I do not get along with a close family member of mine. He is a staunch conservative Republican who might be able to scare Glenn Beck, I am… not. There were other things growing up that kept us from getting along, but that happens with siblings who are close in age. We are adults now, or at least he is, since he’s getting married in six months and just bought a four bedroom house. I’ve run away to an island to read my troubles away.
I don’t mind having differences with family members, and sometimes, if we’re both very, very careful, we can have discussions that make me hope that other people are capable of listening to the other side. Even if it does sound like crazy babble. And we don’t live together or even near each other anymore, so it’s not like our intensely different worldviews clash on a regular basis.
The problem is that we only see each other for once a year or so, for a brief period of time, and most of it is spent tip-toeing around each other to avoid a clash that always happens anyway. I saw him a few weeks ago and he was adamantly opposed to my decision to run off for a few months. Many people were, but none expressed their worries and concerns quite like he did. “You are ruining your life! What are you thinking?!?!” he cried, exasperated, breathing into a pillow. I thought he was kidding, no one could be that absurd, but I was wrong.
I don’t want to conform to my brother’s ideals and I don’t pressure him to agree with mine. I’ve long given up hope there. What I want is for us to be able to see each other and be able to have civil, polite conversation, even if we have nothing in common.
I think that because my brother believes I’m a liberal (even though I disagree with 99.5% of politicians, no matter what label they wear), that I am self-righteous. That I look down on him in some way, because that’s what O’Reilly says. I don’t look down on my brother. I wouldn’t make the same life choices he has, and a lot of the things he believes scare the hell out of me, but I don’t think I’m better than him. I think that we’ve both made different life choices that have narrowed or widened our ability to view our society.
To be honest, though, I do resent a lot of things my brother represents. I resent that he’s adamantly opposed to abortion when he’ll never have to make that decision in his lifetime. I resent that the only information he gets about contemporary international and domestic affairs comes from Fox News or Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. I resent that he calls me an elitist for pointing out that these are not people who have earned authority on their subject matters by actually studying them, that they are media personalities who use fear to provoke their listeners and buy themselves fame and fortune. I resent his stance on illegal immigration when he lives in a town devoid of any immigrants at all. I resent his dismissal of continued, albeit more subtle, racism in this country when he lives in a town with three black people in it. I resent that he asked me if it was scary to live in the Mission district in San Francisco because of the Mexican thugs he thought lurked everywhere. I resent that I’ve spent two years studying Middle Eastern policy, quite often reading documents myself instead of other people’s opinions on them, and he thinks he knows just as much without ever having looked into it himself. I resent that he bosses me around and talks down to me because I’m a woman, and he’s a man, and he doesn’t even know he puts me in my place. I resent that he comes to our parent’s home and barely thanks my mother for the hours she’s spent cooking, then heads straight to the television without as much as picking up his plate. I resent that he mocks my “liberal education,” that he studies me warily since I spent time in San Francisco, as if searching for signs that I might burn the American flag as protest for gay rights.
But he’s my brother, and his wedding is coming up; there are always anxious holidays, and there are children on his horizon. How do we make nice? I’ve tried finding common ground with him, and I know he has too, but there just isn’t enough to sustain more than thirty seconds of conversation.
It scares me that my brother and I can barely stand an hour in the same room with each other because political differences that neither of us even mean to bring up. If siblings can’t bridge that divide and co-exist, what hope is there for the country at large?
A Worried Sister
You’re putting one, as they say, in my roundhouse. The question you’re asking here – with candor and true eloquence – is the question every decent, hopeful American should be asking right this minute. How are we going to face up to the planetary moral crises we face when the loudest segment of our population is unable to face the self-loathing that dwells in their own hearts.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
That’s how that bad motherfucker Yeats put it, and like all the right words, they echo louder as we descend blindly into the gyre. But this is what you can expect from capitalism. Marx would be laughing his brains out right now. All these fat white fame addicts making a fortune off guys like your brother. They’ve turned Rage, Fear & Grievance into the country’s leading growth industry. And what have we – the rest of us – done in response? Not fucking much, that’s what. In a mature democracy, a guy like Glenn Beck would be howling at the junk in his basement. But we live in America, so he gets to push his line of proto-Nazi tchochkes on the cover of Time magazine.
What a massive scam. The demagogue clowns foment ignorant rage, then the alleged real journalists all go, “Ohh, ohh, there’s a guy with a gun and a Hitler sign! That must be news!” The rest of us get to laugh at Jon Stewart, which makes it all better.
This guy is your brother. You’re trying to find a way to love him while also, more than a little, hating him. The Bible speaks to this human condition a good deal, as does Dostoyevsky.
One of the keys here is to not do the dance. Your brother knows, deep down, how weak and iniquitous he is. They all know. That’s why they walk around with their chests so puffed full of counterfeit assurance. That’s why they listen to paid bullies who are scared to death of reasonable debate. And that’s why he tries so hard to get under your skin, to turn everything into a brawl. Don’t give him that satisfaction. Don’t try to convert him. Just let him be who he needs to be and hope that the best parts of him express themselves in his capacities as husband and father. Put aside the rest of the shite – they are but weeds grown upon his naked soul.
I now more or less order you to read two books, which, taken together (with many deep breaths and wine and orgasms) will make this emotional posture – which I realize is veering obnoxiously close to a zen posture – more achievable.
The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders. Saunders is a Buddhist, Chicago born. But don’t hold that against him. The title essay of this collection will not only help restore your faith, but will offer you some clear direction as to how you should conduct yourself in this ongoing rescue mission.
The Ticking Is the Bomb is Nick Flynn’s new book. It’s not officially out for another couple of months, and the only reason I’ve read the thing is because Nick and I had a thing many years ago, (and ladies, I assure you, the scandalous stories are all deliciously untrue). The book is about torture, and the fact that a small number of American citizens are doing a great deal of it, treating other human beings in crazy sadistic manners, and the fact that the rest of us refuse to face this, or feel what, as humans, we should feel. But it’s also a book about Nick becoming a father in this age of cruelty, and about the ruin of his own past, and how we never get over certain forms of grief until we swim into them again and float there, exposed in the dark. For those of us who have spent much of the past decade in a state of bewilderment and absolute despair about the moral condition of our country, Nick manages to identify the reasons why, in a manner that aims at mercy not scorn. It is a lamentation in the true prophetic sense.
It’s also the sort of book that your brother needs more than he’ll ever admit.
As for the fate of the country, my money is on roving diesel mobs. But then, my money has always been on roving diesel mobs. What can I tell you? They turn me on.
Still, there are smalls signs of hope. You’d never know it based on how the debate has been framed, but the effort to reform health care is a moment of real moral progress: we’re trying to take better care of our sick. Jesus would have approved. That this effort has been cast as morally dubious by the demagogue clowns should come as no surprise. If the government does good, if we, as a collective of individual citizens, start to believe we can solve our problems via compromise, those guys are out of a job. They’re heavily invested, after all, in our most childish impulses. The only way to bankrupt them is to grow up.
Oh, one more thing. When it comes to holiday gifts, find out what kind of music your bro likes and try to find him something in that neighborhood. We’re never more human than in song.