The Mirage of Common Ground*
It’s Monday, October 29, 2012. Next week Tuesday, November 6, 2012 is Election Day (voter suppression efforts now targeting Spanish-speaking voters be damned). In the next 8 days, our televisions, radios, and Internet ads will bombard us with more vitriol and political attacks sponsored by both the Democrat and Republican candidates, their party’s national committees, and various super-PACs (Political Action Committees, aka big-money fundraisers).
Sidebar: The U.S. democratic-republic was never meant to be a partisan, two-party system and actually the Democrats and Republicans used to be one joint party that rejected the Federalist party’s assertion of national government authority. For more info on the development of political parties in the U.S., click here. But since we have become a two-party system and would rather ignore the presence of third party candidates that are out there (bolstered by the structure of the Electoral College), I’m going to speak in terms of the now-split, Democrat and Republican parties.
In the midst of all this distasteful rancor (not at all new, but still distasteful to many), I am hearing calls to find “common ground,” to meet in the middle, to dare to find what’s admirable in the other candidate’s platform and loathsome in the platform of your preferred candidate. This call to walk toward each other instead of away from each other is admirable, necessary, and even desperately needed in many facets of life. I, for one, will be the first to recommend this course of action when the topic is convictional belief (a.k.a., religion, spirituality, faith, existentialism) and even for those ever so serious, fundamental athletic loyalties that many, including myself claim (snark intended). As Eboo Patel’s organization the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) proclaims in one of its youth-targeted campaigns, “we are better together.”
However (you were expecting a “but” weren’t you?), as laudable as the call to seek what is admirable in your opponent may be, I dare to argue its applicability in this present moment. Far from being an oasis in a storm of bile and vitriol, the call to find common ground is really a mirage, a siren song that lulls us to sleep and causes us to ignore real, fundamental differences in how to implement this country’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Give me your attention for a little while longer while I attempt to explain where I’m coming from.
This all started swirling in my mind the day after the last presidential debate between President Obama and former Governor Romney when I saw a challenge posted on a friend’s Facebook feed to comment with one, just one, element of the platform that you agree with for whichever candidate you oppose. This friend is himself a Democrat and intends to vote the Obama-Biden ticket and had become dismayed by the name-calling he was seeing on his newsfeed as Democrats and Republicans squared off in verbal duels that were leaving blood all over the Internet floor. His call was issued to both Democrats and Republicans among his Facebook social network. I haven’t seen this level of vitriol in my own newsfeed (seems most of my Facebook friends and the folks in my Twitter feed are all peace-makers), but I consider this person an actual friend, not just a Facebook “friend” so I took his challenge seriously. I thought for a moment about Romney-Ryan’s proposed policies regarding taxes, job creation, social security programs (as broadly conceived, including but not limited to the government retirement program), health care, civil rights (including but not limited to the rights of women, LGBT folks, and racially-minoritized groups), immigration, foreign policy, and the role of the federal government particularly vis-à-vis the states. I thought for a moment, commented that I hadn’t come up with anything but would continue to ponder, and went away to another friend’s post. I did keep thinking and returned to my friend’s wall and still hadn’t come up with anything.
It seems to me, from all that I’ve read while writing this post, that this idea of seeking the good in your opponent’s position stems, at least in part, from Jesus’ command to love our enemies. In the sermon “Loving Your Enemies” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he makes this connection explicitly:
A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy, and everytime you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points. (MLK, Loving Your Enemies, 17 Nov 1957)
King had learned that looking within oneself was the first step and while doing so, one might discover that the reason such hate might be generated for someone else was really about something internal. It followed naturally then that King would recommend seeking the good in the other person. In the context of encouraging mostly Black folks in his congregation who were fighting segregation while being on the receiving end of hate-filled taunts and mob violence at the hands of mostly White folks in the South, this makes sense. The movement would have been crippled (and eventually was in my opinion) had the people victimized by hate allowed themselves to hate in response. King’s message though was about hating people; he was not teaching us that we should not hate ideas nor that we needed to find common ground with ideas and philosophies that opposed us (imagine finding common ground on segregationists’ principles!).
