The Personal is Political

Several of my friends on Facebook (all of whom lean conservative, interestingly enough) recently complained about Facebook not being fun anymore because their feeds are full of nothing but politics, politics, politics. As one of them suggested, everyone should “unfollow people who are draining every ounce of your Facebook Fun because they only post political crap you’re tired of hearing about!”

It’s not just my (conservative leaning) friends. You can find plenty of articles on the topic around the web. For example:

Generally speaking, those who make this argument seem to feel that Facebook should be like a friendly reunion where people who don’t see each other very often can share what they’re doing in their lives, gush over photos of each other’s kids, and exchange some good humored ribbing. It’s “a way of hanging out with everyone you ever met, and political ranting makes the whole thing…awkward.”

As you might imagine, I don’t agree with this argument.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve unfollowed friends on Facebook because of their political rants, but it wasn’t because of their political leanings (I greatly appreciate having right-leaning friends who help me stay out of an entirely liberal bubble), nor was it because the ratio between their political posts and their “personal” posts was too high. Instead, it was because these particular friends demonstrated very little ability to act civil with those who disagreed with them.

Provided you can remain civil, and remember that the people you’re talking to are real live people and they have stresses and interests that are different from your own, then I find that there really isn’t a better place for online conversations than Facebook.

Facebook allows you to connect with virtually everyone you’ve ever met, which means you can have conversations with people from college, people from high school, people from that trip you took once, and people from your extended family, all at once. People who maybe don’t ever see each other in person, who may not even know one another, and who live in variety of places around the country or around the world can actually engage in a substantive conversation about a timely topic, should they choose to.

The software itself is perfect for this. You can have threaded conversations with direct replies to people, so you can engage a particular topic from multiple angles, and people can choose to focus on a single, a small subset, or all of the angles. You can include links to supporting articles, including fact-checking services such as Snopes.com. You can tag other friends to invite them into a particular section of the conversation, either to support what you’re saying or to provide an insight that you couldn’t provide on your own. And you can get notifications everytime someone adds a comment to the discussion, ensuring that you don’t miss out on anything important (or funny).

Honestly, Facebook is perfect for these kinds of in-depth conversations.

But that’s not what I want to talk about…not exactly.

There’s a slogan that came out of second-wave Feminism in the 1960s. You’ve probably seen it on a button: “The personal is political.” It comes from the title of an essay by Carol Hanisch published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. The essay wasn’t originally given that title because it was written more as an internal memo to members of the women’s liberation movement, but after it got picked up and published, the editors gave it that title.

In the memo, Hanisch argued that the women’s liberation movement had to continue to engage with “apolitical” women through what detractors derisively called therapy” or “personal” groups but what supporters such as Hanisch would go on to call “consciousness-raising groups.” She argued that through their derision of these group sessions, some of the more activist supporters of the movement were pushing away women who desperately needed their support and whose support, in all honesty, the movement desperately needed.

She painted a portrait of what these group sessions were actually like:

We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group. We’ve mostly picked topics by two methods: In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting (like, Which do/did you prefer, a girl or a boy baby or no children, and why? What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you?). Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences. Everybody talks that way. At the end of the meeting we try to sum up and generalize from what’s been said and make connections.

She went on to argue that through these sessions, she was “forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman.” The sessions gave her “a gut understanding of everything, as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings [she] had in ‘other people’s’ struggles.”

Women didn’t attend the meetings “to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems [emphasis added]. There are no personal solutions at this time,” she continues. “There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

What does this have to do with not being political on Facebook?

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, you can sit back for a moment, smile, click “Like,” and move on. But what have you and I just done?

First, we ignored all of the injustice in the world. We said to ourselves, “We are comfortable right now, so let’s just smile at each other for a moment, and then move on.” It’s the mental, emotional, and spiritual equivalent of running into each other at a coffee shop, smiling at each other, and moving on.

But I don’t want to just smile at you as we pass each other by at a coffee shop. If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s not just because I met you once. It’s because in some real and authentic way, I want to consider you my friend. There’s a real chance that we actually are friends, like in real life, and if we’re not, then there’s a real chance that at some point, if only for a few minutes, in real life, we actually were, and if we weren’t, however I know you, if you’re my friend on Facebook, it’s because at some point in my life, I thought about you and was actually willing to call you, in all honesty, my “friend.”

