Just a working man
Just A Working Man
I had dinner the other night with family. I was less than enthused about attending because I knew there were going to be a couple of family members there with whom I had no interest in being cordial. I just shared with you my ideas about “What Divides Us”—how we need to find a way to bridge that massive gap between us and try to listen so we can talk, discuss, and learn.
I was wrong. It’s all bullshit! Facts don’t matter. I had zero interest in engaging in an utterly pointless political conversation, but it really was the elephant in the room. I won’t rehash the details of the evening but I’m guessing you can imagine. Things ended abruptly, with my antagonist shouting, “I voted for Trump, and I’m voting for him again because I like what he’s doing! Yeah, I know he’s a pig, but that doesn’t matter.”
Right. I believe I was talking about what percentage of taxes my working man counterpart pays vs. the lesser percentage his boss pays compared to the welfare losers that he so despises. I mistakenly offered real numbers. I know it was ridiculous, but to me it matters.
Some people can’t accept things on face value; they want to know what makes it real or how it works. It’s how we’re wired. How does an internal combustion engine work? Why does a north-to-north magnet repel, while a north-to-south magnet attracts? Others are comfortable just knowing that the engine runs and that magnets do what they do.
Susan Shapiro recently reminded me of George Lakoff’s writings (thank you, Susan) about understanding the foundational position of people’s moral arguments. Many people don’t argue from a position of broad knowledge or experience; rather, they operate from a “gut feeling,” which trumps any amount of history or logic or reason that you might offer.
I don’t remember if it was effective tax rates, or unemployment numbers, or any of the other handful of topics that we had no real discourse about, but things ended with my counterpart ending the conversation with a desperate shove from the table, proclaiming loudly that he was done. He’s just a working man, and he likes what Trump is doing, and that’s all there is to it.
I have to say that I’m offended by the excuse, I’m just a “working man” and its implication that, “I’m the salt of the Earth that makes the world go ‘round.” I’m a working man, too, and I can guarantee you that my difficulties in life have been exponentially more difficult than this “working man’s” lot has ever been. He’s a chump who has no idea what adversity even means.
We’re all working men and women and, damn it, understanding the why and the how matters. We can’t just rely on gut instinct. Gut instinct is reflexive by definition. It’s what guides our actions after receiving sensory inputs. But we don’t need reflexive thinking; we need carefully considered proactive measures that consider future outcomes, based on a real understanding of what might happen, based upon what has happened.
“What Divides Us” was sincere, yet tragically quaint in retrospect, and that was only three or four days ago. I want to believe that what I said those few short days ago could be real but, again, as Susan reminded me with her reference to George Lakoff’s discussion about “The Strong Father Figure,” you can’t debate facts based on gut instinct with a guy who defends his positions by saying, “I’m Just a working man.”
We all have lifetimes of experiences to draw upon, and I’m no different. The experiences that have molded me are personal and poignant, and so are yours. Somehow, though, somewhere along the way, our experiences have put us on different philosophical paths. Mine is a path of trying to see the challenges that people battle with and helping them as much as I can. Maybe you see these challenges as a societal reckoning, as an opportunity to prove one’s worth, to be strong and not become dependent upon the state.
I’ve alienated people who were once close to me because of my unbending political stance, and I have family members with whom I’ll likely never share anything more than a cordial nod and “hey, how you doing?” at family gatherings. How did we get so far apart? When it comes down to it, don’t we all want the same things?
Take that enduring symbol of the promise of America, the Statue of Liberty—“Give us your tired, your poor …” That idea used to define us, and yet today, it feels like the message has become, “Get out, you’re not welcome.” We truly are divided. Part of me embraces the divide because I don’t want to indulge in what, to me, is poison. Your political stance feels so outlandish to me that the shark-infested moat that lies between us seems impassable, and I know you feel the same way. How is that?
What created the divide? Is it all about money, for the sole purpose of self-enrichment? At the Sunday barbeque, at first glance you didn’t see a representative of the left or the right; you saw your cousin, your uncle, your neighbor, your friend. Not anymore. Now it’s “red” vs. “blue,” and even though I’m firmly in the blue camp, I really want to understand the appeal of the red.
