Weeds: Talking, but not listening
I was trying to find a time to donate a pint of my AB Positive blood to the Red Cross. I saw there was a blood drive at Martin Luther College. It turned out to be one of those miserable days for driving, as a northwester blew snow across the prairie. It let up some toward evening, and I decided to head east.
Highway 14 wasn’t the best, but I made it to New Ulm and back.
I was feeling good about myself when I walked into the house about 8:30: mission accomplished, blood donated, home safe. Before I got my coat off, the landline rang. Usually it’s some solicitor that time of night. But I answered.
It was a farmer I’ve met, but don’t know much. He wanted to ask about an article in The Journal about a Brown County DFL meeting I attended. There was a brief quote from me saying that the tariffs put on by the president could have lasting negative impact on agriculture. It is an opinion held by people a lot smarter than me, like most economists.
My caller (I’ll call him Bob, not his real name) wanted to know how I could support Democrats. He seemed genuinely interested in a discussion. Even though I was looking forward to a late supper, I decided to talk with him. I enjoy politics and even a good-hearted debate.
I gave him the short version of how I came to be at that meeting. I have voted for a lot of Republicans. Many of my beliefs would be considered traditional conservative ones. Other positions I hold are more aligned with the Democratic Party. I don’t especially like the nothingness of the “independent” label. I guess you could call me a Democrat-Republican.
When I do get involved locally, it has been with the Democrats. I like the little band of uphill-fighters who make up that group in Brown County. I have many friends who are Republicans, but they certainly don’t need my help.
I told Bob that with the current state of things, I feel compelled to fall back into the Democratic camp. You might guess by the “current state of things,” I mean Donald Trump. No doubt, you have a strong opinion about him. Everyone does.
I’m not a fan. I don’t see in him those conservative principles that led me to vote for Republicans in the past. Championing human rights, respect for others, a moral compass, basic decency, free trade, support for allies, standing up to dictators: these are all things Republicans used to stand for. As one Republican opposed to Trump said, “For years Republicans insisted that character matters and words matter. And now they don’t.”
I’ll give it to Bob, he let me talk for a couple minutes. Then he brought up the tax cut. He asked if I was going to benefit from that? “I suppose. Some.” But I said it seems ill conceived, slanted toward the rich. Bob said he was going to save $50,000. I thought to myself, Bob runs in different circles than I do.
Bob asked if I accepted the government payment going to farmers impacted by the trade dispute? I said yes. That seemed to liberate Bob. He said I was a hypocrite for taking that money. That led to a hearty defense of Trump’s tariffs and how they are going to make everything great.
After that, Bob brought up a series of issues. On each he listened to me just long enough to attack whatever I said and some things I didn’t say. It seemed as if every point of his was taken whole-cloth from a Fox News broadcast. Bob’s voice was rising in volume and velocity.
At some point, it wasn’t much of a discussion. I still had my coat on and was really wanting supper. I squeezed into the barrage, “Bob, I’m glad you like this president. It’s good you support him so enthusiastically. But I’m going to eat some supper now.”
Bob insisted that I tell him how I could support Democrats. I said I didn’t think it mattered what I said. He responded, “I’m going to write a letter to The Journal and say that you refused to answer my question!” Now he was yelling. I’m not sure it would have made a difference if I yelled back, “Trump is the greatest president ever! Democrats are swill!”
Pam was nearby. She could hear the inflamed Bob even without speaker phone. She whispered that I should hang up. Cupping the phone, I said I don’t hang up on people. Soon after, in the middle of some point about how ignorant Democrats are, Bob hung up on me.
It took me a while to decompress. Later I wondered why Bob really called me. Maybe he intended for an honest discussion, but it didn’t end that way. Perhaps I said something that sent the conversation off the rails? I was feeling deflated. Was Bob feeling good?
Sadly, it was an accurate sample of what passes for dialogue in this country right now. I know in my heart we are still a nation of mostly well-meaning people who want the best for our families and communities. But we aren’t very good at talking to each other. I know from 37 years of marriage, those times Pam and I aren’t very good at talking to each other have been the worst.
How did we get here? Democrats blame Newt Gingrich who said Republicans would never compromise, and Mitch McConnell who said making Obama a one-term president was his main goal, and now a president who brags of never admitting fault and taunts people like an obnoxious sixth-grader. Republicans blame the Clintons, Obama, and Pelosi. Blame goes back and forth like a tennis volley.
Blame is easy, cooperation is not.
There was a debate on public radio recently between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians. I had a Palestinian professor in college when I first began to follow that ancient and ongoing dispute over land that both claim. The debate I listened to was predictable on both sides. The participants talked over, under, and around each other. There was not a moment when anyone listened to the other side. It was depressingly the same as they’ve said for forty years, with nary a hope for resolution.
Is this what we’ve become in America: two sides talking over, under, and around each other? Many problems could be dealt with if Republicans and Democrats would listen, talk, and compromise. There is sensible middle ground on gun control, health care, and immigration.
Most of us aren’t politicians. We may or may not be part of the problem. But we can darn well be part of the solution. We can begin by being respectful, listening, even honoring each other despite our differences. It’s got to start somewhere.
Maybe I should call Bob.