Republican debates: for love of a good fight

My daughter’s adolescence gave me two insights into human behavior: we love a good fight, and in our weakest moments we go on the offensive. Both truths were clearly demonstrated in Wednesday evening’s Republican debate.

During our daughter’s middle school years the family lived in Southern California. Over her lunch hour, when gangs were sure to get into fights, she’d follow them around. She didn’t want to miss the excitement.

Americans like the drama of a good fight. From John Wayne westerns and Audie Murphy war stories to today’s crime shows and intergalactic battles, we find pleasure in watching the survival of the fittest. We bet on cock fights, boxing matches, football games.

Donald Trump’s no fool. Right away he set the campaign tone. Like the school yard bully he strutted around, tossing out insults. We’ve followed him, itching to see who’ll take him on. Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina seem up to the challenge. Interestingly, Ben Carson’s contrasting calm demeanor seems to be serving him well. Jeb Bush’s isn’t.

Sadly the media have been lured into the love of fight. Wednesday night Cruz rightly criticized the inane nature of the questions. He pointed out that the Democratic debate was different, attributing differences to the media giving the Democrats an easy ride. No, the CNN moderators were professionals. Rather than encourage a fight, they asked policy questions allowing candidates to show their differences. It was a debate for grown-ups. Republicans deserve the same kind of forum.

This brings me to my second observation about human behavior: in our weakest moments we go on the offensive. When our daughter knew she was in trouble, she’d attack us first: “How dare you wake up my friends’ parents in the middle of the night to ask if I was there.” “You are the worst parents…”

Wednesday, as soon as Cruz blamed “the mainstream media,” other candidates joined in, referring to “the liberal media.” This worked for Republicans in George W. Bush’s campaign. Cowed by accusations, journalists quit asking the difficult questions. This, in turn, has led many liberals to conclude that the press is conservative.

I’m not suggesting that Republicans bear sole responsibility for the direction their debates have taken. Rather that the public’s lust for blood and our tendency toward offensive posturing have brought us to this point. As far as the media is concerned, we’re getting what we want.


Nancy Werking Poling is author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman and Out of the Pumpkin Shell.

Pope Francis and the world beyond our experiences

Every Friday my high school English teacher tested the class on a list of vocabulary words. Lately one of those words has been swirling around in my mind. Solipsistic: being self-centered; thinking our own experience is the only reality.

Until this past week the 2016 campaign—who’s ahead, who’s lagging, who made some ridiculous statement—had lured many of us into thinking American politics, “our own experiences,” defined reality. This belief both entertained us and fueled our animosities. It led us to ignore the rest of the world—except those we fear.

Then Pope Francis arrived and called us out of our solipsistic thinking.

Not by scolding us or denouncing our sinfulness. He did not preach against a self-centeredness that builds a wall along our southern border, or cuts funds to our children’s education. He did not chastise us for denying dignity to those imprisoned or the homeless. Instead he reminded us of our heritage. Before Congress he cited four individuals who exemplify the best in our character: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Many of us listened and said, “Ah, yes, we ARE people of compassion, courage, hope, and spirituality. People who value all human life and work on behalf of others.”

During the interfaith prayer service at Ground Zero, Muslim and Jew recited a litany of peace. A stage full of women and men whose lives are grounded in different religions prayed to the One who guides them. Francis, by his presence, called us all to open our minds to others’ faith traditions.

Throughout his homilies the Pope reminded us that every refugee has a human face, a personal story. Every individual who lost his or her life because of the attack on 9/11 had a human face, a personal story. Every person trying to survive homelessness has a human face, a personal story. Every woman and man in prison has a human face, a personal story.

Solipsistic: being self-centered; thinking our own experience is the only reality.

Francis came to us not as a man of power wanting to convince us that his reality is the correct one. He came not as a saint, but as a servant. Not as a solipsist, but as one who lives for the world. He reminds us of compassion and generosity, virtues that are part of every culture and religion when practiced with humility.



