spread, even accidentally.

Back on Memorial Day, Starbucks posted on its Facebook wall about its Armed Forces Network, which helps returning servicemen and recent veterans transition to new careers (no, not solely as baristas). One of the replies posted was from a woman whose veteran husband had told her that Starbucks refused to send coffee to the troops.

That’s not true, as you can read on Starbucks’ website, or on my favorite truth-or-fiction verifier site, Snopes.

I’m not saying that the poster should distrust everything her husband tells her. But doesn’t that sound even a little absurd: a company outright refusing to donate to troops overseas? No matter — the fiction was positioned as “my husband told me” truth, piled high with outrage and shot out into the universe, where things get picked up and reposted so quickly that a guy running a marathon can become an Internet sensation in a matter of minutes.* Her husband was wrong, and she was wrong, but few people who saw it took the time to verify its truth.

* See: “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy,” which got more than 300,000 views within its first hour on Flickr — and that’s before it even took off as a meme. (My favorites are on Quickmeme.)

In essence, that woman’s post smeared a company as unpatriotic, when in fact Starbucks has donated more than 14,000 pounds of coffee and a million packs of ready-brew to U.S. troops. (During my recent trip to Palm Springs, the local shop employees were in fact having a contest to see who could persuade the most customers to buy a pack of coffee to be donated to troops.) It’s something that could have been researched in less than a minute, but we’re often too lazy to think about the ramifications of what we say or post. “I heard …

We’re not on the elementary-school playground anymore, but we still seem to be acting like little kids. Only now, the sticks and stones have the ability to hurt. A national radio host called a woman a “slut” on the air, because she had testified about birth control before Congress. Then he suggested that since birth control would be funded by taxpayer money, the taxpayers should be able to watch her whenever she has sex. How is that not abhorrent? (Let’s reframe that: How about if he had suggested that people should be able to log on to the Internet and watch your daughter have sex if she uses insurance to cover her prescription for the pill?)

It’s possible to have mutually respectful discussion, even about politics. One of my friends who works in the medical field didn’t — and maybe still doesn’t — believe that the positives of the Affordable Care Act outweighed the negatives, especially because of restrictions that would be placed on her industry. I, meanwhile, exist on a more utopian “healthcare for all!” plane, but we listened to each other’s points, learned a few positives and negatives we might otherwise have not known about or considered … and then still agreed to disagree, but at least with more facts in hand. No hectoring, no attempted conversions, no condescending “how could you …?” judgments disguised as questions.

Those incidents are few and far between, though. The other day I drove down a street on which one house had its yard filled with “Obama lied!” signs while the next door neighbor went placard-for-placard with Democratic support. I can’t imagine those two have much to say to each other right now. I like to imagine that every day one adds another sign to his yard in a belligerent attempt to “win” their passive-aggressive argument.

The next few days will likely test everyone’s patience and diplomacy even more — and frankly, many people didn’t have very large reserves to start with. In the interim, I’m trying to practice respect a person’s right to another viewpoint … while being conscious that your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins. And my nose is, as Smarmy Bastard pointed out, headed toward Bob Hope territory, so watch your damn hands.

WHAT SAM WORE: 11-3-12
The shirt: “Unstealthiest Ninja 3” T-shirt, from shirt.woot.com.
(It’s still #13 on their Reckoning page!)
The shorts: Calf-length cargos, from Uniqlo, New York.
The shoes: Custom Converse All-Star slip-ons, a gift from Funny Michael.

One response to “Political rights and responsibilities

  1. Bravo Sam! I’ve had many conversations on this topic with friends and family. You are my favorite writer these days.

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