(Halting the Spread of the Right-Wing Virus)
Step One: Interrupt the Blowhard (Stop the flow of verbal diarrhea.)
Step Two: Put a cork in his mouth.
Step Three: Redirect. Or,
Step Four: Seize your right to be heard and do not retreat, compromise, or yield.
“Stop, stop STOP!” I said, holding up my hands and symbolically pushing away the thick-middled blowhard who was performing a soliloquy of right-wing talking points about public assistance programs, “There are children present!”
My wife and I had driven to a small town an hour north of Milwaukee. Our friends Todd and Vicky live there, and were throwing a birthday party for their daughter Jessica, who had turned ten. This couple were Democrats living in a Republican stronghold, but had nonetheless managed to make a few friends after living there for almost twenty years.
It is a bizarre world we live in where I even have to make such a statement. That politics should have so much say in social affiliations is a damning confirmation of social decay.
As we drove into town, Jane said quietly, “It's Jessica's birthday.”
“Yeeaahh,” I said slowly. Something in her tone caught my attention. “What are you really saying?”
“Today is about her.”
“Yeeaahh,” I repeated. For a moment I took my eyes off the road and dared to meet her glance. “Oh, Star-for-whom-all-evenings-wait, I'm not catching your drift.”
“Flattery fails where jewelry must go,” she said, tapping her ear. “Stay off the subject of politics...and religion.”
“Happily, my beauty.”
So when Todd's neighbor from across the street, who spoke with the volume and bluster of an alcoholic, began his strange and untimely descent into political oratory, in my friend's back yard of all places, I found myself trapped between permitting a virus to flourish and honoring my commitment to my wife.
“Stop, stop STOP!” I said, holding up my hands and symbolically pushing away the thick-middled blowhard, “There are children present!”
This is step one: Stop the flow of nonsense. Right-wing talking points are logical and factual fallacies. Scrutinize one and you quickly discover its weakness and can easily refute it.
Practice active listening by recording a talk-radio monologue, one delivered by a right-wing talk-jock/apologist. Play it back and make a list of the talking points. Those aren't facts! Below each, jot down a short refutation. They will come easier than you think. Research a good refutation if necessary. Keep them handy for political/social emergencies. Yes, I actually carry a list of them. My wife calls them my “incendiaries”. I call them my fire extinguishers.
What you hear in the recording is a string of talking points that have a veneer of soundness, the sound of sense. But dig deeper into any one of them and you discover it has no depth. It is, in fact, fallacious, easy to refute. It is a single legionnaire, by itself weak.
Attack that one point. The strength of a conservative talk-jock's monologue lies in the speed with which it is delivered. The causal listener is convinced by overwhelming quantity, not the quality of any one talking point.
You have an opening now. When you say, firmly, “Stop!” you halt the flow of falsehoods. It's also true that you skirt the edge of the social contract.
In a social setting, and I'm qualifying, a social setting now, it is rude to interrupt someone. But it's also rude, and incredibly insensitive and inappropriate, to spout right-wing talking points at a child's birthday party.
Bullies don't give a shit about courtesy, about fair debate, about civil discourse. They don't know what the social contract is...but they don't hesitate to imitate the behavior of the demagogues they idolize, and they practice such behavior indiscriminately, in the wrong places at the wrong times. (Better they save it for the bathroom mirror, the only legitimate place for this kind of narcissism, or for their therapist.) They spout these cherished myths and sound bites believing they only say what we all believe, or must come to accept and believe.
You, however, just told a blowhard, in a social setting, to stop. You interrupted the dribble of talking points. Blowhard is not used to being interrupted. Use his momentary confusion to your advantage: Cork him.
“I don't know why you thought this was a legitimate venue in which to spout right-wing talking points, but it isn't. Open your eyes. This is a social setting. A social setting. This is a child's birthday party. This is the backyard of our mutual friend. You want to throw a “Let's-talk-right-wing-politics-party?” Send out invitations.”
Congratulations. When you interrupted blowhard, you called him out on his abuse of the social contract.
You confused him even further by pointing out that his words were not suitable for the ears of children. He violated another social contract rule: “Protect children from words, ideas and thoughts they cannot process. This is the responsibility of every sane adult”. While he considers his words (Right-wing talking points are, at their core, lies, hence inappropriate.), you attack. Refute one specific talking point that he spouted.
If he interrupts, you once again say, “Stop, stop, stop! You had your turn.” You've just introduced another social contract rule, and reminded other listeners of it. Polite people take turns. If you have to spell out this rule, do so right to his face.
Are you shaming him, and violating another social contract rule? No. Declare your right to be heard, and with calm vigor insist he has violated the social contract by droning on and on, in the manner of the right-wing talk-jocks he emulates. You must skirt the edge of civility, at times, to restore it.
