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Family Politics

Last month, I refused my grandmother’s Facebook friend request. It was no cavalier decision – we’re talking hours of internal debate. Pros: Better access to pie recipes and regular updates about Mississippi tide levels. Cons: I would have to constantly explain lolcats and Rickrolling, apologize for the lewd comments of my virtual friends, and defend the politically progressive links I tend to post. The tiebreaker came in the form of an e-mail my grandmother sent to the entire family. The subject heading was “Remember those that fought and died for this flag too!” and it consisted of a single URL, which led to a digital history of… wait for it… the Confederate Flag. My mother summed it up best in a one-line reply: “What is wrong with my parents??” What indeed? Clearly I couldn’t have any rogue racists on my Facebook page (I mean, ones I didn’t go to high school with), so I respectfully declined the friend request and swore not to mention the Internet at future family gatherings. But the Facebook refusal has lingered, specifically because my grandmother is not a racist, rogue or otherwise. She’s a beautiful, caring woman and an e-mail like that would have been unimaginable ten years ago. Today though, these types of missives are becoming disturbingly commonplace.

I’m very close to my grandparents. They are kind, generous, loving people who lived just down the street for nearly all of my formative years. I was their cat-sitter, they were my cookie-providers. When I hopped on my bicycle (which was nearly every day), my grandmother was the de facto destination, and she always made time for grimy legs on pristine couches. For years, my grandfather drove me to school, the car falling quiet as Paul Harvey unfolded the “rest of the story.” I watched and learned as my grandfather stood up for the rights and wages of the Vietnamese custodial staff against the weight of the entire school administration… and won. From them, I learned that the hallmark of a “good person” was his or her treatment of individuals. From them, I learned that “right” meant helping the poor, defending the weak and speaking up against injustice. Politics back then seemed… easy somehow. After all, everyone wanted the same things – safe neighborhoods, a strong job market, a world that seemed “fair” – so political debates seemed as loaded as arguing about the best route to the movie theater. When I entered my more radical high school and college years, the familial political rifts that erupted were sincere but inoffensive. I thought the Iraq war was pre-emptive and wrong, while my Naval Commander grandfather believed the removal of an abusive dictator justified an attack. I thought the mental health safety net unraveled during the Reagan administration should be strengthened, that welfare programs should be more firmly established, that arts education funding should be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, while my grandfather, who built a stable retirement by careful planning and hard work, believed these things were best left to local churches, families, and community groups. And though we disagreed on nearly every policy, I always understood his positions. They weren’t crazy, they were… different. And at the core, I knew we shared the same idea – How do we make the world better? As individuals, my grandparents gave freely to the church and to charity, but they distrusted the inefficiencies of a Leviathan government. I suppose I trusted individuals less and thought mandatory taxes and stronger institutional programs were necessary to improve the country. Our disagreements seemed like nothing more than counterweights dragging us toward the same goal. Fine. Normal. Good. But in the last few years, I’ve seen those counterweights drift. And it scares me.

These days, I can expect at least one politically-charged email a week from my grandfather, usually sent to the entire family and usually accompanied by a carefully-written screed, clearly edited and re-edited, scrubbed clean of any “bias” or “offensive” language. Links like “The Truth About Global Warming,” accompanied by the sentence, “We should be skeptical of everything, and it’s important to read the information that’s out there.” Links like “Obamacare will institute Death Panels and eradicate society as we know it,” followed by a paragraph about the freedom he fought for during his thirty-year service in the U.S. Military. Links to pundits like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity levying vituperative attacks against the “liberal” Media or “fascist” Left or “socialist” President, followed by a sincere plea to “Look at the facts and don’t believe everything you read.” Certainly, none of these e-mails were intended to be offensive polemics, and I know he would be shocked to find that they caused discord or revulsion. He’s only trying to help. Both of my grandparents sense impending global instability in their pocketbooks, on television, and on the streets, and they (rightfully) want to warn their loved ones against the perils of the path we’re on. That part, I understand. I want them to know I share those broad concerns, just not their proposed solutions or their specific causal attributions. Carefully-worded replies filled with links to facts or studies (or often, are, at best, ignored. At worst, they become the start of family-size battles over “respect for one’s elders” or “knowing one’s place.” My family, once a staunch supporter of education, science and knowledge, has drifted with its chosen political party and that drift has left us with nothing much to say to each other.