I think perhaps the best way to start is to personalize the conversations we have with each other. Its not us vs. them, the Mexicans and the Chinese hoards looking to exploit us, the greedy rich, and the deadbeat welfare moms. It’s you and me, the family that came here from Tijuana or Beijing looking to work hard and build a better life, the corporate CEO who’s trying to make life better for her employees and customers, and the young mom doing her best to feed her family.
I really believe that, at the core, we’re not so far apart, and that we can find a way to have a productive debate. I get it, you don’t like my reformist ideals, and I don’t like what I see as your outdated stereotypes, but if we can’t stop talking past each other, we’re doomed to perpetuate this extraordinary dysfunction that threatens to keep us at odds forever.
In less than five months, we’ll have an election, and I really want to engage in civil debate. I’m willing to try to see your point if view, even though my personal experiences will inform my discussion, and I know yours will, too.
Getting handcuffed is no fun at all. I speak from experience. As an eighth-grader, I shoplifted a 10 cent candy bar from The Merc—the Walmart of its day—in Mountain Home, Idaho. I got caught, and the store manager called the police. I was handcuffed, put into the back seat of a police cruiser and taken to the local station. The cops were serious—they wanted to teach me a lesson—but they were kind, too. After all, I was only 14-years-old.
Idaho is a conservative state, very much a law and order kind of place. Lucky for me I happen to be white. I was given a chance, even though I was caught red-handed. I was handcuffed, but it was just to scare me a little. It was an unpleasant experience, yes, but I never feared for my safety.
Emmet Till wasn’t so lucky. Have you heard of him? If you haven’t, you should, because if you knew about the circumstances of his death and the fate of his killers, you’d be incensed and rightly so.
Here are the facts: Emmett Till, like me, was 14. However, he was a black boy from Chicago, and he was murdered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, where he was visiting his relatives. Emmett entered a store owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant to purchase some bubble gum. He came and went without incident, but Carolyn told her husband that Emmett had flirted with her or whistled at her—the precise details of Till’s alleged infraction are sketchy. Roy, believing that the young man had offended his wife, decided to take revenge.
The details of Emmett’s subsequent abduction, torture, and murder are horrific—you can Google the story if you’re curious. Suffice it to say that Roy and his half brother were charged and tried for the crime, and acquitted by an all-white jury. Roy even bragged afterward that he’d killed a 14-year-old black boy and gotten away with it.
U.S. history is filled with thousands of similar stories, and the number continues to grow even today. The only difference is that modern-day victims aren’t kidnapped and lynched anymore; they’re gunned down or strangled to death by law enforcement officers, or “concerned citizens,” or damned crazy racist imbeciles, often with no consequences. Emmet Till was murdered in 1955 by an angry white shop owner. George Floyd was murdered by a system that turns a blind eye to the fact that racism exists. The brutal reality is that George Floyd was murdered because it doesn’t touch us, and what doesn’t touch us allows us to become complacent. The outcome is identical.
I don’t pretend that I have moral standing to speak to the injustice that Black people have endured, but here’s what I do know: These things don’t happen to white people. I can read about modern-day lynchings. I can talk about it, and I can try to empathize, but the injustice is simply beyond my comprehension. It’s not “real” to me. Not one of my relatives that I love has ever been killed by the police, and I have virtually zero expectation that my life might end in an encounter with law enforcement. All I can do is march and protest and speak out. But in reality it doesn’t touch me because I’m not black.
Efforts to fight systemic racism have made some progress, but it’s difficult to understand why the white majority has not done more to address the remnants of the institutional racism that allowed Emmett’s killers to walk free. Emmett Till would have been 79-years-old in 2020, chasing his grandkids, laughing, dreaming, living the life that was cut short at the tender age of 14, simply because he was black.
