Prologue

by

Greetings, Houseflies readers. For some reason, Al invited me to fill the “liberal politics” slot on this blog. Al and I have been friends for five years, since my well-meaning father put me in touch with him in an effort to set me on the right path (no pun intended) after learning that I had pledged to defend the legal rights of depraved satyrs and various other heretics while working with that most reviled of “liberal” organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union (note to self: devote future post to misuse of word “liberal”). Little did he know that, in fact, Al and I have a lot in common – much more than most people who know us solely through our professions would expect. And that I would someday end up working for him (hey, how long before I get a raise?). 🙂

Now, the last time I wrote an opinion column was when I was the editor of my high school newspaper (in 1994, if you’re curious). It seemed a lot easier to do back then, since my thoughts were still simple and could be communicated in short paragraphs. More importantly, I was too young and uneducated to acknowledge the limits of what I knew. College and law school changed all that; the old saying “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” is apt. I am now far more inclined to use qualifying clauses, to point out the limits of my arguments, and to be able to intelligently evaluate other ideas. Education is good that way.

Still, the essence of my values has not changed in those eleven years. In truth, the essence of my values has not changed from its most embryonic formulations as far back as I can remember, probably second grade or so. I was always the one who could be counted on to speak out against injustice, for example pointing out the wrongness of European settlers’ displacement and genocide of Native Americans in a fifth-grade report (which my teacher termed “editorializing”). From the time I knew what the word “feminist” meant, I knew that I was one. I stood up to my parents’ latent racism in junior high and high school. I was for Dukakis in 1988 and Clinton in 1992, when these were unpopular stances in the places where I was (Texas and Mississippi, respectively). I managed to rile up a number of frat boys at my university with a letter to the editor about the Dixie flag. And so on, ad infinitum. Succeeding levels of education added more knowledge and more nuance, but I was always some version of who I am today – a civil rights lawyer and committed progressive who believes that the Golden Rule is the foundational moral principle for humanity, writ small and writ large.

My lens for viewing my childhood, the South, and their influence on my thinking is the church in which I was raised, and its people. Much to its credit, the particular congregation in which I spent the majority of my growing-up years was not, save one moment in 1994 that thankfully seems to have been an aberration, overtly political. Rather, it was in suburban San Antonio, Texas, that I got my first taste of what is now known as the Religious Right – and found it a thoroughly distasteful (not to mention un-Christian) experience. The watershed moment was undoubtedly the Sunday evening that one of the deacons led a devotional in which he informed us that people who had contracted AIDS were being punished by God for their sins, and that AIDS in general was a punishment from God for humans’ promiscuity, drug use, and of course that now-ubiquitous canard, homosexuality. I was thirteen at the time, and singularly horrified at the malice dripping from his words, the smug self-righteousness, the utter lack of compassion. The church had sprouted political sensibilities, they were alien to everything I believed was good and right, and it was time for me to get the heck out of Dodge.

In fact I did not manage to extricate myself until my senior year of high school, when I finally put my foot down and refused to go back. To the best of my recollection, this occurred soon after the aforementioned political moment in 1994, which I will recount here as one extreme example of what determined my exit from the church. After a very minor episode of gay-friendly activism that had the town’s self-appointed moral guardians up in arms, the minister published a small, pamphlet-sized anti-gay screed which, as I recall, consisted of a “top ten” list of the reasons that homosexuality in general and gay men in particular were a blight upon humanity, including among other oft-debunked Anita Bryant-esque myths that gays were “out to convert your children.” I was disgusted beyond belief and embarrassed to be affiliated, however loosely, with such tripe. If this was what the church believed, then the church could do without me from this day forward, thank you very much.