It’s different than it was and that upsets me. If I can’t have a reasonable conversation about the future of the country with people who I know love and respect me, and whom I love and respect more than words allow, how then am I to engage in these conversations with relative strangers? If facts carry no weight, if science is both misunderstood and mistrusted, if PhDs carry no more cache than GEDs, if there is no common pool of facts we all must draw from, how then do we move forward as a country? There are growing mountains of literature devoted to this subject, but none seems as prescient as the recent slate of neuroscience publications. George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, has published much about the use of language and framing in politics, but his new book, The Political Mind, goes much deeper. Through extensive peer-reviewed science, he exposes the ways in which the Enlightenment-era ideal our country is based upon – the notion that all humans have the capacity to be rational decision makers – is deeply wrong. It’s just not in our genetic make-up to be unbiased deciders. Everyone is bad at predicting what will make them happy, terrible at guessing the future, atrocious at weighing conflicting information, and biologically unable to make decisions without involving their emotions. Instead of using our remarkable brains to logically weigh opposing ideas, we lead with our guts and allow fear, excitement, and hope to drive us. We are congenitally incapable of comprehending large numbers (seriously, do you really have a different reaction to “a billion” than “a trillion”?), which makes understanding governmental budget crises very, very difficult. We have a rough time understanding statistics, which makes comprehension of subjects like vaccines extraordinarily hard. Nearly all of us struggle to vote in our self-interests, but the marketing techniques designed to sway us are aggressive and they are effective. As these techniques are refined, as competition for resources stiffens, as the world heats up, as debt grows and wars spread, our extant biological differences will continue to be intentionally heightened. The problem is, only one party has wholeheartedly usurped this strategy.

Chris Mooney explores this idea in his new book, The Republican Brain. Again, using meticulous peer-reviewed research, he defends the notion that, to a large extent, our biology is at the root of our ideology. He repeatedly demonstrates that we are all susceptible to “motivated reasoning” (the tendency to seek out information that confirms what we already believe). There are certain pesky scientific findings that don’t coexist peacefully with long-standing Conservative ideals: evolution isn’t great for creationism, climatology data isn’t great for unbridled capitalism, stem cell research isn’t great for religious activists. Likewise, certain Democratic ideals don’t gel with the evidence, particularly when dealing with fracking or nuclear energy debates. What motivated reasoning, properly nurtured, allows us to do is ignore facts in favor of what we wish or assume was true. These cognitive flaws have always been a part of human biology. The problem is that, as history has marched on, the Republican Party has been the one to embrace this very human defect as an intentional political strategy. Key topics are infused with emotion, absurd strawmen are built and destroyed, arguments ad absurdum are levied with indefatigable energy. And it is effective.

The result of all this is that, sadly, Conservatives and Progressives are beginning to live in distinct, non-overlapping worlds. My grandfather literally cannot understand how I can believe some form of welfare may be a good thing. I literally cannot understand how he can believe bank bailouts are the first step toward full-blown socialism. And when two people cannot understand each other, communication becomes impossible. When a common set of facts aren’t shared, you can’t debate, you can only fight. I understand that every generation has argued with the politics of its predecessor, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling it may be different this time. It’s not that I disagree with my grandparents – I’ve welcomed divergent opinions for my entire life. It’s that I no longer understand them. It’s that conversation seems futile. The solution seems to be simple and timeless: “avoid mixing family and politics.” But the e-mail forwards continue. And my confusion festers. And politics, to me, is about practically addressing those age-old questions – “how do we live a good life?” and “How do we best live in a community?” These are questions I want to share with my family, because I need their guidance, their wisdom, their counterweight to my progressive instincts. I, like America, need dialogue to temper my beliefs. Instead, I get factually inaccurate polemics and obvious partisan rhetoric.

