My dad’s become a crazed right-winger

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He’s a Vietnam vet and a retired civil servant. Now his mind’s been warped by Fox News! He’s gone Obama-nuts!

(Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 19, 2010)

Dear Cary,

I am writing because I am feeling more and more estranged from my father in the last few years, and I would like to return to the loving, respectful relationship we had while I was growing up. I am an independent, socially liberal woman in my mid-20s, currently in graduate school. My father is a retired civil servant and veteran of the Vietnam War. I am sure part of our conflict is generational; he has always been nostalgic for the “good old days” when men wore hats and acted decently. I remind him that men in lynch mobs wore hats, and it didn’t make them any more decent. He, however, chooses to idealize the values of his childhood, and ignore the racism, sexism and ideological repression of postwar America.

He has always identified as a Republican or an Independent, but it was a socially liberal, small-government kind of republicanism. In the last few years he has exchanged his moderate views for right-wing conservatism. His sole source of information is Fox News and conservative radio shows, and he has espoused increasingly paranoid views of our country’s future and President Obama’s intentions. He actually thinks Obama may be a Muslim, a socialist/communist, and is actively destroying America while the left-wing media clings to political correctness and looks the other way. He watches Glenn Beck and thinks, Yes, this makes sense. He is becoming myopic, and I am ashamed to say, racist and ignorant.

This is not the man I grew up with. I think he fears a future he cannot control, and longs for a past that never existed. He is responding to this existential crisis with fear, anger and paranoia. I feel for his situation, but cannot respect the viewpoint it generates. We are at a point where we can barely speak about current events or politics without deeply offending one another. I feel I cannot reconcile myself to his beliefs, and I know it is profoundly changing our relationship. How can I help him embrace a progressive, inclusive future? How do I bring back rationality, sensitivity and temperance into our discussions?

Worried

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Dear Worried,

One of the truisms of doing service in the world is that we aid ourselves by aiding others.

So I note that, after a five-month absence, my first two columns concern a brother’s addiction and a father’s figurative disappearance. How emblematic of my own emotional state. I have addicted brothers, both literally and figuratively, and I have recently lost a father — literally and figuratively. Anyway, I like to observe how the themes in my own life are reflected in the questions I choose to address. And “loss” is not meant literally; “loss” can just mean a sense of moving away, or a problem, a chasm, some distance having opened up between people.

Putting aside for the moment your ideological struggle with your father, I am drawn to the universal problem of living in time and accepting how others change.

Frankly, I suggest you take the long view.

Life in time is a constant shedding. It’s a shedding of skins, a shedding of beliefs, of relationships, attachments, memories, powers. And so it requires us to be in constant mourning for the things that pass. But things also go in cycles and are reborn, so that relationships we thought were dead come alive again, but differently, changed by the shedding, and so we are constantly getting used to the new, and we are constantly shedding, and we are constantly being amazed, as though we were waking up every day in a new universe.

That is the meta-setting for what is going on with you and your father. You long for the way it was and wonder  if there isn’t some way you and your father could return to an earlier time. You wonder this despite the fact that you are an intelligent, educated woman and know that time cannot go backward.

The past is shed away into chaff and dust. But the future bears unexpected gifts. Ahead will be some new setting in which you and your father find agreement and grow close again. Sometimes the gradual weakening of the parent and the strengthening of the child brings them to such a point. In taking care of him you may grow close to him again in time. He may fight his weakening and reject your help at first. But then, in time, as often happens, he will become grateful for your help and will come to admire and depend on your competence.

You needn’t wait for such gradual life changes, however. You can shift your focus today to some realm about the virtues of which you and he agree. Perhaps the natural world is such a realm. There is not much to be argued about a stream, a trout cooked over a fire, a sunset over a lake. Political sentiments may arise but there is more to agree about than disagree about in the beauty and pleasure of nature. Or it may be that you and he still like the same art or the same music, or enjoy the same favorite relatives. I would try to find things you both enjoy, and place yourself in mutual witness of such things. That way, rather than focusing on what you disapprove of in each other, you stand side by side, facing an object of mutual approval. How can we not admire those who admire the same things we admire?

While focusing on the interpersonal, I do not want to ignore the fact that crazy political ideas are dangerous, and that lives are at stake. What worries me is how deep this familiar mania goes. Is it a short-lived, shallow, Fox News-induced paroxysm of misplaced patriotism and class resentment, after which will come a return to reasonable debate in matters of national destiny?

Or is America headed toward some cataclysm of unreason that will result in some kind of tyrannical, undemocratic hell the likes of which we have never seen?

And what can we as individuals do to avert such a catastrophe?

I think the long-term stability of the nation depends on the endurance of strong liberal institutions of learning, the teaching of sustained critical reasoning to children at the earliest possible time, an insistence that children learn not just to excel on standardized test but to excel in evidence-based decision-making and rhetorical decoding.

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Call me crazy, but history offers little reason to feel secure. Rather, upheavals, reversals, rises and falls seem to be the norm.

The damage done by Fox News, in concert with a failing educational system and a consumerist culture, may take decades to repair. I hope that you will courageously consider what role you can play in preserving a culture of liberal thought.

From where I sit, in a San Francisco cafe, there seems to be great reason for hope. All around me there seems to be a revolution among the young, something like a spiritual shift in response to deeply felt symptoms of planetary collapse and catastrophe.

But that’s San Francisco. Then there are the many like your father who have been allowed, encouraged irresponsibly, to take a welcome leave of their senses and rant against reason.

At base, it seems that a fight is under way between reason and nonreason.