If my friend had asked us to name one thing about our opposing candidate as a person, I would have had an easier time. There are things about Governor Romney and Representative Ryan as people that I can appreciate. No, I won’t name them here because that’s not my point. My point is that this isn’t about people, it’s about policies and ideas and philosophies. I do not hate the former Governor Willard Milton (Mitt) Romney, nor do I hate his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan. I also do not hate people who intend to vote for Romney-Ryan. I do hate their policies, I find them odious and rooted in injustice, arrogance, and downright meanness, and although I have tried – really I have – I cannot find one good thing about their vision for the U.S. that I find appealing, laudable, or “good” (nay, what is good; there is none good but God). And I’m okay with that.
There are issues on which these two candidates agree, on which they share common ground. We heard a lot of it during the second debate that was focused on foreign policy (or at least it was supposed to be anyway). Here’s just one agreement, a plot of common ground, that I find the most disturbing: They agree on the use of drones in military strikes. Although using drone strikes may save the lives of more U.S. troops, it puts at greater risk the lives of civilians in target zones and distances the drone operator from the ethical responsibility of murder in the context of war. Drone strikes make actual warfare akin to the manipulation of joystick controls on a video game. This is a connection I find to be immoral and unethical, and which jeopardizes the pursuit of freedom across the globe.
We can find common ground. My question is should we always stand on it.**
This song that we sang at my church yesterday as we moved forward to receive Communion is the ground on which I choose to stand:
(From the song, “These Three are the Treasures” words by Colin Hodgetts)
These three are the treasures to strive for and prize:
be gentle, live simply and have the humility
to shy from the struggle to put oneself first,
these are the pearls.
If mercy’s abandoned by those who’d be brave;
economy squandered by those who’d be generous;
humility slighted by those who would lead,
this is sure death.
Be gentle and you can afford to be bold,
be frugal and so have enough to be liberal,
be humble and thus be a leader of all,
this is the way.
Through gentleness those who attack win the fight,
and those who defend have their safety in gentleness;
this gentleness rests in the children of God,
this is their sign.
President Obama and Vice-President Biden’s vision of the U.S. may not have all of these components, but they have most of them and have more than what I see across the aisle in this current iteration of the Republican Party (it hasn’t always been like this, really it hasn’t). So, I’m casting my vote and standing up for this UN-common ground in this election, rejecting the mirage that common ground offers that would blind me to the real differences I see between these two choices.
*Today features my return to the blogosphere after an unintended lengthy absence. Although I meant to be gone for a bit to focus on my research travels, I didn’t mean for my absence to last this long. After all, my research trips were completed at the end of September. Oy vey. After being gone so long, I began to consider what would be a topic worthy of my re-introduction. The impending presidential election was an obvious choice, but I didn’t want to be just another partisan voice extolling the virtues of either Obama or Romney and, reflexively, harping on the faults of the other candidate. So, I offer this because it’s been forming in my mind since the third presidential debate between the incumbent and his challenger. Hopefully, it will add something novel to the discussion – not claiming these to be new ideas, in fact, many of them are not, but this seems to be the road less travelled thus far this election cycle. And, although hoping not be “just another partisan voice,” I am not claiming to be a NON-partisan voice. In fact, I’m very clear about my choice in this election and I know for whom I will cast my ballot (whether early or next Tuesday I haven’t decided yet).
**Even as I write this, I am afraid of how it will be used. This seems to be the essence of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” theology that I find so odious, ostracizing, and oppressive as a queer person in the Christian church. It seems to be the same as that, but I honestly don’t believe it to be the same thing. One key difference is that I’m not talking about labeling anything that is a product of creation, human biodiversity as “sin.” Facts supported by personal narrative, rigorous science, and historical evidence need to be distinguished from dogmatic belief that rejects the three-legged stool of reason, tradition, and scripture in favor of a twisted, errant, and abusive use of just one leg – scripture – around which then tradition is molded and to which reason is subjected.