(Don’t wanna speak about) American Idiots

I’ve been sloshing through all the predictable Kubler-Ross stages of liberal grief over the midterm elections  – denial, anger, bargaining (“If we lose the World Series, can we keep the House?”), depression, acceptance. 

But I’m no great political pundit. This blog is no fivethirtyeight.com

So the aspect of the elections I want to write about involves my daughter, a high school junior. 

B. has, so far, turned out to be a solid liberal/radical/progressive. She argues with her classmates over things like the death penalty and unfettered capitalism; and unlike many of them, she thinks about politics even when she’s not required to do so for a history essay. 

That’s all good. And it’s easy to see the roots – our own family values, the tikkun olam that was reinforced in her Jewish education (her Bat Mitzvah drash was on how to treat the ger, the stranger in our midst, and she connected that concept to Darfur), the progressive schools she’s attended, and growing up in the liberal milieu of the Bay Area. 

But there are aspects of her political outlook that also worry me. Over the weeks leading up to the election, she asked more than once, “Why are Americans so stupid?” 

I knew what she meant – she was asking how Tea Party activists getting Medicare can rail about the evils of government spending, or how folks scraping by on $50,000 a year can vote for candidates whose economic agenda is to give more tax breaks to really rich people. Those are things that make me crazy too. 

But I don’t want her politics to be based on contempt or cynicism or some kind of elitist superiority. I don’t want her to categorize all Republican voters as “American idiots,” or to see the bad things about this country without seeing the good. 

I was like that at her age. I was mad at America over Vietnam, Chile, sexism, you-name-it.  It took living in Israel in my 20s for me to really appreciate the U.S. Here’s what did it: The realization that — even among the most wonderful, most liberal, most peace-minded Israelis and Palestinians — no one wanted their child to marry someone from the other camp. They wanted peace, they wanted equality and justice, but then they wanted to be left to their tribal selves. 

That seemed so sad. And it made me feel, maybe for the first time, clearly American. 

So now I have a daughter who resents the hypocrisy of the Tea Party types but is too young to appreciate how far we have come in electing a black president… who feels anger at our history of slavery without a corresponding pride in the courage of the American abolitionist movement. 

I worry that we didn’t do enough when she was little to teach her the positive things about America. We ranted about George Bush and Iraq; but did we talk explicitly about the positive history and values that we felt he was betraying? 

I worry that living in the Bay Area makes it easy to be insular and self-righteous. It’s so easy here to surround oneself with liberal friends who share one’s views on gay rights, climate change, abortion, progressive taxation. (Heck, that’s a big part of why we choose to live here!) 

And I wonder about whether we did a good enough job in this part of our parenting. 

We were very intentional in some aspects of parenting. With Judaism, for instance, we made a conscious decision to light candles every Shabbat. And with body image, I swore my baby daughter would never hear me say the phrase “I’m fat.” 

But I never consciously thought about how to impart a progressive view of the good things about America and its history. 

Honestly, I read my fair share of child-rearing books when B. was young, but I don’t think I ever saw one on this – “Beyond Flag Waving: Raising Your Child to be a Progressive Patriot.” 

This goes beyond parenting, maybe, into the realm of actual politics. We lefty-liberal-blue-state types are very good at trashing the Sarah Palins  and Christine O’Donnells of the world – at gnashing and moaning over the things we don’t like in American politics. 

Would we do better at the polls if we put more effort into clearly articulating the things we love and believe in about America?

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8 Responses to “(Don’t wanna speak about) American Idiots”

  1. Tom Moore Says:

    I would say: No. It won’t make a difference if lefties are more positive and less critical as long as those on the right are coming from different places with respect to gay marriage, abortion, and Jesus Christ. These are even divisive issues here in Brazil. The difference here is 1. you must vote, or you will be fined, so turnout is close to 100 percent, across all regions and economic classes. 2. the poor here can clearly see that one of the many parties has their interests in mind, and has acted on those interests, in the area, for example, of ending hunger among the poor. Result: the poor voted, in some states, by margins of up to 80 percent to 20 for the PT – the Worker’s Party. No party in the US has the cojones to call itself the Worker’s Party.

