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A Facebook friend just posted the following very interesting and courageous speech by Maureen Walsh, a Republican legislator who voted in favor of Washington’s new law allowing gay marriages. Her speech is eloquent, heart felt, wise, and courageous. Everything that we would hope to find in the politicians we vote for, and so rarely see. Especially Republicans. It also sheds light on an important issue in our contemporary national crisis and helps me make an important spiritual point. Please see it before considering my argument if you have the time.
First a bit of personal history. I grew up in an ultra conservative family, and when I became politically aware as a teenager, I was invited to and regularly attended John Birch Society meetings, started a high school Young Americans for Freedom chapter, and read a wide variety of ultra conservative right wing literature, as well as more decent stuff by classical liberals and libertarians. From my present perspective, I was headed in a really bad direction.
Yet here I am today, calling myself progressive. What happened. Something very much like what Rep. Walsh demonstrated. My heart was touched, not my brain. Here is how.
It started with a television interview of a Black woman active in the civil rights demonstrations of the time. When I began listening to her I believed segregation was wrong but property rights were property rights. Just because I disagreed with someone’s use of their property did not mean I had the right to tell them what to do with it. This is still standard conservative and libertarian boilerplate. That this position has some truth in it masks the fact that it is also not entirely true. But I was not then subtle enough to have that theoretical understanding. What sent an under the water torpedo into my self described ethical opposition to the civil rights movement was something quite different.
In the interview she said she did not want her daughter to grow up in the same environment that she had. That struck home, decisively.
I could relate to that at the heart level and I never again stood against the civil rights movement’s campaign to make racial discrimination in public accommodations and the like illegal. This event scarcely turned me into a liberal. It took two more similar events, plus Vietnam. But they built on this first one, and the same principle applied in them all.
Aristocracy vs. democracy
The second transformation happened a few years later while I was active in Kansas’ Teen Age Republicans. I almost made it to being elected as its state chairman. Randy Mallonee, the young man who beat me, and I became friends. We were both conservatives of course, but he was a wiser one.
I had been reading a lot of European conservatives who rejected the entire secular Enlightenment tradition in favor of older aristocratic times. They made these times sound better than modernity’s sordid realities. I fantasized that it would have been better to have been born back then.
Randy brought me up short when he said in his view the best society was one where you could live a good life while at its bottom. I was not so blind as to think peasants had it good back then. I was struck with how true his words were and how heartless I had become towards others. The connection with my Civil Rights experience is clear, now that I describe it. I could relate at the caring level with the poor and the weak.
At that moment I became a convinced “small d” democrat of some sort, and never looked back. As with my Civil Rights experience, the change did not come from an intellectual argument but from touching my heart. I will owe Randy Mallonee a moral and intellectual debt I can never repay, for when the life-changing significance of this conversation finally became really clear to me we had long since lost touch. Later, I Googled to try and find him, and found his obituary.
Randy, thank you.
Vietnam and supporting our troops
The Vietnam War was just ramping up, a story that is reasonably well known. Initially I accepted the conservative support for the war even while being bothered by the simultaneous criticism of it as a Communist inspired effort to weaken us with too much spending. When one is caught up in the right wing world view, stepping back and making a rational assessment is difficult. The level of emotional involvement is too high.
But even here there was a moment that was transformative. I had started a YAF chapter upon entering college at the University of Kansas. The first semester I set up a table to encourage students to sign an “I support our troops” petition. A woman, Kay, signed it and then told me she was the wife of the campus Students for a Democratic Society Chairman and a major anti-war activist. She explained that most of her friends supported the troops, just not what they were used to do. This put a human face on “the opposition,” building a a bridge, and wiping out the simplistic right wing dichotomy that if you did not support our military abroad you did not support our troops.
My openness to the campus left and my future antiwar activities were made far more possible by that conversation, and it had nothing at all to do with any intellectual argument.
The coup-de-grace to any remaining identification on my part with the right wing occurred a few years later. Again, no intellectual arguments were involved. Martin was a gay student who hung around the periphery of my crowd. I was “tolerant” in a good libertarian way, for I had progressed quite a bit from my more conservative with right wing sympathies days. I thought being gay was icky, but that did not give me the right to think he should be punished for it. But deep down I found it repulsive.