It has become commonplace for Republicans to make outlandish statements in places and among specific constituents whom they believe find such ideological swill perfectly normal. (Remember Romney's little pearl, “Corporations are people”, and of course the instant classic,“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” from Todd “The Dipshit” Akin.)
These statements- pardon my euphemism there- these lies, uttered in the public commons at campaign rallies, or in radio studios and at fund raising dinners for the entitled, may be repeated at social events by the unthinking true believer. When they are, these lies must be stopped, skewered, flailed, beaten and dismembered.
Such verbal diarrhea carries with it the stench of moral decay. Odd then, that moral superiority and moral certainty are qualities Republicans claim to possess in spades(!). Children, however, have a remarkable capacity to sense delusion in adults. This is on par with their equally remarkable instincts that tell them to avoid alcoholics, social predators, and narcissists and psychopaths. Responsible adults affirm the perceptions of their children and remove such threats.
The harmful influence of delusional adults is just cause for you to stop the spread of right-wing drivel at a barbeque, birthday party, retirement party, fourth of July gathering, picnic, any setting that is primarily social.
In the two minutes before I said, “Stop, stop, STOP!” I interrupted this man at least three times. Persistence is necessary. I was dealing not only with self-righteousness running rampant, but with what appeared to be some level of inebriation.
I was ready to refute his talking points. I keep the following data handy, and paraphrase or repeat it verbatim as needed:
1. Out of every five daughters who grew up in highly dependent homes, four (80%) did not share their parents' fate. Duncan and colleagues add, “The stereotype of heavy welfare dependence being routinely passed from mother to child is thus contradicted by data."
2. As Northwestern University's Dan Lewis and his colleagues write, "Claims of dependency and fraud create a moral indignation that symbolizes middle America's goodness. The claims are more important politically than the “corrective” reforms and programs that follow."
3. Handler and Hasenfeld call it the "myth and ceremony" of welfare, "designed to affirm the modern, contemporary, middle-class employed mother by ensuring the failure and moral condemnation of the welfare mother."
4. Is food stamp fraud abundant? No, especially since debit-style cards replaced actual stamps. Early studies, when cards were introduced, showed a 94% compliance rate, and this number has risen to 98%. today. Even when it was discovered that recipients wrongfully received food stamps, or received an incorrect amount, the problems were most often traced to errors by the caseworker, not intent to defraud by the recipient. Oversight also revealed that some of the errors in that 2% category represented recipients who weren't receiving enough food stamps, who were actually entitled to more.
5. But once you get on the gravy train, you never have to get off, right? No, oversight of eligibility is stringent and ongoing. You can't buy prepared food with food stamps, or a Cadillac, or pay your rent or utilities with them. Most recipients hold down jobs, albeit low-wage ones. And their income is monitored. Recipients have to re-qualify quarterly. The actual number of recipients is lower than the number of eligible Americans. Why? Because the myth of the welfare queen is a myth. Americans aren't rushing to game the system, and oversight is working. Not a sexy, we've-got-the-moral-high-ground talking point anymore...
In the split second before I said, “Stop, stop, STOP!” I could not have told you what I would say after saying those words. I am a mere foot soldier, commanded by a higher cause than my own comfort and security to step into the breach, to stare down malevolent self-interest and self-aggrandizement, self-delusion and self-indulgence, and say, “No! Not here! Not now!”
No child should be exposed to preening, unapologetic, unbridled self-interest, self-absorption and self-aggrandizement. These are the festering pustules on an soul enslaved by addiction. There is nothing glorious, patriotic, noble or American about these maladies, no matter how rich or powerful the person in possession of them may be.
(The “How to” portion of this diary ends here. The story of that day, it's implications and fallout, continues...)
So how I came up with the right thing to say, “There are children present!”, I have no clue.
This was a moment of crisis. We stood balanced on the razor-thin edge of the social contract, this man and I. A few heads had turned.
I didn't blink. But in a flash of inspiration, I stared, hard, at the can of beer in his hand.
His wife stepped up beside him, took his arm, and in a voice that seemed to convey a forced perkiness and cheer, said, “Come see what Aaron and Kevin built!”
I glanced at Todd. He was standing in a nearby circle of friends and relatives, and had heard this neighbor's oration. He rolled his eyes.
A touch on my arm startled me. It was Todd's wife, Vicky, who steered me away from the scene of a near ground-zero event and into to a patch of neutral territory. “You know,” she said in a low voice, “Todd said to me this morning that it might be a good idea to make sure you two didn't...” and here she sought the right word, “...mix.”
“Vicky I didn't mean to-”
“Hey, nothing really happened,” she said patting my arm. She turned to look at the man and his wife. “Sarah's really got her hands full with Zane and the boys these days.”