A friend often asks me what I would do in any given situation if the roles were reversed. It’s a good way to push myself into a different frame of reference. With that idea in mind, I would ask any white person who believes that all races are treated equally in America, would you trade places? Would you have felt safe walking into a small-town Mississippi store in 1955 if you were black? What about now, today? Would you feel safe in 2020 if you were 14 and had just shoplifted a 10 cent candy bar from the Merc in Mountain Home, Idaho, if you were Black and handcuffed?
Most of us have seen the images of Trump marching to St. John’s Church after military police cleared peaceful protesters who were demonstrating in front of the White House. Trump’s security battalion fired pepper bullets and tear gas canons at these peaceful crowds so that he could stage a photo op to create a distraction from the fact that he spent several hours cowering in the White House bunker one day earlier, claiming later that he was engaged in a “routine inspection.”
The Geneva 1993 International Chemical Weapons Convention banned the use of tear gas by military forces at war. The U.S. was a sponsor of and signatory to that agreement. In other words, the U.S. military does not use tear gas against enemy troops or combatants and hasn’t done so in nearly 30 years. The reason is that tear gas can be fatal, not just for the weak and infirm, but also for normally healthy people who suffer from a respiratory infection, the flu, or asthma.
Despite its prohibition for use on the battlefield, tear gas can still be used by U.S. police departments against our own citizens, on our own city streets. Do we not even deserve the same protections as enemy combatants?
No one is claiming that all cops are bad, but it has become glaringly obvious that the police exist in a protective power bubble. They can stop, harass, detain, arrest, assault, and, yes, even tear gas us, all with near impunity. And for the most part, they rarely have any reason to fear even minor consequences for their actions.
For the most part, this isn’t a problem. Most of us are law-abiding citizens, and most cops are well-trained professionals who are valuable assets to their communities. However, power corrupts, and corruption begins at the top.
Every police department across the country bears the proud slogan, “To Serve and Protect.” Along the way, some police departments have interpreted this to mean, “to intimidate and harass,” especially if you happen to be black.
I’m not condemning all cops. However, the rule of law is the bedrock of our civil society, and when even a small percentage of police put themselves above the law, the whole system becomes corrupted. If the global community has decided collectively that tear gas is not a humane weapon of war, should we not apply the same standard to the way the police treat citizens of our own country?
Our better angels
It was about 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. My mom and sister were on a grocery run, which was an all-day event. We lived 4 miles from the nearest road and another 20 miles from Sandpoint, the closest town, and so trips to the grocery store included a pack horse and, usually, a jump start for our 1979 Chevy Blazer, which would often sit for months at a time unused.
We were building a cabin on a remote mountain in northern Idaho. My father had died when I was an infant, and Social Security was the saving grace that kept our family off the streets. However, as I was now 15-years-old, just three short years from manhood, that gravy train was about to end, and my mom had gone into full panic mode. I can’t imagine the fear and pressure she must have felt. Mom had purchased 10 acres of land in the remote Idaho panhandle, with no electricity, no running water, and no phone lines, but for 50 dollars a month, we owned a piece of land where we could build a home.
At 15, I learned how to operate a two-man saw, and I became almost as proficient at using an axe as my sister, Mac, who was three years older than me and indisputably the baddest badass there ever was. She still is. You see, because Mom had been able to raise the four of us kids with the guarantee of Social Security, we always knew that even if money was tight we wouldn’t starve. But now that was about to change.
We built our log cabin in the woods on that remote mountain without the benefit of power tools or building experience. We used the axes and the two-man saw and hammers and spikes. We dragged trees from a mile away, summoning whatever ingenuity we could muster—levers, pulleys, our younger brother’s Huffy bicycle—but mostly determination to beat the approaching winter. We were so close. The log walls were up, and the cross ties and Tamarack rafters were in place. The final remaining job was the roof. Part of my mom’s trip into town that day, in addition to purchasing supplies, was to visit the library, hoping to find some miracle guide to installing a roof.
