The Kindness of Strangers
Neal Gabler quotes Gore Vidal from 1961 to point out the conservatives we have today were already visible 55 years ago. He says the problem with the GOP now is, they have no kindness in them, and he wonders where it went. What he ignores is how much changed, and how fast, in those 55 years. He acts as if the kindness was leached away, went where the socks go in the dryer, was sucked off to some mysterious alternate universal down some mystical black hole.
Where was the kindness in Jim Crow laws? Where was the kindness in separate but equal? Where was the kindness in treating women like sex objects and "dolls" and subservient to men (the way they are treated in "Mad Men")? The kindness that said we must make war because the government said so (which is a "Greatest Generation" phenomena. There was strong opposition to aiding Europe before Pearl Harbor precisely because it would mean war. Now we interpret war as our American birthright.). Where was the kindness to drafting 18 year olds who couldn't vote on the decision to go to war? The kindness toward the LGBTQ? The kindness toward anyone who wasn't a white middle to upper class male who knew business was far more important than art, and that real men didn't bake, sew, or dance?
And now the cry is: where is the kindness toward the standard white male?
It's not even a new cry. It was the cry of the '70's, and of the '80's, when real men didn't eat quiche. Yes, the line was a joke, but how often jokes get taken as statements of truth. The gentle hippie male (still a male chauvinist down to his bare feet) and the mild-mannered Alan Alda, our icon of masculinity in the '70's (alongside the mustachioed louts who filled the TV screen as "action heroes"), quickly gave way to "real men," and John Wayne enjoyed a resurgence and a popularity he'd all but lost in the '60's. We've seen this struggle over and over again just in my lifetime, as men went from Clark Gable to Jimmy Stewart to Steve McQueen to Alan Alda to Bruce Willis, from Don Draper to Phil Donahue to...Donald Trump?
What begins as tragedy ends as farce, and nothing really different has happened in 55 years, except the backlash. Alvin Toffler called it "Future shock," but the future is here and now and he was right: it was the result of too much change too fast. But standing in the middle of it, we don't see the fast; we just see the change.
And whatever the change is, there is always somebody who doesn't want it. Somebody doesn't want to change the Thanksgiving menu or change where (or whether) the family meets on holidays, and somebody else wants to keep marriages unmixed by race and somebody else wants to keep it Adam and Eve, not let it be Adam and Steve. And somebody really, REALLY, REALLY doesn't want to see a black man in the White House. Enough somebodies to shift a razor thin electoral college victory.
In my lifetime, the one constant has been the aggrieved standard white male. That, and a general lack of kindness. As much kindness as we ever showed as a nation, was a result of the affluence of the '60's. We could afford to be generous then. We were living better than our parents (or grandparents, as the case may be) had ever dreamed of living. Everyone could go to college (thanks to the GI Bill)! Everyone could own a home (thanks to the GI Bill)! Everyone could find a job (well, every white male, anyway, and who else mattered?)! We could afford a little largesse!
Then, in the '70's it started to sputter. Inflation became the scourge of the land, and Paul Volcker taught the Fed its true purpose: whip inflation now; now and forever. Then Reagan told us our problem was welfare queens and "young bucks" who took no responsibility for their actions. He didn't have to tell us such people were not white. 12 years of Reagan/Bush, and the best we could do afterwards was the triangulation of Bill Clinton who, if he hadn't done that, would never have been President at all.
And here we are. Tennessee William's symbol of the South, Blanche DuBois (whiter than white she is; why are there no blacks in his New Orleans?), always trusted to the kindness of strangers. He meant it as the South's original sin and apologia; all America understood it as the foolishness of the female, and American white males would never be so foolish. Strangers could not be shown kindness; oh, individuals could, but as a group?
The struggle between competing visions of society was not settled in the 18th century, and wasn't set in stone by the "Founding Fathers" (who never thought of themselves that way, and certainly weren't posing for their monuments in their lifetimes). The fight for social justice, racial equality, fair if not actually equal treatment under law, due process for all persons, and a share of compassion for everyone, is never won. It is not a sporting event with a season and a final winner until the next set of competitions. We haven't become worse than we were; we have become what we are.
We always do. That isn't the problem. The problem is letting it rest there. The problem is looking for someone else to blame, some reason to say it's not your fault, that you had nothing to do with it, that "they" are the reason "we" can't have nice things. We are the reason. We are always the reason. And we always have to struggle, not just with each other, but with ourselves.
Neal Gabler says the GOP has no kindness in them, and he's not wrong. The desire to end Medicare and Social Security is the desire, not just of Ayn Rand disciples, but of people who care only for money, only for themselves. The richest donors of the GOP, apparently. How else to explain the desire to privatize Medicare ASAP, the proposal in this Congress (which must be renewed in the next) to end Social Security? Is the GOP crazy? Or dancing with those what brung 'em?
The question is: who are we dancing with? Who brung us?