  2. Nancy King Bernstein Says:

    Love this one!!

  3. James Richardson Says:

    Ilana, I think there is something about being young in America that breeds a self-righteous know-it-all attitude. I see it in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I saw it in Sacramento. Yes, kids pick it up from their parents, but they get it on the natural. I grew up in a moderately Republican household (Ok, it was back when Nelson Rockefeller was a credible Republican), and I came out very anti-war self-righteous. I still think my side was correct, and at some level, I still don’t understand those who think the Vietnam War was a good idea. I didn’t really get that from parents but from the culture. What bothers me now is that Americans aren’t giving each other room to have their own mix of opinions. If you have an opinion on abortion that is X we can predict the rest of your opinions. That makes us more tribal now and that is so very sad.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Not just the US — I suspect youth almost anywhere tends to the self-righteous know-it-all. It’s probably line two in the definition of “youth” in Webster’s.

      Although, on the other hand, I know a couple of people in their elder years who have managed to remain self-righteous know-it-alls long after the bloom of youth has faded. :-)

  4. Janice Dean Says:

    Great post, Ilana!

    @Jim: I don’t think it’s just 20-somethings who jump on this tribal bandwagon–I have been in meetings at our own church where I have had to call out adults who are 10, 20, or 30 years older than me for talking about running over with their cars elected officials they didn’t like! (for the record, I’m 25)

    I have to remind myself whenever I think or talk about politics to *not* equate pundits and politicians of one party with the people who have voted for members of that party. In other words, just because John Boehner, for example, “represents” the people who voted for him, it doesn’t mean that everything that comes out of his mouth is representative of the beliefs, attitudes, and values, of every individual person who voted for him! And I would say that same about, for example, Nancy Pelosi.

    Politicians with different political views, like Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, have not only had constructive working relationships with each other but also maintained actual friendships. I want our elected leaders to lead the way in affirming through their words and actions, as Senator Hatch put it in an op-ed piece last year, that “being faithful to a political party or a philosophical view does not preclude civility, or even friendships, with those on the other side.” I also want Americans–liberal, conservative, moderate, and indifferent–to DEMAND that our elected officials act in this way.

    I’m so glad you started this conversation, Ilana. My one recommendation to your daughter would be this: remember that it is ok to feel frustrated and angry at people who disagree with you, but work hard to *never* forget that they are still people and, therefore, deserve enough respect for us liberals to not assume that they are simply “stupid.” Perhaps her work on how to treat the _ger_ can be a good foundation for this, and, hopefully, she can teach us something about living faithfully and civilly with people who think differently than us.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Janice, never having met you other than in cyberspace, I can’t believe you are “only” 25! Your comments over the past few months on this blog have been much wiser than your years.

      I too wish we could return to a more civil national discourse and a political culture that allowed conservatives lik Orrin Hatch to work with liberals like Ted Kennedy on legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  5. Harriet Chessman Says:

    Your daughter already sounds so much wiser and more compassionate than most people in the country, Ilana, liberal or the opposite!!! How wonderful that she cares so passionately about what’s happening in our country right now. I’m sure Barack Obama has equally choice things to say in the privacy of his own home, to his spouse or close friends and advisors. This is a justified mix of frustration, disappointment, and fury, and I think these emotions are important because they help build the first step toward action. I have no doubt that your daughter will discover — is discovering — excellent ways to act in the world, and I also have no doubt that she will base her choices of HOW to act, what to say, how to create dialogue, on a distinct regard for all people, whether she agrees with them or not.

    In the meantime, she’s definitely putting her finger on actual instances — not of stupidity, necessarily, but certainly of ignorance. I applaud her!!!

  6. Darryl Young Says:

    Or is it that we should be more grateful for what we collectively share and enjoy as a people?

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