Experience 1: In graduate school, I met a woman 20 years older than me named Susie, and somehow we became fast friends. She was the most liberal person I had ever known, and she became the first liberal I ever got to know well. The immediate problem I faced was that Susie wasn’t like any description I had ever heard of a liberal. She was incredibly intelligent — one of the smartest people I had ever known. Way smarter than me. She was extremely informed about the world around her. She didn’t have the same religious views as I did, or political views, or anything else, and that led to the next problem.
I loved her. Obviously not in a romantic way, but as a person. She was warm and open. She never seemed threatened by any of my ideas which is a huge credit to her to begin with since we were so far apart politically. But given the fact that Susie had a gay son, and we probably never had a conversation where I wasn’t expressing my opinions about not “believing in” homosexuality (which I now think is like not believing in gravity), I’m sure at least some of what I said hurt her deeply. Which led to my next problem.
I knew she loved me too. I felt loved by her. She never raised her voice or became angry with me, even as she explained her views over and over again to a 25 year old life-long know-it-all who just didn’t — and at the time couldn’t — get it. The conversation was so often about her precious son, and while I don’t remember ever not being careful with my words, neither do I ever remember not feeling very right, and righteous, and that it was my job to make sure Susie came to see “the truth” about her precious son. She never got on board with my program, but she loved me and was so patient with my questions. She shared her views but was never forceful with me. Now I realize that if one of my girls were gay and someone talked about them the way I probably talked about Susie’s son — well, let’s just say it would only have happened once.
What an odd duck she was. I thought liberals were stupid, that they didn’t know the issues, that they were non-rational pieces of emotional goo, incapable of reason, waving their bras around at everybody, smoking weed, and singing peace songs. I thought being liberal was, in itself, sufficient evidence to prove that you were an idiot, naive, and had read nothing in your life but Karl Marx and Bloom County. In other words, I thought pretty much what listening to Rush had taught me to think.
I realize now what I didn’t know then. Susie had come upon her views honestly, as a result of her life experience, and some of those experiences were worth far more than any argument I had ever known or would ever know to the contrary. What I did know at the time was that Susie, despite our differences of opinion, was one of the best human beings I had ever known. I knew that I wanted to be that open, that loving, that patient and kind, that caring, and yes — that wickedly smart. Could it be that Susie was this kind of person at least partly as a result of the way she saw the world, and not in spite of it?
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t convert to liberalism. Not even close. If anything I dug in my heels, which is precisely what most people do when they have an experience that turns on its head everything they think they’ve ever known to be true. While I was in school, of course, I kept meeting more and more of these strange creatures, these “liberals.” Without exception, they were bright, warm, and wonderful. I never experienced a single liberal that was anything like what I had been taught to expect. But once in a while, in my more lucid moments, I saw flashes of some of those bad things in myself, and even in my hero Rush. Of course I ignored it. Truth hurts, after all. Right? Only liberals care about all this “hurting people’s feelings,” PC crap. Right?
Experience 2: I started working as a pastor halfway through grad school. Shortly after graduation, I organized a trip for my youth group to south Chicago where we would stay at Olive Branch Mission and conduct a VBS (Vacation Bible School) for children in the area. This was the first time I had ever been to the inner city, and we were there for ten days. Our leader at the mission, Oreon, took us out the first night to take a walk around “the hood.” We were all scared to death, of course, since when you’re white and raised in the suburbs, you think that the minute you cross the city line you’re going to be stabbed. (You don’t know you think this, but you do.)
I’m certain some unseemly things happen in that neighborhood. It was, after all, a high poverty, high crime area. I could sit on my windowsill at night and watch drug deals happen on the corner, and prostitutes being picked up. We were told to stay in line, to not be loud, and to not make eye contact with passers-by. But we didn’t see any problems that night and, given that most of us were convinced we would return to the mission mostly or fully murdered, we were surprised. We only saw families and kids. People sitting on their porches, some of whom spoke to us as we walked by, asked what we were doing in the neighborhood, and welcomed us.
This wasn’t what the inner city was supposed to look like. There were nice people here? People were raising families here? Parents in this community cared about and loved their children? Seemingly so. Still, I thought, it’s their own fault. They should pick themselves up by their own boot straps, work hard, and get out of here. But the next day, I learned a fact that changed my life.
After the VBS that next day, one of the other mission leaders loaded us into a van and we drove around the city. We noticed how the urban jungle was suddenly clean as a whistle after simply driving under a bridge — the crisp and clean division of the haves from the have-nots. We parked in front of the Robert Taylor homes, and the leader explained why there were bars around the balconies. Apparently, years earlier, pimps and drug dealers were breaking into the homes of prostitutes demanding payment. If the prostitute could not pay, their children were thrown off the balconies onto the pavement below.