In those days, the Religious Right was still a fringe group, and so my moral indignation at their wrongness on every issue under the sun was buttressed, in my mind, by the overwhelming weight of public opinion. Now that that no longer seems to be the case, at least with respect to large swathes of the country, and now that the backlash myth has fully penetrated the consciousness of pretty much every American, whether they agree with it substantively or not, I want above all things to understand why what I see as a hateful and regressive view of the world has become so compelling to so many. And how I got so far from the people I grew up around, and why the chasm grows wider with each passing year, as they drift ever further rightward and view me less and less as a member of the community, and more and more as one of the people who, they are told by their political gurus (Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk) that they are supposed – nay, required – to despise in order to be an upright, patriotic, God-fearing American. This fact was brought into sharp relief when a man from the church I attended as a child, who had probably first known me when I was still in diapers, called me a “cultural elite” to my face at my own wedding reception upon learning that I live in Washington, DC. And this without any knowledge of my politics! But, you see, he knew all he needed to know – that I had left the church, and that I had left Mississippi to live among those Yankees who thought they were so much better than Southerners. Thus, I was not to be trusted.

After having read some of the previous posts from the other parties, I see that my voice is quite different from those that have come before me. Hopefully folks will view that as all for the good. There’s not enough true sharing of different voices out there, not enough attempts at understanding each other. I see this column as a forum to help me continue my quest to understand the sharp rightward turn our nation has taken and what it might mean in the sweep of history. A few on the left would undoubtedly say that such an enterprise is fruitless, that hatred and irrationality on such a scale is not to be explained, merely opposed. And on the right, I imagine that this approach would be scorned and thought to exemplify everything that is wrong with “liberals” to begin with (why try to understand something that angers or frightens you when you can just send in the troops?). I believe that both reactions would be wrong and shortsighted. Because I also believe that most people are basically decent and want to do the right thing. The problematic part is defining what “good” and “the right thing” are, but even there I believe that there is a great deal of common ground between me and most Americans, regardless of party or label or religious affiliation. That the things that we all have in common have been obscured by the relatively few ways in which we differ. And that if I can find those things and explain how we have mistakenly diverged, maybe some of the wrongs can be made right. This is the theme that I envision will run throughout my articles: an attempt to bridge the gap by taking a look at what true concerns lie beneath our stated policy preferences and the labels we embrace. I could just indulge my fear, bitterness, and anger on these pages, but there are plenty of writers who do that. I would rather try to speak as one human being to others, all concerned about the state of the world and its future.

One thing that will be different about my entries from my predecessor (who left large shoes to fill) is that my focus will be less on the day-to-day movements of the national political scene and more about how values and politics intersect – that is, the ways in which our laws and government are reflections of how we believe people should treat each other. This is partly because I am a “big picture” rather than a “detail” person, and also because I, like many, find the “dirty business” of politics alienating, notwithstanding its admitted importance.

A word about comments: Upon hearing that I had been invited to join this blog, my husband mentioned to me that he had read that bloggers are overwhelmingly men, even more disproportionately so than the ratio of men to women on newspaper op-ed pages. The explanation given was that women do not have as much desire to publicly state their opinions as men. Now, I have known many women in my lifetime, none of whom seem to have a problem with formulating or expressing opinions, at least in certain settings. But I can say for myself that I find the aggressive and combative tone with which people tend to respond to bloggers’ posts to be extremely off-putting, and that I thought twice about joining this one for that very reason. Ad hominem attacks, excessive sarcasm, and just a general lack of civility seem to prevail in the blogosphere. I understand this to be the product of at least two factors: the anonymity of the Internet, and the deep schisms of our present political moment. Yet, it is no less alienating for being explicable. So I would respectfully request that my posts be treated in the manner in which they are proffered – as contributions to a conversation, not pronouncements from on high or invitations to bicker. I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts, but can do without uncivil or unproductively negative expressions of disagreement.

That’s probably enough for this week, and hopefully enough to give you a little insight into who I am and where I’m coming from. I look forward to a stimulating, challenging, and productive conversation in the coming months.

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9 Responses to “Prologue”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    What a beautiful article.

    I’ll just say, Thanks.

  2. Duane McCrory Says:

    I agree with your sentiments, Al.

    Welcome to the blog, Sandi. I look forward to reading your column.

  3. Whitney Says:

    Hi Sandi,
    Welcome in. I am the only other woman (haven’t met Amy yet) who participates in this blog, so I am thrilled to hear what you have to say. We have quite a bit in common: same age, advanced degrees, raised in the South (& no longer live in the South), we both have a lot of respect for Al. There’s probably more. Unfortunately, you seem to have had a lot of negative experiences that I, thankfully, did not. Your perspective will be enlightening.