I wouldn’t say this has damaged my relationship with any family members—my love and appreciation for them runs far deeper than worldview differences. But I would say the last year has served as an obstacle to creating deeper connections as we all grow older, and that is not a negligible thing. I don’t want the sort of head-shaking, shoulder-shrugging mild acceptance of my elders – I want full, passionate engagement with everyone in my life, and this inability to connect makes it extremely difficult. I don’t know how to reply to an e-mail exhorting remembrance of the Confederate Flag. I don’t know how to reply to an e-mail claiming Obama is a Socialist. I don’t know how to reply to an e-mail asking readers to “look at the facts” while denying the existence of man-made climate change.

And until I figure it out, I most certainly cannot be Facebook friends with my grandmother. That and the lolcats.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. TG #

    Travis. Great blog bro! It is so unfortunate that rational and reasonable politics has deteriorated to its current state, to the extent that it is difficult (at best) to have a sensible conversation with someone of opposing views. Sucks worse when the disconnect is exacerbated by the fact those with the opposing views are family members. Long gone is the time when we simply allowed ourselves respectfully agree to disagree. Nowadays political discourse overwhelmingly trends toward euphemistic commentary of thinly veiled racism, classism, and religious self-righteousness. So where do we go from here, and what does it mean for our future when we can’t even ‘friend’ Granny?

    June 4, 2012
    • Thanks – I do think we’re catching up to the “why’s” and “how’s” of our political cognition, but marketing always precedes science by about five years. So this highly partisan world seems like it might just continue to get worse… I miss those rational opposition voices, especially since they used to come from right next door. Appreciate the comment.

      June 6, 2012
  2. BDF #

    Even though I’m not eyeball-deep in the American media/political/economic landscape, enough crosses the border for me to appreciate what you say here. We have our own versions of these arguments and adherents, usually to a lesser degree (though Harper’s squashing of scientific publishing has even provoked a Nature editorial)… but most of all what resonates is the thought-freezing realization that the belief has taken root to such an extent that dialogue is, as you say, seemingly impossible. Not just over before it begins but somehow impossible to initiate. Forget the loudly-mourned loss of grammar and spelling in the texting generation… it’s this widening communication gap that should be more frightening.

    June 5, 2012
    • Absolutely right. Grammar and spelling issues are troubling, but the bigger issue is certainly the widening gap between the “teams” in America. I don’t want to have my “team” decided for me, especially when both teams still want the same thing. There are enough real enemies to our way of life in the world that this type of discourse is not just distracting– it’s dangerous.

      June 6, 2012
  3. Linda Stanley #

    As the polar opposite political animal of your grandparents, this grandparent can tell you that the oxygen flow to our brains from about 62 on is a bit less, and we return, perhaps atavistically, to some of those thoughts which existed from early childhood before our early liberal days…..however, not me, as I came to political intelligence through Finnish immigrants (liberal) and Russian-Jewish grandparents. Lots of the grandparents today watch FOX Noise channel 24/7, and we libs watch MSNBC, though we engage in CNN, C-Span, PBS and the networks, too. I heard Mooney’s book is great, and, of course, Lakoff is. Now, our old people are looking to confirm the truths and sound-bytes in their older age, to repeat the comfortable curmudgeonly comments which our poor and disenfranchised may be the victims of. Just enjoy the EARLY YEARS of those loving grandparents, consider the oxygen flow, look at how they endured WWll, maybe the Depression, and realize that gandparents from the South and midwest are….hmmm….a bit different from us older CA crazies. However, even some of my 62 plus friends out here are beginning to make racist comments, and it disturbs me. Have something to email you as an attachment — something I did for my grandkids: sort of a bunch of phrases which can be a moral compass for them.