But to return to the personal and the spiritual: Even if we were witnessing the catastrophe that your father’s irrational passions portend — a fascist split, a takeover by a military/corporate cabal — even then, your problem would be to make peace with what history has wrought. You are yet another tiny being witnessing the giant, tragic ruptures of history.

So it sounds trite to say it, but the planet will still be here long after Glenn Beck, Barack Obama, Keith Olbermann and you and I and everyone else who is reading this are just memories, ashes, bones, fleeting thoughts and fading photographs.

In closing, you ask, “How can I help him embrace a progressive, inclusive future? How do I bring back rationality, sensitivity and temperance into our discussions?” I think a better question to ask is, “How can I be closer to my father?” or “How can I accept him as a human being and seek his acceptance of me?” The difference in approach is based on my observation that the realm of rhetoric is one of ever-finer distinctions; it is a realm of differences, and so it tends, of its own nature, to amplify differences. Rhetorical interaction does not lend itself well to finding commonality. Even if you could, say, agree that you and he both love liberty, or both believe in Enlightenment values, you would soon be arguing about the finer points: What does “liberty” mean to someone who watches Glenn Beck? What does it mean to a socially liberal woman in graduate school?

So I suggest you seek areas of commonality in nature or art, and in feeling rather than idea. Have some fun together. Build trust and enjoyment through shared experiences. Have patience. Be gentle.

One last thing, if you please.

Note I say above “life in time”: meaning life experienced in a linear way, as opposed to life experienced in bursts, explosions of understanding, flashes of knowledge, discontinuities and ruptures. We lose things slowly and do not notice we have lost them and thus fail to mourn them. We notice such bursts more sharply than life’s ever-present character of gradual decay and constant shedding. Yet it is the constant shedding that can be known and counted on. Attention to the many small deaths of a day keeps us agile of spirit.

For this, too, shall pass.

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My family is feuding about politics

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 16, 2009

We’ve got Republicans, we’ve got liberals, and it’s getting ugly.


Dear CT,

Like many extended families, ours has people who live and breathe Republican doctrine, and people who are liberal. Since the early Bush years, we have given each other a wide berth. Cable television has nothing on the “America first! How dare you question our president, you traitor!” rhetoric of some members.

This week, someone sent out an e-mail talking about how Obama’s policies weren’t helping the economy and were probably killing it. Well, the floodgates on both sides opened. People felt personally attacked and were right to. We were attacked, and we attacked right back. Two apologies were made from our side. Their side didn’t acknowledge them. And since then, nothing.

What now? I do want the whole family to be able to be a family, on the about once-yearly occasions that we are together. I don’t know how to walk it back, though. The rift that opened up (even in myself) was shockingly deep and raw and beyond my predicting. If we are like this, no wonder they spit nails at each other in Congress. What do you suggest

Family Feud Participant; or, How Can They Say the Collapse Is Obama’s fault (and be such nice people otherwise?)

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Dear Family Feud Participant,

“Would you like something to eat?” is a nice beginning. “Can I come over and help you mow the lawn?” is another.

You also might ask your relatives questions such as these: Are you still employed? Are you worried about losing your job? Are your friends and co-workers worried? What do they say? How do your own plans for retirement look? Have you changed any of your investment practices? Who was your investment advisor? Did she perform well, or foolishly? What is her outlook for the future? Is your housing secure? Do you have a pension at work? Do you feel that it is secure? Are you in a union? Is there a union where you work? How is the union regarded by your co-workers and company management? How do you feel about the future of your industry as a whole? Is your company gaining or losing market share? To whom or from whom? Europe? Asia? How did you feel about NAFTA when it was enacted? How do you feel about it now? Did your company support it or oppose it? What do your co-workers grumble about in their free time? And what is it like working today as compared to 10 years ago? Are you better off, worse off, or about the same?

In other words, try to move from the conceptual to the concrete. Underneath “political” rhetoric are often real concerns. Many people, when they talk about “politics,” are really talking about their fear of the future, or their failed marriages or anger at their parents or a wounded sense of pride at work or the sad loss of an adolescent hope for an ideal republic the likes of which are found only in fantasy novels. If you listen for your relatives’ real-life concerns, you may learn something. For instance, current economic troubles may affect your nieces’ and nephews’ plans to attend college and raise families. These are things you can talk about regardless of political beliefs.

You know, your letter got me all steamed up about the theoretical underpinnings of the decline of our political discourse, and I wrote a ton about it in the cafe, in a feverish, caffeine-fueled blaze. I also watched Jon Stewart’s interview with Jim Cramer last night and am still a bit buzzed by that. But when I read over what I had written, I realized, you know, I’m no theoretical genius or philosopher. I can sound like a bit of a blowhard, actually. Sometimes I’m just a big word machine. It’s like playing riffs on the guitar: You let loose and some wild stuff comes out and some of it is pretty cool. But there are people in the audience. You look up and you realize, my God! I’ve been noodling for half an hour!

Sometimes it’s better to simplify.

So I quietly cut out about 90 percent of what I had written. Only this was left: Yes, many of us have families. Families, thank God, are made up of individuals. Those individuals may have opinions we consider misguided, but they also have lives that we care about. Concentrate on the lives, not the rhetoric.

This is not to say, “Don’t discuss politics with family members.” Rather, it is to suggest that what you describe is not actually political speech. It is more like a symptom of a national communication disorder.

‘Nuff said. It’s Friday and quitting time. (Yes, we are workers, and yes, we do occasionally knock off for the week.)

But one final word (I really do not seem to be able to stop, do I? That’s my own communication disorder!): Ignore all mass family e-mails about politics! Mass family e-mails about politics are the worst! If you must respond, pause first, and then suggest, “OK, everybody, barbecue next week at Aunt Kate’s!”