It seems I can only take the news in small doses, these days. Every time I tune in, I’m hit with a story that makes me wonder what year this is and what country I’m in and what the hell is the matter with people, anyway. The news leaves me tired, confused and feeling like a crabby old man.
I found myself in such a frame of mind in a hotel room in Marquette, Michigan at 6:30 last Sunday morning. MSL was in the shower, the news was unwatchable, facebook was exploding with the horrible story of the day, and I didn’t have the energy to face it just yet. With nothing else to do until it was my turn in the bathroom, I picked my nose. Stuck my finger right up there and yanked out the long stringy thing that was keeping me from breathing freely. I thought it would solve a problem - picking my nose - but one thing leads to another …
I started the day happy. I start every day happy. It helps that I’m generally healthy and I like my job. It helps that I have a hobby or two and that I don’t hate anyone. I love getting up at dawn and being awake to hear the early birds, watch the sun rise, and feel the steam from that first cup of coffee open the pores on my face. It’s my favorite time of day.
And then I turned on the news.
And then I turned off the news.
And then I picked my nose.
The Kleenex box was in the bathroom, but the bathroom was occupied, so I just sat there with a booger on my finger and stared at the blank TV screen and tried to figure out how to get happy again.
I was in Marquette for a mountain bike race the day before. The weather had been gorgeous, and I rode pretty well, so there was that to be happy about.
Looking ahead at the day, we were about to tackle the ten-hour drive home. I like a road trip and MSL is a great traveling companion - a great life companion - so there was that to be happy about, too. Driving with my wife seems like a little thing to be happy about, but it’s actually a big thing when I think about how precious are the moments when our lives are at peace - uninterrupted by someone else’s controversy.
In the dark and quiet room, I drank the last of my coffee from the paper hotel cup, and then tried to use the cup to scrape the booger from my finger. I worked at it for a while, but mucus doesn’t stick to waxed paper.
In the few seconds that I had the news on, it was all about the situation in Charlottesville where the Nazis came to town looking for a fight and got one. They called it a “Unite the Right” rally, predicated upon the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from its public plinth. There was a counter protest with shouting, shoving, and punches. But things got really serious when a Nazi drove his car into a crowd, leaving people hurt and dying, and then a police helicopter working the scene went down with two men aboard.
I hardly know how to make sense of the stories. I come from the political right, but not that right. I come from the political right that deconstructed and de-institutionalized slavery. I come from the political right that supported, overwhelmingly, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I come from the political right that wants everyone, whatever their racial identity may be, to be free to pursue their happiness and their dreams with a minimum of meddling from the government or the rest of us. I don’t know who the “right” is that they’re trying to unite in Charlottesville. Those aren’t my people. I’m not uniting with them.
While I sit here with my finger up my nose, white supremacists have chosen a quiet college town as the battleground for their bigotry. It’s like something from fifty years ago. I thought we’d moved beyond this. I thought that we as a society had already decided that bigotry was bad and that we had moved on to the “OK, let’s figure out how to live together” phase. It’s not an easy phase to be in, and it’s a phase that still gives us lots to argue about, but I thought the basic issue was settled and we agreed that bigotry is bad.
So with my other hand, I grabbed the remote to turn off the news and exhaled a heavy sigh and thought to myself, “Aw, fuck … now here’s another cause I’ll have to join. I’m already involved in health and education efforts in rural Africa. I’m already involved in prison ministry. I’m already involved in a local organization which is working to lift people out of poverty. I’m already a member of a service club that does good stuff in my own community and around the world. I already have a full-time job and a weekly blog and a commitment to ride my bike enough to burn some calories and stress. I’m not looking for anything else to do. Yes, I care about people and the environment and the Grand Causes of the Universe, and at this very moment I’ve got this booger thing going on, too, and I just can’t be an activist for everything - I don’t have that kind of time, but this seems important.
I understand the need to stand up to racism. There’s that great quote from Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, and I think there’s a ton of truth in it.
I think about where my faith leads me to stand on the issues of racism. If I were to be baptized today in the church to which I belong, there are these words in the baptismal covenant, “"Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?" And I would answer, “I do.”
And there’s my basic instinct that when I feel attacked, to hit back harder. Maybe that’s not the most Christian reaction, but I’m trying to be honest, here.
But I’m conflicted about this, too. What is the most effective response when the Nazis come to town? Should our resistance be active or passive?
On the active side, if they had chosen the quiet college town that I live in, I would have had a hard time staying away. I’m not much of a slogan chanter, sign waver or Kum Ba Ya singer, but I'm pretty good at shouting swear words and shoving people so maybe I could just stand around in the background and be ready to serve in that capacity, should the need arise. I’d certainly sleep better knowing that I did my part to defend my community from their imported hate - we can generate enough of our own if we need to, and it only takes a little to screw things up.
I wonder about a more passive approach, too. The white supremacists know that their message is incendiary. Their demonstrations are intended to provoke a response, but what if we don’t take the bait?
What if not one single counter protester had shown up in Charlottesville? What if the only record of the Unite the Right rally was a crappy cell phone video on the Nazi’s website? What if they had spent hours polishing their black boots and adjusting their brown shirts and red armbands and futzing around with their white robes so that their slips didn’t show - and getting themselves all worked up for the confrontation that they had set in motion … and the only responses to their chanting and marching and stupid-ass saluting were the sounds of crickets and birds chirping … the sounds of a world ignoring an ideology that has been rightfully relegated to the lunatic fringe? Would that make the point that they no longer have an audience? Would the car have run into the crowd? Would the helicopter have crashed? Would the racists and the homophobes and the anti-Semites just quietly, pathetically, have folded their flags and gone home? Would a non-event have just happened?
I don’t have the right answer, and I don’t know if there is one. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Meanwhile, here I sit in my hotel room, pissed off that in 2017 bigotry still invades my pleasant morning reflections, and those two cops are dead and so is that woman, and another guy is going to prison for the rest of his life, and I have snot all over my hands and a coffee cup I can’t drink out of anymore.
I’m tired of this already, but I fear it has just begun. Again.