The alleged issue behind Wisconsin’s donnybrook was that the state had to retrench spending, and so union wages and pensions had to be busted. But even after public sector unions made major economic concessions, which would have allowed Gov. Scott Walker to declare victory and perhaps stand alongside union leaders, saying they were all working together for the public good, it didn’t go that way. Instead, Walker rammed through a bill largely dismantling public sector unions. The blowback was nearly a million signatures to have an expensive recall election, which turned into virtual death match.
In the movie “Gladiator” (2,000), the Russell Crowe character, having vanquished his Coliseum opponent, looks to the emperor for a thumbs up or thumbs down signal. After the emperor signals thumbs down, Crowe definitely spares his opponent’s life. This show of humanity draws the populace to his side – allowing him to later defeat the emperor, and restore democracy to Rome.
But don’t look for the Russell Crowe character in today’s political arena. He ain’t there. Rather, politics has gone from the equivalent to boxing – when one fighter knocks down his opponent, he stops his attack while the referee counts to ten – to the explosive popularity of mixed martial arts. There, the dominant fighter uses virtually any means to take down his opponent, then follows him to the ground where he mercilessly hits, gouges and knees until the ref intervenes. The difference between the two styles is night and day.
And this parallels the change in our politics. But why?
I have previously written about how cable news and internet blogs have fragmented the body politic into separate, bitterly divided segments who barely acknowledge that the other side might have something worthwhile to say.
And this fragmentation is part of the problem. But it is only part of it.
A more important part may be that more of us feel minimal control of our lives. This perceived lack of control manifests in whether we still have a job, and for whom. It also manifests in whether our civil rights are honored – think of the continuing debate on gay marriage or even civil unions or non-discrimination in the workplace. And it manifests in whether we have the right to vote, with many states – such as Florida - restricting such rights on racial and ethnic and similar lines.
Add in the growing sense that our country is being manipulated by rich and powerful con men – at our collective expense. And since an individual American can do little about this, the resulting anger erupts at an easy target: the other guy in our gladiator contest, who often feels as trapped as we are.
So, how do we walk out of this trap, perhaps even achieving our own Russell Crowe moment? I got an insight on this decades ago, when I was living in an ocean view Santa Monica apartment and had a decent income from a seeming dream job: teaching screenwriting at UCLA Extension. Still, I was frustrated in my main goals. I was not a reporter, and I was unable to sell a screenplay to Hollywood.
A friend who lived in an even fancier apartment worked as a film editor – a lucrative, albeit short term employment - and was always looking for her next job. She was afraid she did not know the right people, or did not know how to get them to like her enough, and so forth. And so the two of us, feeling helpless in pursuing our real desires, worried about earthquakes.
Yes, earthquakes rock California. But later, when I became a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, I did not worry much about earthquakes. Even the 1994 Northridge quake felt more like a severe blip rather than an apocalyptic event.
The difference? I was happy in my work, saw possibilities for growth in life, with earthquakes merely an additional hazard along the way.
And this difference between wanting to feel in control of a significant part of our lives while feeling largely out of control is, I think, why so many of us have grown vindictive towards each other. It is what feeds our growing fascination with mixed martial arts. It is what feeds our fascination with slash and burn politics. We are not happy with the trajectory of our lives, with the opportunities we feel that we deserve but do not have - and so we blame the other, strike out at him, try to destroy him.
Somehow, if John Boehner roars loudly enough, perhaps he thinks that those of us who disagree will concede. If the rest of us villify Gov. Walker and the Koch brothers enough, perhaps we, too, can get them to “tap out.” So, here’s a quick question: how is this working?
The truth is, when we are weighing a course of action – either as individuals or as a nation – we need debate all sides of an issue. Our strongest decisions come as a result of this debate. If we did not first debate robustly – if that debate were shut down through vituperation and name calling and the like - we might launch into counterproductive actions based on false premises. Case in point: America’s ruinous war on Iraq.
Thus, we Americans need to quit vilifying opponents, and instead weigh the pros and cons of different actions. Most frequently, the optimal decision is not a black and white one, but incorporates ideas from both sides. And even if we collectively make a bad decision, we still learn from our failure. The alternative – the demonizing of our opponents, perpetually striving to knock them out - only leads to personal and national paralysis.
Interestingly, just like I let go of my consuming concern with earthquakes when I started reporting steadily, so, too, have I relinquished my once consuming concern with cable pundits – even those pundits with whom I largely agree – after recently moving to New York City, and again kicking my life into higher gear. There is a great city out there, waiting to be explored. So why am I sitting on the sofa, wasting time watching pundits shout at each other?
Put another way, whom do you most trust? Is it individual invariably foaming at the mouth at some perceived injustice? Or is it the one living his or her life in a healthy manner, seeking better opportunities even amid difficulties, while also treating others decently?
None of this means I have become apolitical. It does mean that I am more interested in discussing – and fighting for – ideas, than I am in shouting down the “other.”
In the case of the Wisconsin elections, it means acknowledging that Gov. Walker turned a state deficit into a surplus, even as I abhor the unnecessary damage he inflicted on unions. Gov. Walker is not all bad, nor are the unions all good – and vice versa. So, who on our political scene is going to say that? And how many among us will support him for saying it?By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist
My editors tell me that the comments section is now working. So, please feel free to post your take on this column. Do you agree with my approach, or do you have a totally different take on all this? Who knows; we might even learn something from each other. JH