    June 5, 2012
    • Thanks for the comment, Linda. It’s frustrating when you KNOW the individual in question is compassionate, loving and caring, and yet that compassion appears to dissipate when certain political buzzwords spring up. Consistency and cohesion go a long way with me!

      June 6, 2012
      • Linda Stanley #

        Another thing noticed (my comment was cut off, mercifully)…the older gray matter loses more recent memories, etc., and we can say things in old age we HEARD in youth….incl. the racist statements we oldsters heard in 40s/50s….luckily there wasn’t too much of that in CA; thus, more tolerant attitudes in CA, esp. the North.

        June 22, 2012
  4. Áine Ní Aodha #

    Travis – my surname is not Sentell, but I have the same relatives as you have.

    June 6, 2012
  5. Funny, we’ve been chatting about the same thing; with the evolution of social networking, people are also becoming more trapped in ideological silos–not of their own doing, but because google and facebook are actively filtering out things that they think we don’t agree with. I wonder if this trend will continue, or if people in our generation will start to actively seek out opinions that differ from their own.

    June 7, 2012
    • Absolutely right. The notion that the internet and mass communication would expose us to alternate, opposing viewpoints and make us all better thinkers was a BIG idea in the early 90s, and the research has just been soul-destroying. All the internet has done is allow us to streamline the input that aligns with our pre-existing ideology, making the walls higher and the noise louder. I have to fight and force myself to seek out those moderate Republican voices (and sometimes read The Drudge Report or tolerate Ann Coulter) just so I don’t get caught in the own bubble I worry so much about in others. I hope your idea is right– that there will be a backlash from our generation — people who are sick of partisanship. The problem is that it’s difficult. Extremely difficult. And time consuming. No one LIKES having their ideas challenged… that’s part of our biology – being “wrong” is a clear sign of weakness in the jungle, and those that were wrong more often were more likely to lead their spouse/children/themselves into danger. It’s why we love politicians who don’t change their mind, even in light of stronger evidence. We’re going to have to work harder to overcome these inherent biological flaws and stop others (corporations) from taking advantage of them. Sadly, I think it’ll take some sort of external regulation.

      June 7, 2012
  6. “Everyone is bad at predicting what will make them happy, terrible at guessing the future, atrocious at weighing conflicting information, and biologically unable to make decisions without involving their emotions.”…Its like you know me….lol Enjoyed your post.

    June 7, 2012
    • Thanks! Turns out, we’re all more alike than we’d like to admit. It’s a little nerve-wracking to know that many people may share my flaws… I was hoping you guys were better at this “life” thing than me.

      June 7, 2012
  7. Bernadette Rule #

    Travis, this blog is so moving and filled with insight. Thank you for writing it. I, too, have trouble talking with beloved family members who don’t agree with my politics. In fact, we’ve all taken to grabbing each other just before family dinners and begging that certain subjects not be brought up this year. But I want to say something about that confederate flag business.

    I was born and raised in Kentucky and my great grandfathers fought in the Civil War–one for the south and two for the north. (The fourth was a child in the 1890s, but I strongly suspect his family would have been southern-sympathizers.) Having lived in Canada all my adult life, I am continually amazed at the smug assumptions that are made, here and everywhere, about southerners. Racism is a scourge that needs to be eradicated from the human heart; you’ll get no argument from me about that. But southerners–and let’s call a spade a spade here: white southerners–have no corner on that market. In fact those who make assumptions about those with southern accents are themselves guilty of the shortcut of prejudgement.

    The Civil War was begun over states’ rights and slavery was one part of that. It was largely a rural vs urban conflict. The reprehensible practice of holding slaves needed to be shut down. But the north played a large part in the actual business of slavery; those who traded in slaves were often northern U.S., Canadian or English businessmen. And it isn’t even as simple as black vs white, since many Africans were captured and sold into slavery by other Africans. The slavery card was an easy one for the north to play, and it eventually helped win them the war. What happened after the war is worth looking into–white people, northerners and southerners alike, did not exactly shine during the period known as Reconstruction. But the victors did manage to demoralize white southerners–to the point that, even today, all the rest of the world needs to hear is the trace of a southern accent, and they feel justified in assuming the speaker is a rube at best. The Appalachian people, for example, have been so damaged by prejudice against them that many of them rarely leave the mountains.

