About halfway between our cities of residence, Houston and Austin respectively, my dad and I meet in a little restaurant named Schobels. They mostly serve chicken-fried items and other southern dishes. The waitresses, high school girls who wear too much makeup and never seem to remember the beer selection, call their fettuccine Alfredo “a little chunk of heaven.” This is the place we come every few months when phone calls only serve to remind us that we haven’t actually seen each other in too long. We hug multiple times in a row, lament the fact that we don’t meet more often, and invariably drive each other completely berserk with politics.
My dad and I represent some of those generational and cultural divides that were so widely discussed during the last presidential election. I’m a twenty-something, ex-skateboarder, agnostic, relativist, American-apologist Obama voter. He’s a fifty-something, ex-football captain, ex-WASP, absolutist, American-exceptionalist McCain voter. But even given our history of late night debates, which only serve to make us more aware of just how estranged we are from one another, I was still surprised when my dad bought a handgun just before Election Day and started attending Texas Tea Parties some months later.
“Tea Parties? Really, Dad? With all those people carrying misspelled, nonsensical signs?” I asked him one night. He’s crazy, I thought. He’s gone beyond some boundary where social clowns become political martyrs and tacky is a dress code. The feeling was mutual. We had a shared thought process template with the blanks appropriately filled: “It doesn’t make sense to me. My dad/son is a smart guy. He’s logical, thorough, and pretty well informed. He’s just conservative/liberal, not crazy.” But we weren’t sure. It was time for a Schobels conference. We needed to see each other face to face and say “I love you” and “I’ve missed you” and “How can you possibly think that way?”
This last question sparked a conversation between us, leading me to further examine the cloudy rhetoric and emotional ballasts of the political perspectives which have made people on both sides of the divide question the definition of sanity. Below are seven things I learned from a conversation with one man—my dad—a Texas Tea Party Patriot.
1) Something is wrong with the tea parties.
The word “obvious” rolled through my mind like information on a Stock Exchange marquee. My dad had just admitted that the tea parties needed some adjustments, but instead of making sarcastic remarks I asked him what those adjustments were.
Basically, there is no leadership. Territorial defensiveness, entrenched interests, lack of political experience, and infighting have disrupted any cohesive movement. Although the supposed pioneer of the Tea Parties was recruited by an arm of the Republican Party, my dad insists that “Tea Party Patriots are not Republicans…We are sick of the whole system. We are real.” What about accusations of faux-grassroots Astroturf, I asked him. These meetings are heavily promoted by FOX News and there is evidence that some of these organizations are funded by people like Dick Armey and David Koch. When my dad said, “these are normal people that are pissed off,” he had a point. The existence of opportunistic Glenn Becks, Republican Dicks, and Independent Kochs doesn’t explain away the true outrage and fear of so many ordinary Americans. So, yes, there is definitely something wrong with the Tea Parties, but there is also something undeniable that must be addressed.
What upsets you so much, Dad?
2) Universal health care infringes upon my right to have health care.
When I heard my dad say this my brain shut down and rebooted like a computer attempting to answer a Buddhist koan. I asked him what he meant, and he said our family chooses not to have health care and after Obama’s health care reform we will not have the right to choose.
True. We will either pay for health care or pay a 2.5% income tax. But it seemed like a moot point to me. I could fill an entire wikipage of responses to that statement. For instance, I don’t choose not to have health care; I just can’t afford it. But if health care is actually affordable, then paying for it won’t be a problem. And there are already similar laws involving compulsory purchase like the mandatory car insurance we have in Texas. And as far as choice, anyone can still choose his or her own private insurance through the health care exchange program. Most important in terms of rights, this reform is the first American system that actually treats health care as a right—not a commodity like private health insurance does. In fact, Obama’s health care plan does the opposite of my dad’s statement. It doesn’t infringe on his “right” to have health care; it infringes on his “right” to not have health care.
If I did write that wikipage, my dad would most certainly get an account and dispute everything on it. He’d question the legality of the 2.5% income tax, whether the new health care system will actually lower costs, the comparison between car insurance and health insurance, and whether or not there will be any private insurance companies left. He would also state that health care is not a right; it is a commodity.
While our rhetorical swordplay would be interesting, these parlays would not be made because of rights. For my dad it’s really about control. He believes his personal well-being will be micromanaged by a government that he can only describe with negatively connoted words. Words like sloppy, broken, or wasteful. The accuracy of my dad’s depiction of our government is debatable. I’d say he’s off, but not way far off. The funny thing is I describe the government with a different set of negatively connoted words. Words like arrogant, ignorant, and pretentious. I guess that’s the liberal set. Any of these might be valid descriptions, but the idea that government bureaucrats will chaperone your doctor throughout your medical visits seems a little conspiratorial to me. And when your fear of Government M.D. inflates itself into claims of tyranny, that’s when you’ve bought a ticket for the Tea Party carnival.
3) America will collapse.
“They don’t know how they’re going to do it. There’s no plan; nothing is paid for—nothing is paid for,” he said. Also true. We are going to be put into more debt. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the health care plan will cost in the trillions over the course of 10 years. But no plan? How could the CBO estimate the cost? “[The bill] is a checklist—a to-do list. It’s not a plan”, he said. Isn’t that what a plan is—a to-do list, I asked.