“Zane's filling his head with talk radio righteousness.”
“Seems to be a problem in this part of the world.”
“Well he's got plenty of time to listen to AM radio these days. He injured his back on the job and he's been on Worker's Comp for months now. He's driven Sarah to tears a few times when he's had a few too many beers and forgets who he's talking to.”
“Oh, man,” I muttered. An anvil of irony grazed my face and hit the ground with a thud. A few minutes ago this man was spewing right-wing myths about long-term welfare. And he was unemployed.
“The boys have stayed overnight here a few times when Sarah didn't think it was safe for them to be around their Dad.”
“Holy shit,” I muttered, “Holy shit. Vicky, this is bigger than them. They don't have the tools to deal with this. They need help.”
Vicky caught Todd's eye and she motioned him over. “Zane won't admit there's a problem,” she said. “Isn't that one of your starting points?” she asked. Todd joined us.
“I'm sorry, Mike,” Todd said, “I told the adults in the invite that this was an alcohol-free event. In this town you do have to spell that out to the grown-ups, even for a kid's birthday party. Zane carried that over from his place, and I'm pretty sure it isn't the first one he's had today.”
I was a sixty minute drive from my home and felt like I had entered a different country. What else was considered “normal” around here?
“Excuse me,” Vicky said, “Cake time.” She walked toward the back door.
I tilted my head in Zane's direction. “Todd, this is a cry for help. You get that, right? He ignores the boundary you set and starts going off about welfare, welfare of all things, at your daughter's birthday party.”
“It's worse than that,” Todd said, “The police have been over to his place a few times after the neighbors called to complain about screaming and windows breaking.”
I felt a strange collapse in my chest, the kind you feel when you're free-climbing a rock wall and a handhold you tested and then grabbed suddenly gives way.
I stared at Zane a moment, and a proverb I'd heard some fifteen years earlier came to mind. An elder explained to his grandson that a battle between two wolves, one good and one evil, took place in the heart of every person. “Which one wins?” the grandson asked. “The one you feed,” said the elder.
I felt sick. An old, old feeling growled in my stomach, began to knot my abdomen. Dread. Fear and dread. I wanted to be home, away from all these people, people who let this man spew ugliness in front of children. I wanted to be far away from this ailing man. I wanted to return to my Walter Mitty life, to be a hero in my own mind, unassailable, invulnerable.
“Fuck,” I muttered. “Once more, once more into the breach.”
Todd wore a quizzical look on his face. “Say what?”
I am a weak, lazy man, clever about finding ways to avoid responsibility and accountability, and therefore the universe throws these very things at me, again and again. I rubbed my face and said, “Nothing. Where is he?”
“In the garage,” Todd said, “Jessica and the boys are building a pushcart.”
I found myself walking toward the garage on a ridiculous quest. I would strike up a conversation with a man whom I had, just minutes earlier, been arguing with. No sensible man would do such a thing. I am not qualified to counsel anybody about anything, have no special gift for gab, persuasion, or a charismatic personality. A smart person would step back and think of some way to connect a troubled person with the help he needs. Maybe a smart person wouldn't get involved.
I'm not that smart.
I saw the breach, that gap between a person and the help he needs, and I knew someone had to step in. That smart person I mentioned never takes into account that a problem that is already percolating can suddenly escalate or explode due to a trigger that no one could have foreseen.
“Hi Uncle Mike!” (I am not, strictly speaking, her uncle. The title just seemed to evolve over the years, and it tickles me to no end.)
Jessica stood over an unpainted wooden cocoon big enough to seat one ten-year old. The cart had wagon wheels on a fixed rear axle, and lawnmower wheels on the front axle, which was some three feet long, and strapped to the underside of a two-by-four. A single large bolt with washers held this front axle unit to the frame so that it could swivel. A rope long enough for the driver to grab was tied at each end of this front axle to allow the driver to steer.
“Hi, Jess. Wow! You guys built this?”
“Yup,” said Aaron, the older of Zane's sons. He was using a pair of slip-joint pliers to twist a nail at one end of the front axle. His brother Kevin sat in the driver's seat, wearing a bike helmet and holding the rope.
Zane stood over by the workbench, looking down at the cart, beer still in hand. He glanced at me, visibly wary. His face also looked drained, tired, sad. His wife stood next to him. I caught her fleeting glance, too. Fear. Fear and...pleading.
I walked over to Zane, my heart pounding. “I owe you an apology,” I said.
He stared at me, confused. I held out my hand. “And I also didn't introduce myself. That was rude of me, too. My name's Mike. I've been friends with Todd since high school.”
Zane held out his hand, still looking confused. “Zane. I'm Todd's neighbor. My wife and I- this is Sarah-”
“Hello, Sarah,” I said shaking her hand. She smiled, but her face, too, held confusion.