One night I walked into the Rock Chalk, my favorite campus beer bar, and all the seats at the counter and booths were taken save one. Martin sat alone in one booth. Needing a place to sit, I asked whether I could join him. He said yes. Almost immediately it was clear he was very unhappy. I asked him what was wrong. He described the ending of a relationship and as he went on I realized that save for gender of the loved one, it sounded just like me talking about my own unsuccessful love life.
That night changed my view of gays forever. Our commonalities were far more basic than our differences. Again, my heart was responsible for the change.
I am not saying ideas and reason do not matter. They do. But for me to have been open to seriously considering those ideas as anything but a serious threat to my world, a threat best addressed aggressively, I needed to connect with the person making the argument. And that connection involved the heart.
The big picture
In A Sand County Almanac http://www.amazon.com/County-Almanac-Outdoor-Essays-Reflections/dp/0345345053 Aldo Leopold wrote that what made human beings most unique within the world was our open-ended ability to care. In a memorable passage he pointed out that if the last person had died and passenger pigeons had still been around, no pigeon would have cared. When the last passenger pigeon died (they were exterminated by people, of course) many people cared, and mourned its passing. Here. Leopold wrote, was “something new under the sun” http://gargravarr.cc.utexas.edu/chrisj/leopold-quotes.html#extinction a form of life that could care about beings of no utility to it.
I think what makes us most uniquely human is that our capacity for care and empathy can expand indefinitely outwards ultimately to embrace everything. In more traditional religious terms, we have a capacity to expand love outwards to include ever more of life, for to love is to care for and take delight in something regardless of its utility for us. The more utility enters in, the more calculation weighs advantages and disadvantages, the less room there is for love.
When I love those like myself, and have a very concrete sense of what my self is, my love is genuine, but sharply bounded. Most people are outside my circle of care because they are too different. Their differences outweigh their commonalities. They are strange, exotic, or often threatening. We see what is different as more significant than what we share.
The core issue is how far can we extend our circle of identification? Significantly, certainly for me and I think for Rep. Walsh, an intellectual argument does not do the job. Identification does. Expanding our sense of self expands the circle of those who can be genuinely cared for and loved. (I am not saying that love should not have favorites because the term encompasses too many types of relationships, some requiring an intimacy we simply cannot offer to all even if we were willing.) Once we have done so we will be able to learn from them. Reason and facts will have a far richer and more fertile field within which to be planted and fertilize and deepen our understanding.
Now here is a point I think is very important. We cannot expand our hearts until we first encounter that which in some significant way is different from us. Differences must exist and they must matter to us. Our intellect is very good at noticing differences, that is one of its jobs. But the intellect alone seems to be incapable of then integrating knowledge of those differences into a larger more inclusive circle of care. That is the job of the heart, a job it does well when it is allowed it to be open.
But beliefs combined with fears close us off, and our fears both color and reinforce the solidity of our view of our world. They did mine, I suspect they do Rep. Walsh’s, and probably all of us to some degree. What breaks through the fear is when we can see a similarity we care about amid the differences.
Perhaps that is why for so many people crucial expansions of the heart occur first within families. Walsh already loved her daughter when she learned she was gay. Being gay was subordinated to being her daughter. Her heart had a chance to grow, and it did. (I am assuming Walsh’s views on gays were once more critical, and I could be wrong of course.) In my case I had to find a point of empathy with my own experience to make the initial caring identification that crossed a boundary I had hitherto regarded as more important than it later became.
But it may be that genuine love requires this or a version of it to happen. To love someone or something we have to love it in its individuality, in its differences from us.
Heart and mind have to be in harmony. Fear keeps harmony from arising and perpetuates putting perceived differences ahead of seemingly less important commonalities. If I am on target here the virtually universal Pagan value of harmony being more central than salvation or enlightenment comes to the center. Of course we have no monopoly on the importance of the heart, but our emphasis on sacredness being a part of the world makes appreciating this important dimension of it easier without any reference to rules or commandments.