A couple weeks ago I went to a neighborhood party with my mom, mainly out of boredom and the draw of free food and beer. There were family friends there, family acquaintances, and family “I-don’t-know-who-any-of-these-people-are.” It wasn’t a bad way to spend an otherwise uneventful Saturday, and I got to play grown-up with all of my mom’s friends, which was revealing. Most importantly I learned that none of these people knew how to pump a goddamn keg. Pumping the keg when the beer is already flowing just results in a cup full of foam. Didn’t any of them learn this in college, like I did?
Foamy beer aside, it was a mostly pleasant evening. I was talking with one woman about, what else, my job prospects, when the conversation was derailed and became about politics thanks in part to a passing mention of Karl Rove. (I may or may not have called him the Anti-Christ.) What followed was a spirited, well-mannered, and really bizarre debate about politics.
She rhetorically asked if I though Obama’s or Romney’s polices would help me get a job. Let’s make one thing clear. There are 81 days until Election Day, and 156 days until the inauguration. It will take some time beyond that to pass any economic reform bills, and longer still for those to have any impact. If I need to rely on Romney’s policies to get a job then I should really just give up now. Even if I agreed with his economic policies, (which for the most part I don’t,) the thought of requiring his election for me to a get a job is, if not a moot point, then at least a personally depressing one.
I’ve got a passing understanding of economics. Considering that I’m terrible at math, I’m pretty okay with a passing understanding. I know enough that the basics make sense, I know that there are certainly much smarter people than me who agree with my general outlook, and I have a kindergartener’s understanding of what is or is not fair. That said, it’s not a debate I can really argue without totally talking out of my ass, so I changed the subject. I’m fairly liberal on economic issues, and completely liberal on social issues.
When I told my opponent that, despite not having a personal stake in the issue, gay marriage was one of the most important issues for me, she scoffed. “Why,” she asked, “do you care about that? You should be focusing on yourself. Especially at your age.” This kind of shocked me. I’m familiar with many arguments against gay marriage. I know how to react to the bigoted, homophobic, selective reading of the bible argument. But to be told that I shouldn’t care because I should only be thinking about Number One was upsetting, and frankly rather revealing.
Is that really the kind of world we want to live in? The woman I was talking to is a very smart and very nice lady, which made it all the more shocking to see her endorse a philosophy centered around such profound selfishness. It wasn’t even the pro-gay rights action that she objected to (and I must sadly admit that despite my contributions to the Human Rights Campaign I haven’t been doing enough,) but more the fact that I would consider the issue important to me in the first place.
Look, I get that most people are ultimately going to look out for their best interests. That’s completely normal. If we didn’t then Darwinism would be the death of us all. But we’ve got to care about people beside ourselves. I would say that it’s what separates us from animals, but I’ve seen the video of the dog helping another dog that got hit by a car. Care about others. Care about issues that don’t affect you. If you must bring this back to yourself, it pays to care about others because otherwise, why should anybody care about you?
It is one of the many things that bugs me so much about politics today, the lack of empathy. I would like to say that it’s on both sides, and I’m sure to a certain extent it is. Overwhelmingly though it’s the Right that seems to be unable to consider throwing anybody a bone. I’m not saying that people need to give everything up. Heck, I’m not even saying that they need to do anything (though it would be nice.) A simple acknowledgement of the fact that not everyone has it as easy as a straight white upper-middle class male would be nice. Be nice to people. A nation full of self-serving individuals is hardly a nation. It’s anarchy – great if you’re doing well, but it sucks if you’re in need of some help.
When president Obama recently said “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” he was right. He would have saved himself a mess of trouble if he had added “all by yourself,” to the end of his sentence, but where would campaigns be without blowing up small gaffes into major out of proportioned tent pole issues. There is this oft-repeated idea that the rich are rich just because they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps by all by their own hard work and genius. (This is the Ayn Randian worldview endorsed by Paul Ryan despite the fact that he was able to go to college thanks to government grants.) These are exceptional people for sure, but they were helped along the way by someone who was looking out for interests other than themselves, even of it was only a little. There are a lot of groups in America that can’t do it alone. Let’s help each other out.
Perhaps the thing that aggravated me the most about this whole way of thinking was, as I mentioned at the party, if everyone should really only be looking out for only themselves then opponents of gay marriage should really quit it. Stopping two people who love each other from marrying isn’t really looking out for Number One. Two guys who are in love with eachother getting married could not have less to do with you. I only have to be altruistic because they are going out of their way to be compassion-less bigots.
After an hour, and a mercifully brief discussion about the existence of global warming, I managed to escape from my political conversation. Typically, neither of us had changed our political views in the slightest. The only opinion that might’ve changed was her opinion of me. I’d like to think that she was impressed by my smarts and my pathos, but she could’ve just as easily left the party thinking that I am an uppity little shit. Looking on the bright side, I guess that she joined me in being concerned about my job prospects. If that makes me Number Two then at least that’s a start.
Originally published Thursday, August 16, 2012