Monday, April 19, 2004

The Only Absolute: No Absolutes
Mary and I went to a cocktail party the other night. We like to go once per decade or so, just to stay in shape. This party was in one of those gated communities named after the ecosystem it destroyed. The joint was lousy with Republicans. I mean, you could not club a baby seal to death without splattering some blood on an imperialist.

Now, I believe that if an average citizen from just about any other country came to America to observe us in our natural habitat, it would take years before he or she could distinguish a liberal from a conservative. We are all overfed, obnoxious, greedy, wasteful people with 3.4 TVs and 1.6 cars per person, better-than-average dental health, a keen aptitude for football statistics, and an inexplicable fondness for shooting each other. How on earth can you tell the Democrats from the Republicans? (Well, in my case, it might be easier if I happened to be wearing my "I ♥ Taxes" T-shirt that day.)

Or at least it used to be hard to tell, back before the current administration. This president has created an atmosphere more polarized than the time the fairgrounds scheduled a Chuck D concert on the same weekend as the Monster Truck Rally.

Personally, I believe it is not all Dumbya's fault. True, stealing the election right off the bat got him off to a bad start. And he did go to war for oil. And cripple the economy. And there were those tax cuts for the rich. And he wants to destroy the environment. And public education. And add a gay-bashing amendment to the constitution. Oh, yeah, and he made the entire world hate America's guts. And... OK, maybe it IS his fault.

But none of that is what makes it so easy to tell the liberals from the conservatives these days. What has changed is this: For the first time in my life, I am often afraid to express my opinions in mixed company. Things have gotten a little better in the past few months, especially now that Bush can't seem to finish off his bowl of Conquestios in the morning without making a major political mistake. But for a couple of years there, if you said anything even mildly critical of this administration, you were half afraid some nazi goon was going to come around a corner and take you away in handcuffs like you were some kind of Dixie Chick or something.

So we're at this party, right? And I had stowed all my lefty smartass remarks in the glove compartment for safe keeping before we came in, figuring I wouldn't be able to use them and I didn't want them confiscated. We made some small talk and chit chat and jibber jabber and whatnot and the host invited us out to the garage to see his new riding lawnmower, which he'd modified from a Hummer and so now he can mow the yard in 5.2 seconds, which is actually necessary because longer exposure to his lawn chemicals might cause cancer. After our pilgrimage to the garage, Mary made the fateful mistake of relenting to a tour of the rest of the McManse, so we all traipsed into the kitchen, which was roughly the size of Waddy plus half of Peytona. During a fascinating discussion of imported ceramic tile, I gnawed off my paw and snuck quietly away, thinking, "every man for himself," which could possibly have been the Republican rubbing off.

I rounded the corner and bumped into this guy I know -- a fellow soccer mom. We've shared more than a few bleachers and he and I are both Red Sox fans, so between us we have enough fatalistic optimism to make Eeyore want to go off his Zoloft. So we talked Sox for awhile (this is going to be the year, by the way), and suddenly, out of the blue, he brought up politics. (This is why you should NEVER serve cocktails at your cocktail parties.) Well, despite all the bleachers we'd smashed out butts on, we had never discussed politics before and I had no idea what his persuasion was. And his comment was non-committal: "What do you think about John Kerry?"

I panicked, wishing he'd given me a hint, such as, "What do you think of that goddam pinko Kerry?" or "He's no Kucinich, but I sure like that Kerry." I had nothing to go on. So I wussed out and lobbed a noncommittal reply: "I was surprised the primary contest was over so quickly."

We were like a couple of dogs with no sense of smell, sniffing each other's butts in hopeless frustration. Gingerly, ever so courageously, he lowered his voice and said, "Well, I just hope he can make a serious run in the general election. Bush has got to be stopped."

I said, "Oh, thank God! You're one of US!" Suddenly waves of dopamine rushed through our brains as we realized we were both liberals. We wanted to hug. Instead, we both dashed out to our cars and retrieved our lefty smartass remarks from our glove boxes and got to work ripping Republicans a new one. He took racists, sexists, homophobes, warmongers and polluters. I took tax cuts, corporate criminals, factory farms, Ashcroft and the No Child Loves Bush Act. We took turns on Iraq (too much material for one person anyway).

We were on a roll.

But then he said something that struck me. He said, "Basically, Republicans are selfish. When you vote Republican, you are saying, 'I want more of what's coming to me and to hell with everybody else.'"

Well, if there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's the absolute fact that absolute facts are always wrong. What he said didn't ring entirely true but I was having a hard time refuting it. For the record, I don't strongly identify with the Democratic Party. They're too conservative for me, especially in Kentucky where choosing between a Democrat and a Republican usually means choosing between a right-wing conservative and a really, really, really right-wing conservative. So I cannot imagine why anyone ever votes Republican. And this "selfish" thing is at the heart of it.

Among the staunch Republicans I know, there are basically two groups: fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. The fiscal conservatives (let's call them the Greedys) are basically selfish by definition: "Don't tax me. I got mine; let everybody else get theirs." They will come right out and tell you they hate taxes, they think government programs are wasteful, and they think poor people should pull themselves out of their own situation. And then there's that curious offshoot of have-not Republicans whose philosophy seems to be this: "Someday if I ever get rich, I won't want it taxed." Yeah, well, someday if I ever get muscular I won't want heroin chic to make a comeback but I'll worry about that when the time comes, OK, you Scrooge McDuck wannabes?

But the social conservatives (let's call them the Haters) seem to be the opposite of selfish. They are the most selfless lot in the world. They are willing to hand over their economic power and their hope for any kind of relief from government in exchange for the cynical promise of action on issues that have almost no effect on their lives: anti-gay measures, anti-minority measures, anti-women measures, school prayer, a prohibition on abortion, and the right to force children to say the "God" portion of "Oh, For God's Sake" during the Pledge of Allegiance. Meanwhile, they give no consideration to candidates who cynically promise to build better schools, roads, health care systems, and protect the environment -- all issues that effect them every single day. If that's not selfless, I don't know what is. (For an interesting story about this phenomenon, see Democrat Not Spoken Here by Kevin Griffis.)

Of course, I don't want to over-generalize. Some Republicans are Haters while also being Greedys.

So there you go: conclusive proof that all Republicans aren't selfish. Imagine Mary's glee when I explained this revelation on the drive home. And imagine how long it will be before we go to another cocktail party!