When religious belief conflicts with the law

In the 1960s and 70s my husband and I considered the war in Vietnam an especially egregious action. Out of a religious conviction that all war is sin we came close to refusing to pay taxes. Our taxes helped finance the war, we reasoned, making us complicit in the sins of our nation. But when, as parents of two young children, we measured the consequences of time in jail, we backed down.

The Quakers and other Peace Churches have a long history of resistance to military service. During the Civil War, Union men could pay commutation money to avoid fighting. Some, however, refused to pay the fees out of principle. They were often sent to prison where they suffered harsh treatment and were accused of being traitors.

Snake handling has been a religious ritual in parts of Appalachia. Appeals that it be protected by the Constitution have failed. Christian Scientists, who out of religious conviction choose not to seek medical care for their children, have been prosecuted.

Well known individuals have faced imprisonment for their unwillingness to give in to the law. When Mohammed Ali claimed his Muslim faith prohibited him from fighting in the Vietnam War, he was convicted of draft evasion. Martin Luther King’s struggle for racial justice, buttressed by his Christian faith, landed him in prison.

Now we have Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. Her decision is based on religious conviction. Judge David L. Bunning has ordered her to be jailed. Many of her supporters claim our freedom of religion is under attack, that liberal America is out to destroy Christianity.

While I don’t agree with Kim Davis’ decision, I don’t condemn her for obeying God’s law as she understands it. I am more disturbed by those who cry out that our freedom of religion is under threat. There have always been conflicts between religious values and what the government expects of its citizens. Many who find laws in conflict with their conscience have gone to prison rather than comply. Some like my husband and I have faltered in our convictions.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but our government will enforce its laws. Central to resistance, to standing up for what we believe, is a willingness to accept the consequences.


Donald Trump, Archie Bunker in a suit

Until Archie Bunker came along we Americans pretty much kept dumb thoughts to ourselves. In 1971 he entered our living rooms, and for twelve years we laughed at his diatribes against blacks, women, and foreigners. He had an opinion about everything, with little regard for the facts or for other people’s feelings.

Archie wanted the world to be as it used to be: a time when a white man, no matter how low his status, knew that at least he was better than a woman, an African American, or an immigrant. But his white male privilege was being challenged. African Americans were moving into his neighborhood, taking jobs previously held by white men. Women were moving out of the invisibility of home and hearth, also taking jobs previously held by white men. For all his bluster, Archie was a frightened man, scared of a changing world, one in which his privilege as a white man wasn’t going to hack it anymore.

Now Donald Trump is admired because he “tells it like it is,” “says what needs to be said.” Like Archie he’s striking a chord that gets to the heart of many Americans’ fears, especially those of us who are white and older. For the world in which we came of age no longer exists. We might be called the Left Behind Generation, left behind by a changing social ethos and technology. We’re surrounded by images of sex and violence. Gays have refused to stay in the closet. African Americans in government are deciding the country’s future. We’ve barely caught on to email, Facebook, and Twitter before our grandchildren have moved on to new technologies. Celebrities featured in the news are people we’ve never heard of. And there are all the international threats, ISIS and terrorists.

It’s easy for Trump and other politicians to play into our fears, to resurrect a demagoguery that blames immigrants, the other party, homosexuals, atheists. They would have us believe that their toughness can turn back the calendar, rid the country of threats to our sense of well being. Instead of those who appeal to the Archie Bunker in us, we need leaders who nurture our noblest qualities: compassion, generosity, an openness to new ideas. Leaders who can unite young and old, black and white, foreign born and native born.

Archie entertained us, but few of us would want him for President.


Voting laws and racism, or what you can learn doing genealogical research

My husband and I were combing the Morganton Herald (NC), searching for the whereabouts of his grandfather in 1900, when I did a double-take. I grew up with segregated schools and facilities, and knew that many southerners fought the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But I was unprepared to see explicit racism in print.

During April, 1900–when my husband’s grandfather would have been of voting age–the front page of every issue contained commentary in support of North Carolina’s suffrage amendment, soon to be voted on. According to the amendment, “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language,” and pay a poll tax.

