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Congressman Samuel W. Arnold (my great-grandfather)

I’m surprised by what of my writing people choose to read and, though I don’t often know, why. So, it was a mixture of surprise and dread when a roommate from college weighed in on my amateur punditry that I recently posted. Though we’d had lunch one time during a business trip through ABQ, we don’t really engage much (online either). In typical punditry fashion, I gave the latest piece an audacious title, “The Democracy Fix,” as if my quick research and pulling together of disparate ways of allocating votes was something that was going to start some sort of electoral campaign.

I wasn’t arguing some sort of revolutionary changes or ideas (though that proposition could be argued) akin to rewriting or throwing out the Constitution. Quite often I am more interested in just getting my thoughts down on paper and sharing them. At its worst, it was just something that I did: write, and at its best it might spur people to look up some of the varied ways we elect people (at least Federally). So, after years of writing and not getting much of a response other than a “like” or an “attaboy,” I was surprised by the response.

But first some background: I’m not an expert on anything, a community organizer, nor a regular volunteer on any electoral reform campaigns or a supporter of any campaign for Federal office (though I did financially support my choice for Governing Board member at our community college and my choice for Albuquerque Mayor). I vote, and I do write my congress people when I feel that they need to hear my opinion. I don’t really expect them to respond (usually check the box that says that a response is not necessary), but I do read what they write back closely when they do.

I also am not shy about talking to them when I see them in public. Most of the time it’s just “Thank you,” and letting them know that I appreciate them doing what I think would be a very hard job. That’s the thing, after twenty-one years of school (most of it in humanities) I’m a close reader and an articulate writer. I don’t come from any sort of extremely entitled background, but I’ve learned after all that schooling and lots of jobs working with very opinionated and hard bosses that you have to speak up. You have to put your thoughts out there.

For example, just yesterday, I was working with a student on a particular thorny Logic problem for his Java programming class. He was pretty animated and expressed his dissatisfaction with the textbook by actually writing the author.

I read his response and immediately coached, “You know I’m not sure I would’ve been so blunt with the author about your feelings towards his book.”

“But the book sucks,” he said.

“Yeah, but if you want his help I doubt that would be a winning strategy.”

He nodded his head in understanding and then we moved on trying to figure out what the problem was asking.

Now this interaction got me to thinking about my college roommate and his rather heated response. It was clear by his first response that he’d actually read my amateur punditry. And he disagreed vehemently.

I’m not sure of the exact moment, but my college roommate used to be active in Democratic politics and at some point in the recent past he became a Republican and is now (I surmise) a Trump supporter. He offered a factually incorrect assessment that the electoral process has worked fine for the better part of two hundred years we’ve been a republic and quoted the Ben Franklin adage, “…it’s a Republic, if we can keep it.” Thus any change that would make it more democratic would cause a “civil war.” (Note…I’m not really doing a fair summary of his post. I’m just using what I gleaned from it to highlight a different point).

We traded stories about being called names, and I told him I didn’t buy the slippery slope argument that we shouldn’t try and make the system fairer. In fact, we’ve been trying to make the system fairer for the better part of our history. Just because we haven’t made any substantive changes since the end of the 1940s — a change that limited the President to two terms — doesn’t’ mean we should just stop now. (Note: in our family’s history, it has been stated that my great-grandfather (a Republican congressman) was a sponsor of House Resolution 27, which became the 22nd Amendment).

My friend’s fear, and one I see recounted in a lot of places is that if we try to make it more democratic we’ll disenfranchise rural voters from the system, and it will lead to system wide collapse (civil war). That, of course, represents the absolute worst case scenario, and I’ve read articles and books from both sides that argue that is exactly what is happening now but in the virtual space. It certainly feels that way, and my college roommate’s response surprised me with its vitriol and made me inclined to think he certainly thinks that too.

But then, another friend posted how she was sick and tired of all the politics on FB. I responded by apologizing and said that I wouldn’t take it personally if she muted me. Another friend of hers, who is also a friend of mine and a Trump supporter also seemed empathetic and suggested that our back and forth with each other (almost exclusively on each other’s posts) was not fighting as much as spirited discussion and that we both had the same goal: trying to make the country better.

It was encouraging and humanizing in a way that I’ve not seen in a long time. It made me realize that even though we get mutually exasperated with each other, the connection we have with each other (though we haven’t seen each other in almost thirty years) was still there. At the end of the day, we could still argue and disagree but maintain that we are in this together.

Now, if we could only figure out how to cultivate that instead of vitriol and hatred. I don’t know exactly how my friend and I reached an easy peace over what has surely been one of the most contentious periods in recent history, but we have. I suspect some of it is that we refrain from calling each other names though I’ve definitely charged that he is being brainwashed on occasion. And he’s been more than resilient when he weighs in on my posts, and my more liberal friends really let him have it but he can take a “punch” and certainly “punches” back. I don’t try and moderate even though I don’t think their posts help. My thinking is that he knows what he’s getting into when he comments on my page especially at this point.

This got me to thinking. Now many friends have certainly given up on people who support this President and write many of them off as racists, xenophobes, misogynists, etc. so why try. And I’m certainly sympathetic to that response, but not sure what that response achieves? If the purpose of arguing about it online is to try and reach some sort of consensus or agreement so that we can work together to solve our myriad of problems, then short of scoring points what are people hoping to achieve other than get the opposing side to say, “You’re right. I’m a racist piece of shit,” which they probably won’t do. And short of some deep dive, open and frank discussion with people of color, most of the white people I’ve met aren’t there yet and that is not really the response we are looking for.

Discussing it online doesn’t really catch the nuances of many people’s lived experience. In many people’s lived experiences they aren’t exhibiting the behavior of the racists from the past. They’re good people trying to live their lives and not entirely versed on how insidious modern day racism is and how people of color experience it. They reject the names and then loop the accuser as some sort of elitist or tool of a cynical left who is using this tactic as a way to keep us apart and keep them in power. Or at least that’s what I think they think.

At the end of the day, I think tactics matter. While calling people names may feel great, it doesn’t actually make the situation better. It just increases the alienation that too many of us already feel. And in a period where we need to be coming together to solve some very complex problems, alienating a sizable chunk of the population because they don’t “get it” is a really bad idea and we need to stop it.

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