“We live across the street,” Zane finished, gesturing with his left hand, which held the beer can.
“I interrupted you a few minutes ago, several times. I apologize. You'd think a guy my age woulda learned some manners.”
“Hey, no. I, uh...” Zane's voice trailed off.
“Seriously, my wife can't take me anywhere. Aren't men supposed to mellow as they get older? I'm doin' the opposite.”
Zane and Sarah chuckled as Vicky poked her head into the garage. “Cake time!” she said. Jessica and the boys leaped to their feet and bolted from the garage. We followed. “That green house is yours?” I asked.
“That's us,” said Sarah.
“Craftsman Home?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Zane replied, “1908.”
“Oh yeah. Original woodwork throughout.”
“That's one of the advantages of living in a small town," I said. "Those original features are more likely to survive the passage of time. Coal chute?”
“Welded shut, but still there,” Zane said.
“Find any knob and tube wiring?”
His voice suddenly boomed. “Oh, hell yeah! It was still live!”
“Jane!” I called. “This is Sarah and Zane. They live in that green bungalow across the street...”
I spent a good deal of the afternoon chatting with Zane. He finished that beer and drank soda the rest of the time he was there. Other neighbors joined our conversation and soon a circle of people were talking and laughing. I learned Zane was an electrician, that he and his wife had grown up in Arkansas, had met at a technical college, and that he was about the age of my daughters.
I came to see how much he loved his boys, how proud he was of their mechanical aptitude. We talked about old houses a great deal, since I had bought and restored an old Greek-Revival style farmhouse, and as the party wound down he invited me across the street for a tour of his house.
Jane, Vicky and Todd knocked at the front door of his house a while later, and told us to come out front. Sarah was out in the street, stopping traffic so that Jessica and Aaron could push the nearly-finished pushcart across the street. Kevin was still sitting in it, helmet strapped in place, his small hands tugging at the rope like it were the reins on a bronco.
When we said our goodbyes at twilight, I got a surprise hug from Sarah. Jane and I helped Vicky and Todd straighten up their backyard a bit, then we hugged our friends and got in the car.
“Don't say a word,” I said, “I know I broke my promise.”
“You did,” Jane said, “But you made up for it.”
“Mostly,” she said, tapping her earlobe.
Todd called me a few months later to catch up on life in the “Big City”, our euphemism for Milwaukee. During our chat he dropped a bomb: Zane, Sarah and their boys had vanished.
Todd noticed the grass getting long and shaggy around the green bungalow across the street, had seen the mailbox get stuffed with mail until it overflowed, noticed there were no lights on at night, no sign of the family, no cars in the driveway. He asked his neighbors if they knew anything about Zane and Sarah. No one had heard anything. No talk of their taking an extended vacation, no requests from Zane or Sarah to collect their mail or keep an eye on the house. A few months after this phone call from Todd, a foreclosure notice appeared on the front door of the green bungalow.
Jane came into the room and stared at me after she heard the strange gasp that escaped my lungs. I had a baffling, involuntary reaction to Todd's news, told him I was feeling nauseous, and had to go. I burst into tears after I hung up, and Jane held me as I shuddered and tried to catch my breath.
When the mysterious spasms eased, I shared Todd's news. Jane's brow furrowed. “Vanished?” she asked. I nodded. Jane paused, thinking, and then assured me that there were plenty of sensible explanations for their disappearance, that the people we had met were capable of facing their problems and overcoming them. I nodded, wiping my face. “I don't know what this is, why this of all things should hit me this way.”
Jane looked down, lost in thought. “He was what, thirty?”
“I think so. About that.”
“About the age of our girls.”
“About the age of a man who could have been your son.”
I looked at Jane and a fresh wave of tears flowed. I began to gasp again, and held out my arms. Jane hugged me.
Strange it is, this life I live. My wife held me while I grieved over an old, old wound, over the absence of a son I had wished for, had wanted, a son I saw in the faces of strangers, strangers who could unearth that old wound from the place where I hide it, even a stranger I dislike, one I argue with, one who I take a chance to get to know, a man, like me, wounded.
A wise friend of mine, a psychologist, suggested it was our wounds that brought us into contact with each other, that Zane and I needed each other to heal, that I was grieving his loss, his absence.
I still feel sadness and pain when I think about Zane and his family. I don't know which wolf he decided to feed. I may never know what happened to him, whether anything I said or did made a difference. I can only hope he and his family found a supportive community and the help they needed...
I began this diary to list a few concise ways to halt an ideological pestilence. I end in a very different place. There is what I try to do, what I do, what I think I do, and what I need to do...
A life worth living, a deep life, a meaningful life...is a wrestling match between all of these.