I don’t want to run into one of my friends at a coffee shop and simply nod and smile. I want to stop and talk for a little while.

And I get it, not everyone wants to talk politics, and most of the time, not everyone wants to talk about the world’s injustices. But the people I want to call my friends are willing, at least some of the time, to really get into it.

I went back to the town where I grew up last weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish side of my family….or so I thought. To my complete surprise, my brother invited his best friend (a second-generation Italian) and his best friend’s family to the party as well. I couldn’t have been happier. There hasn’t been a minute in my life when I haven’t known this guy, and in my childhood, I saw very little difference between him and my brothers: like them, he was always there, and he usually treated me with love.

But this is a guy I don’t see as often as my brothers, so when he came walking in the door, it was like being surprised by a long-lost brother who I hadn’t spoken with in forever.

Let me set the stage for a moment. This man is a physical education teacher (and I stress the word teacher) in a Catholic preparatory school for high-school age boys. He’s a dedicated Ironman whose idea of a dream vacation is to bike the route of the Tour de France. He’s a regular churchgoer whose coworkers are ministers, and he feels that Christian charity is not a thing you give money to but a thing you actually do in your daily life, a way to be.

He also voted for Donald Trump.

Within moments of his arrival, he approached me in the corner of the kitchen and without missing a beat, engaged me in a substantive conversation that ranged from God to transgenderism to television shows to the art of teaching to the meaning of friendship to the power of plays. We spent most of the night together, joined by our wives at points, my brothers and cousins at others, our daughters at still others. It was great.

At no point did we shy from discussing politics. I’m not talking about partisan politics. Neither of us are firmly committed to either the Republican or Democratic party. True, when forced to vote for them, we often (if not always) vote for opposite parties, but when we do, we do so with clear enough eyes that we understand why other people would have justifiable concerns about our chosen candidates. I don’t think either of us would give a full-throated defense of either party.

When I say we didn’t shy from discussing politics, what I mean is that we didn’t shy from disagreeing with each other based on a disagreement in principles. We understand the strength of our relationship, and so we’re able to challenge each other without the other having to take offense. We know that each of us are dedicated to growing as human beings, and if we disagree with each other and challenge each other, it’s only because we care for one another and want the other one to continue to grow.

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, and I follow it five minutes later with a link to an article on white male privilege or to the specific details of a law being proposed in Congress or to an analysis of our President’s ties with a foreign power, it’s because I want to do more that just show you pictures of my kid. It’s because I also want to challenge you as a human being, and to provide a signal to you that I would like to be challenged as well. The hope is that, through our conversations, we can each grow into something better than we currently are, which often comes from exposing ourselves to new and sometimes contrarian ideas.

The best thing we each could do with a “political post” on Facebook would not be to click “Like” and simply move on, which would be like running into each other at a coffee shop and just throwing pamphlets in each other’s faces.

The best thing to do would be to — at some point — read the article the other person shared, or if we don’t have the attention span for that, to at least look at the headline and then ask a question about it. Through that interaction, we start to earn (or renew our committment to) the word “friend.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t read every article I share or leave a comment on every post I write.

What I am saying is that if you think Facebook is more for personal stuff than political stuff, then you need to understand that the personal is political. By closing your eyes to anything you might disagree with, you’re committing a political act, one that commits you to remaining the same forever and forever, while also committing you to accept (and thus tacitly defend) the status quo, injustices and all.

If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s because I either am or want to be your friend in real life. That doesn’t mean always giving you a shoulder to cry on (though of course I would if you needed me to), but it does mean always giving you my willingness to get into it with you, even if sometimes I have to be the one who starts it.

What’s more personal than being willing to engage with one another from places of differing principle? And since I can’t see you everyday, and so few of us actually write emails (let alone letters) anymore, and since texting definitely isn’t a good tool for in-depth discussions, why wouldn’t the serindepity of running into each on Facebook be the perfect place to connect?

Some might suggest it would be more appropriate to take those conversations to someplace more private (Facebook Messenger?), but there’s a commitment to a private conversation that we’re not always willing to have. It’d be like if we ran into each other in a coffee shop and I said, “Hey, why don’t we go sit in the front seat of my car and catch up?” That would have the chance of becoming weird, right? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to keep our conversation in the public/private space of the coffee shop, where if someone we both know happens to stumble in, we can increase participation in the conversation, and where we can also remain safely in the public eye, forcing us both to be on our best behavior?

