Once upon a time there were two hunters that went out to hunt birds. One was a Southerner and the other a Cherokee, and together the two killed a buzzard and a turkey. The Southerner turned to the Cherokee and said, “You can take the buzzard and I will take the turkey, or I will take the turkey and you can take the buzzard.” At this the Cherokee was upset, and when the Southerner asked him why, the Cherokee replied, “You never once talked turkey to me.” This is, of course, a fictional story, but the reality of Indian givers who do not talk turkey with others is alive and well, as I found to my chagrin last night when I sat and drank iced tea and read at a tavern on the way home. Often, this marked lack of generosity of spirit is something that is not recognized by the people who are ungenerous themselves, but it is painfully evident to those who are eyewitnesses of it.
Let us paint the scene. Behind the bar is a bartender who is in her forties and blond, friendly and sociable but certainly fierce enough to express her opinion, albeit in a usually understated way. Besides the observant teetotaler, there are two gentlemen who are drinking and pontificating on various political matters. One of the men, who is particularly strident, orders the Taj Mahal, a turkey Rueben sandwich with curry kraut and mango chutney. The two gentlemen pay lip service to the idea that a fetus belongs to a woman, as if it was a part of her body itself rather than another life, or her property, rather than a human being merely taking up a nine-month lease in the womb before beginning life. So far, they appear to be generous souls in the way that someone who sought to defend the property rights of Southern slaveowners would have seemed more generous than a strident Yankee abolitionist would be, but it is easy to be generous with what belongs to others, or to God. Here the bartender was in agreement with them, as a woman who disliked it when people like myself called a spade a spade, by calling abortion murder, or infanticide, which it is, or calling “dying with dignity” assisted suicide or euthanasia, which it is. People use euphemisms to discuss such matters because they do not like the reality of what their choices signify about their own character, their own black hearts, their own lack of compassion for the fruits of their body which belong to our Creator, or their lack of respect for elders.
Very soon, though, it became evident that this apparent generosity of spirit was a cloak for less generous feelings. One of the gentlemen in particular struck a highly ironic picture. Having worked for many years as a nurse in a local hospital system, he had gotten a vasectomy at the age of 28 to make sure that he had no children of his own because of his neo-Malthusian desire for zero population growth and a mistaken idea that the earth was too full of people already. One of his earlier lovers before this had killed their own child in the womb rather than deal with the trouble of custody arrangements where no marriage was planned. Yet although this person had worked as a nurse, a profession whose job is to help save life and treat illness and the like, this person was wholeheartedly committed to the contemporary culture of death, with a belief that meth addicts and unwanted children in the womb were both worthy of death for the convenience of the state. He believed, for reasons that I cannot fathom, that as a taxpayer he had the right to seek the death of any who hurt his pocketbook, whether fecund people on Welfare or prisoners or those who were elderly and infirm. Rather than being, as he thought himself, the sort of person who was of elegant sensibilities, he sought despotic power for a state that supposedly knew better than people on how life should be lived, and thought that as a taxpayer he had authority over anyone who received money through taxation, which is among the most powerful arguments for making sure generosity springs from generous spirits, and does not involve government if at all possible, so as to prevent the malignant hearts of taxpayers from seeking to curtail the unalienable and God-given rights of life and liberty.
What made the conversation more interesting, and also more troubling, was when the man sought to claim that Andrew Jackson was the worst president ever because of his inveterate hostility towards the native population of the South. It was at this point that the conversation took on surreal importance, as all three of the people talking were convinced that Ronald Reagan was a terrible president, presumably because of his role in encouraging conservatism in some fashion, as if that was a bad thing. The gentleman, of course, who was doing most of the bloviating, was unaware that he was of the same sort of man as Andrew Jackson, even if his hostility was directed at drug addicts, the elderly, and the unborn instead of against peaceful Cherokee and the other civilized tribes. It was at this point that the bartender sought to argue from emotional grounds, namely her story of her own Cherokee roots and the damages that had resulted to her mother’s family, including a history of alcoholism and drug abuse and other clear examples of dysfunction. She talked of how her maternal grandfather seemed so taken with having blond grandchildren, and that her mother refused to let her daughters alone with him, likely out of concerns of abuse of some kind. My horror at hearing this story was the horror of recognition, of knowing such damages from my own history, for my father’s family as well included Cherokee who faced exile and dispossession of their lands in the Trail of Tears, who managed to escape, and my own family background is not so unlike that of the bartender lamenting her deceased meth addict cousin who was unable to escape her family’s cycle of dysfunction, and who had half a dozen children taken away from her because she was an unfit mother, and likely a deeply tormented soul. And yet for all of her lack of wisdom, the bartender was superior to the unmerciful nurse because she had compassion, and he did not.
It is said that in polite company one does not talk politics, and it is easy to see why this is the case, as we are often far harsher when it comes to political matters than we ought to be. On the one hand, politics encourages us to draw harsh lines and adopt rigid ideologies, but all too often we forget that political ideology has stark personal consequences, often of an unpleasant nature, no matter what our political beliefs happen to be. So long as our ideas are our own, and we are living our own lives, our ideas are of comparatively little mischief, mostly of harm to those who are in personal contact with us or who have to suffer from our actions. Politics, though, offers the opportunity of far greater suffering to others as a result of our political worldview because it involves power and authority, namely the power of institutions and governments, which have a far greater opportunity for mischief than is possessed by ourselves alone. When we are clothed by the robes of office, our worldviews and positions, which may be quirky and eccentric but easy to accept when we are talking about opinions, are far more threatening when we seek to enforce them, even upon those who are unwilling. The power of coercion that lies at the base of political discussion makes it a far more threatening subject of conversation, because what we think of as entirely obvious courses of action are threatening and hostile to others, and are often quite worthy of judgment by God in heaven.
Let the reader not think that I am immune to this difficulty or to this objection. Far from it. I know I am interested in political matters, probably too much for my own good. Whether one is dealing with the politics of local communities , churches , other institutions , or countries , I am continually thinking about and reflecting on matters of politics that are quite above my pay grade. No one is more painfully aware of this than I am. Likewise, I am painfully aware of the way in which political disagreements, on points of fact or political worldviews, can have deeply painful consequences for one’s relationships with friends and family members, where there can be a mutual horror about political questions with deeply painful personal implications . When we take stances on political questions, our harshness often comes with a personal edge from our own painful experiences, but we must never forget that other people have their own sensitivities, and may view our attempts at self-defense and the protection of our personal dignity as an offense and affront to them. Our interests, which seem entirely justifiable, may be seen with horror, and out of their horror we may be viewed as beyond the pale of civilization or unworthy of the slightest politeness and respect as a result of what we believe and the views we hold. In the face of such severity of response and such great repercussions, it is easier to want to be silent, even if the stakes are great . And yet we are not wise, and there is no way to live honestly and openly that will not bring a lot of trouble and cause a lot of offense. How then, can we live so that the offense we cause will at least be undeserved, and overcome so long as we are dealing with people who are gracious and as eager to listen and understand as they are to pontificate and bloviate, if such people actually exist? That is, I suppose, the essential question.
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