The morning Mom and Mac departed for Sandpoint, our project was to start “thatching the roof.” The idea would have been laughable if we hadn’t been so desperate. We’d had to clear snow from the rafters at least twice so far, and we knew that winter was coming soon. Without a roof, we were in real trouble. We weren’t just a little scared; we were really scared. So my brother and I were scouring the woods, looking for branches and brush, anything that looked like it might be suitable for covering the roof.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and I was perched between two rafters, 15 feet above the ground, attempting to place some branches across the beams, when I heard a man call out, “Hello, how are you doing?” The memory is so powerful, it literally brings tears to my eyes thinking about it. Any fresh face was a welcome sight, so I climbed down from my perch to see who had somehow managed to find us out here, so far from civilization. Harold Larson was the man’s name. We didn’t know Harold, but he’d heard about this single Mom and her kids trying to scratch out some semblance of survival in the mountains near Vay, Idaho, and he was worried that we might not survive the winter without help.
I greeted Harold enthusiastically. I think he was the first person who had actually made the unguided trek to our homestead. He looked around and asked about our plans, which I told him included thatching the roof and building a fire pit in the center of the cabin floor. There was nothing condescending about Harold. He said he’d be back tomorrow to help, and then he left. I was reasonably certain that I’d never see Harold again.
Mom and Mac got back just after dark, and we told them about our visitor. We were excited that there might be some help on the horizon. Of course we were doubtful—who shows up out of the blue in the middle of nowhere offering help?—but we were also desperate. Snow had fallen, and our plan for weaving thousands of sticks and twigs together in some magical way to keep the heat in and the weather out was sketchy at best. The library hadn’t provided any grand salvo for Mom and Mac either.
It snowed again that evening, just two or three inches, but enough to remind us what was in store. We dusted the snow from the log ceiling joists and started trying to imagine how we could possibly construct a roof from the debris we’d scavenged from the woods. Time was running out, and things weren’t looking good.
The next morning, just past sunrise, five pickup trucks scaled the treacherous road to our cabin. I was amazed that they made it up the steep incline, but somehow they managed. Harold Larson and his band of saviors had arrived to install a roof on our humble cabin, and when we saw them, all our fear, hunger, and exhaustion gave way to pure elation. Their pickups were loaded up with sheets of plywood, batting, roofing plastic, and a crew of workers.
Winter days are brief in northern Idaho, with darkness setting in by five at the latest, but by the time Harold and his crew left, we had not only a pristine new roof on our cabin, but also an old, wood-burning stove for good measure. Now we could use our two-man saws and axes to cut up wood to provide heat.
God bless Harold! I went back to look for him 20 years later because I really wanted to revel in his grace and let him know what an impression his generosity had made on me. As it turns out, Harold and I are vastly different people, politically. Harold is a staunch conservative, a Seventh Day Adventist who devotes his life to his Church. He found us and helped us because of his beautiful spirit and his personal desire to help anyone in need. In other words, he wasn’t just a Christian, but truly Christ-like. I have that same desire to help, and I do help, just without the religious motivation.
Harold Larson and I are on complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, but none of that matters. My admiration for his selfless generosity was greater than our differences. What he perceived as a down-on-their-luck family on a remote mountain in northern Idaho was really us living our own come-to-Jesus moment, and Harold stepped in to save the day.
I love Harold Larson. I don’t really know him, but I know he gave unconditionally, without any expectation of repayment. To me, that’s what the country I live in and grew up in is all about. In my mind, Harold personifies the greatness I expect, not only of myself but of everyone. At a minimum this is what we should expect and cherish from our leaders. Sadly, we are not even close to realizing that type of integrity amidst the moral destruction wreaked upon our nation during this current political era.
I want what you want. I want a roof over my head. I want responsible stewardship. I want integrity. I want honesty. And even though Harold and I don’t walk the same path, we share the same moral compass, this is what we should all want to see from our President.
I’ll admit it, I’m political. I like to read things that might help me understand the “why,” things that might help inform my opinions on the swirling mess that sometimes threatens to engulf us all. Some of my favorite authors are Douglas Blackmon, Naomi Klein, Matt Taibi, David Stuckler, Henry George, Michael Lewis, George Lakoff, Jonathan Tepper and, yes, Barack Obama.