    Perhaps whoever asked that we give a thought to the Confederate dead only meant that we give a thought to the soldiers who fought for the south. The immediate assumption is that that comment was justifying racism against African-Americans. Many African-Americans were among those who fought and died for the south. Young men the world over have fought on the “wrong” side. The truth is, we continue to ask our young men–and now our young women as well–to fight wars for the country (i.e. the society) in which they were born and brought up. In my opinion, whether you fought for the stars and stripes or whether you fought for the confederate flag in the 1860s is not the point in 2012. The only symbol we can afford to stand up for is that of the earth itself. My heart breaks for anyone who thinks s/he has to kill and be killed for the people and the land s/he loves. Of course each if us loves our family and the land that nurtured us! Do we love it enough to say no to war (the most polluting industry on earth, by the way)? Do we love it enough to refuse to let other people be villified and dehumanized and turned into the enemy? Believing that someone who fights under a different flag deserves no thought, no sympathy–that’s the definition of racism in my opinion. When will we get beyond this easy, hurtful categorizing, stop judging each other, and start working together to heal the earth? Around the dinner table would be a great place to start, but it can sure cause indigestion.

    June 12, 2012
    • Bernadette, thanks for the thoughtful comments! I agree wholeheartedly with what you say, and I hope it was clear in the post that I don’t think anyone in my family is a “racist.” I agree that vilification and demonization of the “enemy” or the “other” is at the root of many inherent social ills, and I don’t advocate for it or support it. (FYI: I was born and raised in Louisiana, and suspect that the motivations you suggest were precisely the motivations of my grandmother.) However, in regards to the Confederate Flag, I believe there are a few symbols that are, for better or worse, beyond redemption. I do not believe that everyone who fought for the Nazi army or the Mongol hordes or the Confederate army were “bad” or “evil.” However, the symbol of the Nazi army, the Swastika, even though it was co-opted from (and still actively used in the East by) Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, is so inextricably connected to anti-Semitism and racial injustice (at least in America), that it is, to my mind, unsalvageable. Though I have as much Southern pride as the next guy (and actively rail against the “rube” stereotype, especially when it is applied toward me or my family), I feel that the Confederate Flag has been, rightly or wrongly, co-opted by the white supremacist movement in our country. It is, I feel, a symbol that is either unsalvageable, or at least very, very difficult to salvage. And though I KNOW my grandmother’s heart was in the right place, as I believe it always is, I feel that this type of forward needs explanation, commentary, and padding. Otherwise, it fuels unnecessary fires. This is really what I’m driving at here… a lack of intense thoughtfulness in politics, a lack of repercussion considerations, and a “devil may care” approach to potentially divisive or hurtful statements/ideologies/concepts.

      Hope this helps clarify – and thank you again for your wonderful insights. Fantastic comments.

      June 12, 2012
  8. bernadette rule #

    Point taken, Travis. Thanks for the response to the response. I knew it would be good.

    June 13, 2012
  9. Josh #

    Nice Blog Sir. I too struggle with “understanding”, and it often has me absolutely spinning circles in a square room to try and put together today’s political and social climate. Thanks for sharing your views on this, and expressing it through your own personal family dynamic.

    June 13, 2012
  10. Michael #

    Wow, thanks so much for this. This was how I felt my entire childhood growing up in rural Arizona. I literally couldn’t understand how I and all the other people around me (teachers, religious leaders, other kids) could be looking at the same thing and see everything so differently. I moved back east. I suspect if my kids are like me, they’ll end up back in Europe. And for what it’s worth, I’m liberal and support genetically modified food stuffs and nuclear power (with a giant rail gun built in the Andes to shoot expended nuclear material into the sun).

    March 21, 2013

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