I honestly can’t think of a better tool for allowing the personal to become political. And that’s why I’ll keep talking to my friends on Facebook the way I talk to all of my friends: with a love for conversation and committment to helping each other grow.

There’s nothing more personal, and nothing more political, than that.

The Republican Brotherhood

During All Things Considered yesterday, Robert Siegel interviewed an Egyptian parliamentarian named Abdul Mawgoud Rageh Dardery. Dardery is a member of Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is the political arm of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. If you remember, the Muslim Brotherhood is an organization that calls for Sharia law while also remaining dedicated to democratic principles. In Egypt’s democratic elections following the fall of Mubarak, the Freedom and Justice Party won over half of the seats in the country’s new parliament, but they also insisted they would not run a candidate for president. This was meant to inspire good will between the Brotherhood and those revolutionaries who had fought for the creation of a modern democracy in Egypt.

Well, last month, the Brotherhood broke their promise and nominated a candidate. Siegel’s interview with Dardery focused on that broken promise, with all of his questions dripping with the West’s distrust for the Muslim Brotherhood. Dardery, I thought, answered every question with aplomb, but his answers aren’t what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about are the questions.

Each question that Siegel had for Dardery implied that the Muslim Brotherhood has an obligation, for the good of its country’s democracy, to find a balance between the forces of moderation and the forces of fundamentalism. Here are the questions he asked the parliamentarian:

  • The prior policy of not running a candidate had been taken by some liberal secular Egyptians or Christian Egyptians as a sign that the Muslim Brotherhood did not intend to monopolize political power and take advantage of their present popularity to do so. Should they be concerned at this point that your movement will indeed monopolize power?

  • The Associated Press reported this week that your party’s candidate for president…promised a group of of ultraconservative Muslim clerics, or at least they say he promised them, that clerics would be given the power to review legislation to ensure that it’s in line with Islamic law. First of all, is that a position, as you understand it, of your party, and isn’t that awfully close to implementing Islamic law as the law of the land in Egypt?

  • The concern that a lot of Americans had since the very beginning of the Arab Spring is that the ideas of the intelligentsia and the ideas of the leadership can be very worldly and very cosmopolitan and very much committed to contemporary thoughts about democracy, but the mass of people who have not experienced life beyond their country’s borders might not see it that way, and there could be real support for a much, much more authoritarian and religious movement running the country.

  • Do you find…that Salafists, who take a much more militant religious view of what government should be, can have an appeal with less educated voters that you have to answer, that you have to respond to?

Again, Dardery answered every question with aplomb, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that each of those questions could be rephrased so that, instead of being addressed to the Muslim Brotherhood, they could be addressed to the Republican Party.

Let’s give it a try:

  • The prior policy of being willing to work with the opposing side to find common ground had been taken by some liberal-secularist Democrats and Christian Democrats as a sign that the Republican Party would not try to monopolize political power and take advantage of their present popularity to do so. Should they be concerned  at this point that your party will indeed monopolize power?

  • The Washington Post has reported that your party’s former Vice President, Dick Cheney, allowed oil executives to review his administration’s energy policy before submitting it to Congress; Bloomberg has reported that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington-based, conservative think-tank supported by the Koch brothers and ExxonMobile, provides “model legislation” to representatives in various state houses, who then help turn that legislation into law; and now, with over 100 new lawmakers coming to Washington last year, corporate lobbyists are flocking to the staffs of Republican politicians in Congress. First of all, is it the position of your party to allow the moneyed interests to write and review its legislation, and isn’t that awfully close to turning our democracy into an plutocracy? 

  • The concern that a lot of Americans had since the very beginning of the Tea Party movement (if not before, with the rise of the Evangelical’s political power) is that the ideas of the Republican intelligentsia and the ideas of the Republican leadership can be very worldly and very cosmopolitan and very much committed to contemporary thoughts about democracy, but the masses of people who have not experienced life beyond their state’s or their county’s borders might not see it that way, and there could be real support for a much, much more authoritarian and religious movement running the country.

  • Do you find that Tea Partiers and Evangelicals, who take a much more militant view of what government should be, can have an appeal with less educated voters that you have to answer, that you have to respond to?