My dad explained that a plan tells you how things are going to work and the bill doesn’t do that. He then proceeded to tell me how it would work: The government will ruin everything. Seniors will receive less Medicare, the rest will get crappy care, private businesses will go under, doctors won’t be able to continue working under restrictions, foreign doctors with who knows what kind of qualifications will replace American doctors, our already-in-the-red federal budget will start bleeding, and the government becomes more powerful. Also, when you realize that this is the way socialized health care will play out, it seems like an intentional plot designed by the Obama administration to make America slowly collapse.
“Why would anyone be for this? Why are you for this,” he asked. Hmm. I didn’t know where to start, so I didn’t right away. Well, I began, we can agree that everything you just said is speculation, right? We couldn’t agree. “No. That’s how it’s going to work.” Oh, I said. I have a much better sense of where he’s coming from now.
4) What I mistake for great oration is in fact the smooth artifice of a criminal.
This is one of my favorite schisms: my dad and I almost literally hear two different people talking when Obama speaks. According to my dad, “It’s all ‘Oooo, look at this’ and ‘Oooo, let’s feel good about ourselves’ and smoke and mirrors and pooh-pooh.” C’mon, I said. It is generally agreed Obama is a great speaker. He speaks with authority, hits the point, communicates articulately, and is pleasant to the ear. My dad had never heard such naiveté. “He’s condescending. He’s vague. He sounds so high and mighty. And it’s nothing but a sack of lies.”
But lies have nothing to do with his ability to speak. He’s a great speaker. It’s undeniable. And that’s what upsets my dad. He knows that Obama is a great speaker. He freely admits that. But Obama states positions contrary to my dad’s, and according to my dad it’s Obama’s eloquence that rouses people to those positions. “You know, they take all these trips to foreign countries and they don’t do anything there. They have dinner and pat each other on the back for the camera…It’s an issue of trust. I don’t trust Obama any further than I can throw the UN building, and I don’t trust his words. And it’s not a race thing.”
5) It’s not a race thing.
The fact that this is often stated by conservatives without the explicit accusation of racism is alarming to liberals. We pounce on it like a Freudian slip that reveals vulnerability. “Gotcha! We never said anything about race! So why’d you bring it up unless you’re a racist, racist?!” The problem with this logic is we don’t need to bring up racism for it to be there. Issues of race have unrelentingly haunted conservatives for decades. That is, until Reagan inspired them to rebut accusations of racism with accusations of personal responsibility.
My dad is a racist in the same way that Bill Cosby is a racist, which is to say, he’s not. My dad’s had black co-workers and black friends. James Brown is his favorite musician. But, like Bill Cosby asserts in his book, Come on People, my dad sees the problems facing the black community like drug addiction, crime, teen pregnancy, and poverty, as stemming from a culture that lacks personal responsibility. The burden is placed on individuals. This is a classic conservative viewpoint. I believe liberals see these issues as a more systemic problem.
Regardless of who is correct in this matter, Obama does not signify black culture. I don’t believe my dad sees him in the same light that he sees Lil’ Wayne. Instead he sees him as the penultimate liberal. And my dad doesn’t trust Obama, not because of race, but because liberals hate America.
6) Liberals hate America.
Now this one I understood. I knew what he was talking about when he said this. He was referring to all those times that I brought up advertising when he brought up capitalism. He would say democracy. I would say Electoral College. He would say Affirmative Action. I would say White Privilege. He would say World War II. I would say internment camp, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Manifest Destiny, Vietnam, Iraq.
My dad and I often end our conversations at these battlegrounds. Places like Vietnam, Iraq and Europe are not only theaters for major wars; they are also arenas for contentious political argument. I think it’s because American wars prismatically illuminate both the good and bad of the American legacy. When my dad and I talk about these models of American society he makes sure I appreciate the beauty while I remind him of the blemishes. He might say that the military enables us to protect ourselves and help others—basically defeat evil and restore goodness. I might say that war nauseates me with the feeling that there is not good nor evil—just stupid men with varied intentions and big guns.
The point is that most liberals do not hate America. However, we do hate that many Americans are very, very stupid. My dad and I even agree on this issue. He thinks it’s stupid to believe socialized health care can work. I think it’s stupid to presume it can’t. He thinks it’s stupid to give national sovereignty to international organizations. I think it’s stupid to undermine a united world. He thinks I’m naive. I think he’s scared. We’re both right. We’re both wrong.
7) Nothing is accomplished in these conversations. Well, maybe not nothing.
By the time my dad asked “What is a liberal? What do you actually believe?” we had been talking for nearly four hours and I had only smoked two cigarettes—not enough to fend off irritability. I responded with I don’t know—conservative versus liberal is kind of like modernism versus post-modernism. “What’s that mean?” Never mind. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation.
“It means we are next” is what I wanted to say. “It means you believe in an ideal that I think the world proved wrong. Now we’re trying to figure out a new way and you can’t understand why. You still think you got it right. And maybe you did. I mean, we haven’t gotten it yet. But it’s our turn. So, please, calm the hell down.”
But that wouldn’t have answered his question. That wouldn’t have told him what I believe in. It wouldn’t have explained anything about existential morality, the construction of reality, or institutionalism. And are those liberal themes or just mine? So, instead of saying any of that I said that I wasn’t sure if we’d accomplished anything that night.
“Oh, sure we have,” he said. “I got to see my son, whom I love, and I heard how smart and well-spoken he is. And he paid for dinner, which I appreciate and respect. What did you expect? You’d figure out the conservative/liberal crisis over dinner?”
He was right.