I’ve never been asked why I’m a liberal and a progressive. I’ve had many political and ideological arguments with conservatives, but no one has ever asked me why I hew to a left-of-center viewpoint.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, not least because we seem to be bearing witness to the collapse of thoughtful conservatism in both the U.S. and Canada (or Ontario, at any rate). I can deal with thoughtful conservatism and sympathize with its most basic precepts, even when I disagree. Conservatism, the way I understand it, is preoccupied with the individual: personal responsibility and individual freedom are its most basic principles. Anything infringing on the latter is thus a transgression, and if you yourself transgress, fail, or otherwise don’t measure up, you have nobody to blame but yourself (perhaps the most perfect distillation of this principle is Ron Swanson’s characterization of capitalism as “God’s way of determining who is smart and who is poor”).
Yes, this is a radical oversimplification. But to radically oversimplify my liberalism, I’m to the left of center because I see culture and society as a series of overlapping and interlocking systems, and thus hold that any societal problems—especially the big ones—are systemic, and solutions need to address systemic issues. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was emblematic of this: I burst several blood vessels yelling at liberal pundits on the TV every time they took the bait and argued about whether or not Brown was a thug or an upstanding young man. The moment anyone attempted to ameliorate whatever petty larcenies he committed, they fell into the trap of arguing about whether the police were justified in shooting him as opposed to arguing the real point, which was about systemic police brutality against Black people. From the perspective of Personal Responsibility, if Michael Brown was a criminal, then hey … what do you expect? And by the same token, however, if he wasn’t a criminal, then his death was just the behaviour of a bad actor, and how dare you paint all cops with the same brush.
This same sort of logic has been at work in the arguments over the Trump Administration’s policy of family separation. Leaving aside for a moment the obvious racism and xenophobia animating the Jeff Sessions / Stephen Miller “zero tolerance” policy, the rhetoric suggesting that people crossing the border are criminals, thieves, murders, and rapists—and that such miscreants are cynically using children to pose as asylum seekers—is of a piece with the logic that says Michael Brown got what was coming to him.
Trump’s enablers have been deflecting with the talking point that “the immigration system is broken!” The thing is, I haven’t seen anyone really disputing that. By all means, let’s fix the system. But let’s also recognize the historical context, in which the United States’ frequent military and political meddling in Central and South America has created the circumstances in which people are fleeing the violence of failed states. A border wall and “zero tolerance” policy focuses the fault on individuals fleeing a shitty situation, and takes no responsibility for creating the shitty situation.
I realize that using the words “ethics” and “Trump Administration” in the same sentence is risible, but the U.S. is, frankly, ethically obligated to deal with the influx of would-be immigrants and refugees, not only because the United States is an immigrant nation, but also because it has been responsible for so many of the circumstances worldwide that make people desperate to emigrate. There’s a great line in a season one episode of The West Wing, in which Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees), tells the president that he’s obliged to insert the U.S. between bellicose India and Pakistan because “That’s the price you pay … for being rich, free, and alive, all at the same time.” Being rich, free, and alive at the expense of others should entail somewhat more nuance in border policing.
I started writing this post in part because I was reading this GQ profile of Donald Trump Jr. I wouldn’t have thought that I could ever feel sympathy for someone who embodies the worst aspects of frat/bro culture and his father’s sociopathy, but apparently I’m having all the feels today. Money quote:
The source’s impression of Don was that he, like seemingly everyone else in Trump’s orbit, was uselessly trying to impress a man who can only be impressed by himself. “He’s hustling and trying to do what he can to contribute but without knowing where the lines are,” the source said of Don, adding ruefully, “He’s a sad and tragic figure.”
As I was reading this profile, I couldn’t help but think of my own father, and his relationship with his father. My paternal grandfather, from what I know from my parents, was kind of an asshole to my dad when he was young. He loved my dad and was proud of him, but never said so. Once, when my father was in high school, he won a debating contest. My grandfather never acknowledged his accomplishment. My dad only learned of his own father’s pride one day when mowing the lawn, and their next door neighbour called him over and said, “I heard you won a debating contest! Your father is so proud of you.”
My earliest memories are of my father telling me he loved me and that he was proud of me—no matter what I’d done. He has told me many times that his own father’s reticence made him determined to tell his children he loved them every day.
See, here’s where I feel for Don Jr. He is in every way an asshole and a douchebag, but I see where that assholery and douchebaggery is fruit of the asshole tree. From everything I’ve read, Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was also emotionally abusive (and, from what evidence we have, a card-carrying member of the KKK). None of this excuses their egregious behaviour, but one can begin to see how an absence of love deforms the mind. In the process of writing this post, I called my father to make sure he was OK with me citing the story of his conversation with his neighbour. He said yes, absolutely, and also told me that, after I was born and my grandfather would come over for Sunday dinners, he confronted him on the doorstep: “I love you, Dad,” he said. And when my grandfather equivocated, my father said, “No. From now on when you come here, I greet you with ‘I love you, Dad,’ and you say ‘I love you too,’ and we hug. We do that, or you go back home.”
I don’t have children. That’s at least partially by design. I have a niece and nephew, whom I love beyond reason, and I have a brother and sister in law and parents whom I do not see with anything resembling proper frequency, but then, I’m an adult whose career took him to the easternmost fringe of Canada. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have been separated from them, even for a short time, at an early age. Even in my teenage years, when parents are anathema, it would have scarred me.
One of the most decent human beings I have ever known is my high school math teacher, Vincent Delisi. He recently posted the following to Facebook:
I taught math for a very long time and one of the hardest concepts to get across was the notion that infinity isn’t just a really big number. I was reminded today of the example I used when our second child was born. You love your first one so much that sometimes you wonder if you have enough love for another. Then you hold the second (and the third) and realize the measure of infinity. An infinite love for each. Today as I held my 19 day old (third) granddaughter I was reminded of this.
In what is, to my mind, W.H. Auden’s greatest poem, “September 1, 1939,” he offers one of the most profound pieces of wisdom I’ve ever read: “We must love one another or die.” The poem—as is obvious from its title—was written on the occasion of the start of WWII. Of all the dark moments of the 20th century, there are few that are darker. Auden would later amend the line to read “We must love one another and die,” and later still eliminate the line entirely, saying that it was overly sentimental.
It makes me happy that editors today disagree with Auden, and that it’s hard to find a version of the poem with either of his edits. I might be an atheist, but I was raised Catholic, and one of the teachings that stuck with me is that love, while it might not be all you need, is nevertheless the most powerful weapon we have to combat fear and hate.
“September 1, 1939,” is, in my opinion, his greatest poem, but my favourite is “Lullaby,” and I leave you with its first verse:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.