Unfortunately, I don’t think a single Republican politician would answer those questions with as much aplomb as the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Dr. Dardery talked about respecting the views of the opposing parties, of needing to educate the public so that radical views and heavy propaganda don’t brainwash the minds of less educated voters, of having elected officials be the ones who write and decide on laws, of the importance for having people being willing to listen to one another more than they talk to one another, of offering moderate alternatives so the people can see moderation being modeled, etc.

The Republican Party believes in none of that.

Rather than argue policies on their merits, they call their opponents socialists and terrorists.

Rather than passing laws to improve education in the United States and teach ideas that are “very worldly and very cosmopolitan and much committed to contemporary thoughts about democracy,” they promote the antithesis of science and art and multicultural learning.

Rather than helping to curtail radical views and heavy propaganda, their leaders regularly attempt to codify those views into law, regularly placate the most inflammatory voices in their party, and regularly promote a news channel that actively makes its viewers less informed.

Rather than encouraging its members to open their minds and hearts to cultures that may be different from theirs, they attempt to capitalize on xenophobia and ignorance.

Rather than offering their party members moderate choices among their politicians, they chase moderates from the party or challenge incumbent moderates with primary challenges from the far-right of their party, with those challengers (not to mention all the party’s presidential candidates, including the presumed nominee) running on a “brook no compromise” pledge.

Rather than trying to earn support through rational arguments based on facts and evidence, they regularly lie in order to promote a given agenda.

All of which is to say, as a country dedicated to “contemporary thoughts about democracy,” which include requiring politicians of integrity and voters who are educated about the issues and where politicians stand, America needs to recognize that the Republican Party is actively ruining democracy in this country, just as they fear the Muslim Brotherhood will ruin democracy’s chances in Egypt.

The difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Republican Brotherhood is only a question of which type of radical laws they’d like to initiate. The Muslim Brotherhood wants a Sharia state; the Republican Brotherhood wants an ultra-capitalist one.

As Americans who believe in the freedom of religion and the compassion of a social safety net, we should oppose both.

The Republican Field

The Republican Field
Image via NYMag.com

I’m one of those idiots who’ve watched every publicized debate of the Republican primaries thus far. I’m a liberal. I’m very liberal. But I’ve watched the debates because — as I teach my students — it’s my duty as a citizen to be an informed voter. While I won’t be voting in my state’s Republican primary, one of these gentlemen will be running in the general election, and I want to know as much about them as possible.

The debates aren’t the only place to learn about them, of course. I could visit their election websites and read up on their positions; I could track down their records to find out how they’ve actually voted on the issues; I could read their books to analyze what kinds of minds they have; etc.

But the debates are perhaps the only time we’ll see these men gathered in a room, forced to confront someone else who’s interest runs into conflict with their own: they all want that seat in the Oval Office, and they don’t want any of their fellow Republicans (let alone the President) to stand in their way. Between the heat of their opponents and the heat of the television cameras, the debates give us the best opportunity to see how these candidates hold up under fire.

It’s not just about “fire” though. The debates also show us how these candidates think on their feet.

That might be the most disappointing thing about Governor Mitt Romney. At almost every moment, it’s possible to see behind his rhetoric to the political machination that drives his speech. The narrative on Governor Romney is that, much like Senator John Kerry in 2004, his sense of humanity is robotic; he has, as they say, an empathy problem, one that probably stems from being incredibly rich.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the way his political ambition looms larger than anything he says on stage. Where the debates are supposed to show us how the politicians think on their feet, with Governor Romney, all we get are the words and phrases that will get him closer to his goal.

The best example of this was his response to the final question in last week’s debate in Arizona. The CNN moderator asked the candidates to explain what the public’s biggest misconception about them might be. Congressman Paul believed the misconception was the media’s insistence that he could not win in a general election, despite a recent poll showing that Paul is the only Republican candidate who can defeat President Obama in November. Speaker Gingrich said he wished people understood how much work went into his achievements as Speaker of the House (a balanced Federal budget, welfare reform, low unemployment, etc.). Senator Santorum gave an answer similar to Congressman Paul’s, except his argument did not rest on a poll; rather, it spoke to the fact that the election against the President will be much like his primary race against Governor Romney: he’ll have to “do a lot with a little” in order to defeat an opponent who has the support of the media and a seemingly unlimited treasure of funds.