    If you’ve read back through the posts, you’ll see quickly that JoeLonghorn is my significant other. He can be tough (and quite sarcastic), but has promised to tone it down.

    Al once told me that the boys act that way together–argue and fight and yell and scream–and then still love each other in the end. I don’t quite get it…

    One thing I hate about the blogosphere is that comments can be taken out of context and misconstrued very quickly. Tone of voice is assumed to be one way, when in fact it might be the complete opposite. We will all do well to keep that in mind.

    Look forward to reading your comments next week. Again, welcome!

  4. DeJon Redd Says:

    Sandi says: “This is the theme that I envision will run throughout my articles: an attempt to bridge the gap by taking a look at what true concerns lie beneath our stated policy preferences and the labels we embrace.”

    I couldn’t think of a better goal. As a life-long church-attender, I hope you do this alot better than churches.

    I don’t want to gush, but I really appreciated your article. I hope I disagree (respectfully of course) much more in the future.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    I am looking forward to your articles, Sandi.

  6. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Welcome to the Houseflies, Sandi. Very honest. I look forward to some great discussions!

  7. JD Says:

    Hello Sandi! It’s been a long time! I remember the “small, pamphlet-sized anti-gay screed” and the fearful loveless spirit that swirled around it’s production. Shiver. I look forward to your posts.

    John Dobbs

  8. Steve Says:

    “And how I got so far from the people I grew up around, and why the chasm grows wider with each passing year, as they drift ever further rightward and view me less and less as a member of the community, and more and more as one of the people who, they are told by their political gurus (Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk) that they are supposed – nay, required – to despise in order to be an upright, patriotic, God-fearing American.”

    Someday one of my kids will quote me as saying, “I just woke up one day and realized that i’m a liberal!”

    Thanks for your article–well, thank you for telling us in a nice way where you come from. I claim to have conservative values; however, I’m very open minded–which means I find kinship with other open-minded people, and not so much of a union with those who share my values (funny how that works).

    I found out long ago that to most people believe any body to the left of you is “liberal” (no matter how convervative they are). That was a cut, though, until i discovered that the word liberal wasn’t a four letter word (nor did it require a 4-letter gasp when used as a self-label). Liberal, means freedom, a liberator–and 2 Cor. 3:17 says that where the spirit of the lord is, there is freedom!

    I quoted you at the outset of my comment because I too grew up in a very religious “Republican” South. I’m 26 but until last November, I had never voted. I Was unable to vote during the 80’s and most of the 90’s, and when Clinton was elected and re-elected I was told by my friends and the adults I knew that the world was gonna end–Now, I’m much more sure that if Coulter, Limbaugh, Pat Bucchannan, and Jerry Falwell’s Politcs, Attitude, and Treatment of others continue, then I should contact my schoolyard friends and adults to tell them we’re probably a little closer to Armageddon…

    Why? My constructive criticism with Coulter, Limbaugh, Pat, and Jerry is comments made by them, for us to “despise” others. I believe that Jesus wants us to give others the benefit of the doubt, try to see the strenghts behind the weaknesses. These critics have a following, a voice, and a wonderful opportuntiy to help others–and I believe each of these radio, tv, and novel critics believe they are advancing America and the American Way–my criticism is this: why do they have to spend so much time trying to make other people look stupid, degrade, and debase people to push their ideas? I don’t identify so much politically (even with those who share my conservative ideals) because some of my conservative idealistic friends will argue with me about politics and abandon discussions on certain issues to degrade or debase me personally.

    I am always open to talk and discuss with anyone of any race, creed, religion or political view. I would rather be associated with someone different than me with slightly different social or political values, than someone who shares my social values and acts as if the only way to advance and promote them is to use scare tactics and verbal degradation.

    By the way, its much funnier to read Al Franken’s books than Limbaughs and the rest anyday! I’d rather read humor than accusations.

    Love,
    Steve

  9. Amy Hitt Says:

    Bravo!

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