The amendment made no mention of race, but its purpose was clearly stated by the newspaper: “The white man has assisted and encouraged [the negro] to get out of his place by conferring upon him the right of suffrage, and now it is our duty to show him his proper place by disfranchising him.” “We inscribe thereon white supremacy and its perpetuation.” “[The] rights of every Anglo-Saxon is safely guarded in the amendment.”

Of course many white people couldn’t read or write. No worry. The amendment stipulated that anyone entitled to vote on or before January 1, 1867, could still vote. They and their descendants. (The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting black men the right to vote had been passed in 1868.)

Proponents incited fear among whites. The power granted by the vote had emboldened black men, putting white women in danger, threatening white rights. Pass the amendment, and the negro would know his place. Reason and peace would prevail. The amendment passed and stayed in effect until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It’s not surprising that today white men and women waving Confederate flags speak of protecting “white civil rights.” Given our history we can also understand southern legislators’ motivation for passing voting laws that require specific forms of ID and limit opportunities to cast a ballot. Today our law makers mask their purpose, claiming cost efficiency and protection from voter fraud, when in fact the intent is to disenfranchise African Americans. Many white voters are manipulated into believing these changes will restore America’s integrity.

History is indeed repeating itself.

African migrants in Spain

Like other tourists searching for a place to eat across the street from Seville’s university. we were—not accosted, let’s say our patronage was aggressively sought. A tug on a sleeve, the magic word paella shouted. Finally unable to say no, we chose a table on the wide sidewalk. Spanish dictionaries in hand, we ordered tapas: salmon on a bed of lettuce, a surtido. I repositioned my chair to better fit under the shadow of the slanted umbrella and protect my fair skin.

Around us waiters rushed like a weaver’s shuttle among the tables. There were brief periods when they all went inside to the kitchen. Seemingly from nowhere  African migrants appeared. Their ebony skin contrasting with the complexions of tourists, they pushed trays of sunglasses, leather purses, and pirated CDs in customers’ faces. Yet it was as if they were invisible. With the back of our hands we all brushed them away and continued to eat.

As a writer who’s experienced plenty of rejection, I couldn’t help but consider the persistence of these men. And they were all men. Which also led me to wonder where their families were. Back in Africa, waiting for their husbands/sons/brothers to make enough money to send for them? Trapped in refugee camps?

Seville wasn’t the only place we encountered African migrants. They were selling their wares in Madrid too. In the Puerta del Sol—the center of Spain it’s said to be—they had spread their wares on white sheets. Metal rods for taking selfies were quite the rage, and judging from all the tourists snapping their pictures in front of the bronze bear and madrona tree, vendors selling the rods were experiencing some success.

My husband noticed before I did, the way the African migrants had nylon cords wrapped around their wrists. We quickly witnessed the purpose.

A whistle, a shout? An offstage cue? Before our eyes, the vendors jerked on the nylon cords. Instantly the corners of the sheets came together. Like Santa tossing his pack over his shoulders, the African migrants threw their wares over their shoulders. In haste they scattered, each going a different direction. Seconds later two Policia Local, in friendly conversation, strolled by what a moment earlier had been a stage of commerce.

How do they hide among white throngs, these men whose skin color reveals origins across the Strait?

Last year 12,549 African migrants were caught trying to enter Spain illegally. Are the vendors in Spain’s cities ones who were not caught? Most come from sub-Saharan Africa, but also from the war-torn countries of Syria and Somalia. They are desperate to leave lands where Christians kill Muslims and Muslims kill Christians. Where boys are conscripted into military service. Where families go hungry and lack basic necessities.

Back in our apartment we read the news on our iPhones: In Mediterranean waters 700 illegal African migrants had drowned. I reminded myself that the bodies were not debris like plastic bottles and styrofoam cups floating on the water’s surface but human beings who had been doing all they could to survive. As were the vendors at the sidewalk cafe and in the Puerta del Sol.

While I vacationed.

Madrid African vendors 1-7

African migrants in Madrid