Governor Romney, however, decided to give a concluding statement rather than answer the question. About twenty seconds into his answer, the moderator reminded him that the question had to do with the people’s misconception about him, but the governor responded, “You get to ask the questions you want. I get to give the answers that I want.” And then he continued to give what sounded like the final paragraph from his stump speech.

It reminded me of the argumentative technique he displayed in his encounter with an AP reporter who doubted his words in a campaign stop at Staples. Instead of debating the reporter on the grounds of the argument, the governor just repeated the same phrase over and over again.

What these events revealed was that Governor Romney doesn’t actually “think on his feet.” He has a thing he needs to say, and he says it, again and again, regardless of what the person across from him says in his response.

Between those two interactions, it’s easy to see the man who once drove from Massachusetts to Canada with a dog strapped to the roof of his car, and it’s even easier to understand why most polls have President Obama defeating the governor by between five and ten points.

Weirdly enough, with his wins in Arizona and Michigan last night, Romney is close to clinching the nomination. He still has to make it through Super Tuesday, when half of the required delegates go up for grabs, but with last night’s victories, the momentum is his to lose. His only real competitor at this point is Senator Rick Santorum, and though I might be a liberal, if I were a member of the Republican base, Senator Santorum would be the only candidate who would speak to me.

Here’s the thing about the senator. You have to give him some credit for being a man of his convictions. Even on the issue that gave him the most trouble at the Arizona debates — his vote for No Child Left Behind coupled with his promise to repeal No Child Left Behind — you could see his conviction at work. On that particular issue, the conviction that held sway in his decision was not that parents and local communities should be in charge of their schools, but that members of a party should support their leader. While he admits to making a mistake in voting for No Child Left Behind, he makes a reasonable argument for why he voted against his conscious.

Don’t get me wrong. President Santorum would be a horrible thing for this country. Not only would we be at war with Iran within the first eighteen months of his administration (something that may be true for the other candidates as well, excepting Congressman Paul), but we’d also see some of the most “severely conservative” judges being placed on the nation’s benches (not just Supreme Court judges either). If you add on a Republican majority in the House and Senate, who would most likely support the majority of the paleoconservative president’s agenda, then you start to see how scary a Santorum Administration could be.

But I say all that as a liberal. If I were a member of the Republican base, then a Santorum Administration would be a wet dream of conservative policies.

The other two candidates — Speaker Gingrich and Congressman Paul — are merely also-rans at this point. I think a Gingrich Administration would be an interesting one, and I fear it a lot less than I fear a Santorum Administration. The Speaker is as much a Washington insider as one could be, and while I wouldn’t agree with most of his policies, I do think his idea on reforming the government based on modern management theory could be interesting (despite the fact I’m not 100% sure what he means). And I get somewhat excited by his combination of ridiculously wacky/ambitious ideas with his proven ability to get things done in Washington. The things he’d want to get done — I’d disagree with probably 98% of it — but there’d at least be some major reforms, even if not in a direction I’d like. His presidency would probably suck for the country, but at least it’d be interesting.

A Paul Administration, on the other hand, would be impotent. They’d have a million ideas on how to change things, but the backing of zero members of Congress would ensure that none of it would get done. He’d be fighting not just the Democrats, but the Republicans as well.

So that’s the field: an openly-ambitious politician who exudes zero empathy with the middle class; a principled paleoconservative who scares moderates (not to mention a majority of women; in Michigan’s primary, the senator lost “every category of women polled… including working women, single women, and married women”); a self-proclaimed grandiose thinker whose career contains almost as many scandals as his former rival, President Clinton; and a radical libertarian whose various policies offend three hallmarks of the Republican base: defense hawks, the business class, and social conservatives.

As Molly Ball wrote this week in her article for The Atlantic, “Why Can’t The GOP Race Settle Down“:

In Reagan’s day, the “three-legged stool” of economic, social and national-security conservatism was mutually reinforcing, but these days those three strands are more likely to see themselves as competing in a zero-sum struggle for the heart of the party.

Zero-sum competition requires a winner and a loser. Unfortunately for the Republicans, their zero-sum struggle will probably result in the nomination of Governor Romney: a zero man who stands for nothing but his own victory. And that kind of candidate will not win in November.