Children who grew up in these projects spent the majority of their childhoods playing on those tiny balconies, in cages. We learned that the girl who had been valedictorian of her class the previous year had grown up in one of those apartments. Every day her parents took her to school and dropped her off, then picked her up immediately after school and brought her home. She was not allowed to go outside without a parent. She had to remain on the balcony or in the apartment. She did her homework and went to bed. That was her life. She graduated number one in her class, with all that help, all that effort, all that sacrifice from her parents. She had a B average.
The most diligent, responsible, hardest working kid in the school — the best of the best — had a B average, so difficult was it to learn in the cacophony and danger of that place.
We were told to note the almost complete absence of grocery stores, of any viable businesses, for miles around. It was an entrepreneurial desert, for obvious reasons. Poor people without vehicles would be forced to do all their grocery shopping at the market on the corner, with its ridiculous prices, including the high cost of cashing a social security or welfare check at the time. They could only walk so many bags back to the projects at a time. They were often confronted with gangsters in the elevators who would take all their food, so they might choose to walk up twenty or thirty flights of stairs.
We drove through the streets of the city and were told to notice that all the garbage cans were full. Always. We didn’t see a single trash can empty or being emptied in ten days. We were then taken to the Magnificent Mile, where we saw dozens of people in little clean uniforms, walking around with little broom kits, sweeping up every last cigarette butt and stray receipt off the sidewalks. The leader noted, “This is the same city. The city decides when to empty these garbage cans, what gets emptied when and how often. It all happens like clockwork on the Mag Mile. It almost never happens on the south side.” And so the streets in south Chicago were strewn with refuse. I spoke up.
“Why don’t the people here just pick up their own garbage?”
“Would you spend hours of your life every week picking up the garbage of other people because your city never collected your trash? If you did, where would you take it that it wouldn’t just end up on the street again?”
That evening as we drove down a dimly lit city street I saw a mother with a baby on her hip, a couple of tween-aged children, and a small child — maybe two years old — walking down the street about twenty-five feet behind her. The child’s legs were bowed horribly, so she could hardly walk. I asked the leader what was wrong.
“She has rickets.”
“What is rickets?” I asked.
“It’s caused by long-term malnutrition — lack of vitamin D in the diet.” What came out of my mouth next was not under my conscious control. It was almost like a cough or a gasp, I think it might have been a sob, and I stared at that little girl while I heard myself saying it as if it weren’t even me.
“But…this is America.”
This was America. And people were starving.
That is the day my world view fell apart. That’s the day this Rush Limbaugh fanatic learned that Rush’s recommendation for the scourge of poverty — pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps — was worthless. I learned that a lot of people — perhaps the majority in the inner city — don’t even have bootstraps. It’s either someone helps, or there simply is no hope. For tens of thousands of people I saw down there, there was no hope, and there never would be. They would live and die in this hell scape. I couldn’t even imagine living there another week.
It’s not like Limbaugh didn’t know this, or like he denied it. He just seemed so comfortable writing it off as their own fault, or as the price of living in a free country. Clearly, he had found a way to live with it. I didn’t want that to be true of me. I didn’t ever, and don’t ever, want to find a way to be okay with human suffering and evil.
In all the hours I had listened to him, in the books he had written, in his newsletter, in all his banter with people on his show, he never talked about it. It was a non-issue, something to deflect and sound superior about when one of those crazy liberals got through the call screen. What people are silent about tells you a lot.
I went home angry at what I had been sold. It was a world view that asserted itself as THE right one, the OBVIOUSLY right one, so obviously right that everybody else was crazy and clueless, intentional reprobates, and yet millions of people — people in our cities, minorities, people in the lower class — were just complete non-entities. All the bellowing and outrage about the evil liberals (the most evil people in the world, if the number of times a person references something is any indicator of the priority they place on it) and not a single word about places where true evil, true suffering, true injustice were rampant, where tens of thousands of people simply had no hope.
Don’t jump to conclusions. I didn’t become a liberal here either. World views die hard. I just turned my back on Rush and the other radio blowhards.
But my conservatism failed me that week. First liberals weren’t like what I had been told. Then the inner cities and the people who lived in them weren’t either. Nor were the answers I had been offered. And the people I had been taught were the enemy — liberals, minorities, especially the poor — weren’t really the enemy.
I didn’t return home a liberal, but I returned home different, shaken to the core. The cocky confidence I had gleaned from Rush was gone. I didn’t know what was true anymore. I clung to conservatism for years, simply out of fear, not knowing the alternatives, habit, whatever. I was getting older and I wasn’t as open as I had once been. I hadn’t been brainwashed, but it was pretty close — the closest I had ever come. I would never allow that to happen again.
In my next post, I’ll share with you the one event that caused me, eventually, to drop conservatism altogether.