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.

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.


Hillary Clinton and the advent of email

With Hillary Clinton being criticized over inaccessibility to her email, I’m left wondering if, under similar circumstances, my reputation would be in jeopardy. I depend on email for nearly all personal and professional communications.

The National Archives and presidential libraries contain hand-written letters of former government officials. The British Museum has hand-written manuscripts by famous authors who wrote a draft, then scratched out and added words to produce a masterpiece. Letters and manuscripts were painstakingly written in the cursive style formerly taught and admired, in many cases so pretty that it’s illegible today. With no access to whiteout or ink erasures, people gave thought to most every word they wrote.

The advent of email brought with it a carelessness. At first we were told it wasn’t necessary to worry about capitalization or grammar; just get that message out there. Email invites hurried responses, spur-of-the moment thoughts. Not infrequently do we post curt messages with the potential of hurting someone’s feelings; spout off words we’d never say face to face; write something mean-spirited, because that’s the way we feel at the moment. Sarcasm and irony don’t necessarily come through.

I’d be humiliated were all my emails scrutinized and exposed: a jealous comment to a friend about M’s appearance; a complaint that all R can do is brag about himself. A grammatical mistake here, a word of profanity there. I probably write more messages/letters in a week than my literary forebears wrote in a lifetime.

So I take issue with the assumption that all email messages sent by public officials are the property of the people. Though I disagree with John Boehner on most issues, I want to allow him some privacy when it comes to his email. Surely he has expressed frustration, anger, snide observations, private, spur-of-the-minute thoughts he doesn’t want on the public record. A word of affection to his wife back in Ohio is none of my business.

The Clinton’s no less than Obama have been targets of the opposition’s scrutiny ever since they appeared on the national scene. Surely Hillary was aware early on that she needed to keep tight control over what Republicans were certain to expose. This is not secretive; it’s savvy.

Sure, many of us older citizens wish for a return to civility and care in communications. It’s time we accept that it’s not going to happen.

If you don’t have time to…

I remember what it was like to have a full-time job and two kids, with no extra time to keep up with the news. I was then and continue to be cynical about government and the integrity of politicians. Yet over the years I’ve discovered that nearly every aspect of my life is decided by elected officials besides the President.

That’s why, even though this coming election doesn’t have the excitement of a presidential year, it’s as important. Here are issues I consider most important as we approach the 2014 election:

1) Clean air to breath and clear water to drink. Yet many legislators oppose efforts to prevent oil-fired power plants from emitting dangerous toxins into the air. Regulations, they say, cost jobs.

2) A safe food supply and access to basic medical care. Yet many legislators keep calling for the repeal of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and try to weaken the power of the FDA and the Department of Agriculture.

3) A fair wage for the work people do, including equal pay for women. Many people work two or three jobs to provide their family with basics. Yet some candidates continue to oppose a higher minimum wage. (Beware of those who in the past week announced they are for a minimum wage increase—after learning much of the public favors it.)

4) A solid education that will allow children to become leaders in ingenuity and production. Yet pledges not to increase taxes are forcing teacher layoffs, denying schools the resources they need for effective teaching, and increasing class size.

I urge you to vote. If you haven’t had time to keep up, google to learn the endorsements of organizations who share your values. Examples include Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, local chapters of the American Bar Association

If political advertising can’t be trusted—what to do

You studied them in middle school. Probably took a multiple-choice test on which is which. I’m talking about propaganda, that is persuasion techniques that rely on manipulating information to suit the purposes of advertisers, politicians, etc.

While I advise voters not to listen to political advertising this time of year, we’re surrounded by it. So it’s especially important that we recognize techniques candidates are using.

Namecalling or demonizing the enemy: “Ultra-liberal,” “ socialist,” “friend of the rich.”

Repetition: “Obama’s approval rating, Obama’s approval rating, Obama’s approval rating.” “Helps big corporations, helps big corporations, helps big corporations.” The idea is to repeat a message so often that uninformed citizens will accept it as truth.

Showing part of the picture: Often pieces of legislation are bundled together. A senator or representative opposed to one part may have to vote against the whole thing. A vote against a transportation bill doesn’t mean a representative is opposed to filling potholes.

Testimonials: A celebrity endorses a candidate.

Plain folks: An ordinary person who has encountered an extraordinary situation tells what the candidate did or how the candidate’s position would benefit common people in similar situations.

There are too many kinds of techniques to mention them all. You get the idea.

So what do we do instead of paying attention to advertising? Most of us don’t have time to research each candidate’s positions. I can think of two alternatives: 1) Ask someone whose opinions on issues match your own. 2) Search the internet for endorsements by organizations you trust.

Since my politics are progressive, and I live in North Carolina, I google my county and “Democratic Party.” The site tells me what representatives and judges are likely to be progressive. (Don’t ignore the important role judges play.) Women’s organizations, police, educators, lawyers, environmental groups, unions—many have posted candidates they endorse. Most are state or county specific.

In most states early voting starts soon, which makes it easier for you to go at a convenient time. The environment, a woman’s right to make her own health decisions, rights for African-Americans and the LGBTQ community—these are all at risk.
This is one midterm election we dare not miss.