Out of the Fog

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The “fog truck” is an abiding childhood memory for anyone who grew up in the Deep South in the 1960’s. Often at dusk, just as the family was settling down to dinner, a happy cry would go up from house to house that the city mosquito control truck was coming through the neighborhood. Children begged permission from their parents, then raced outside to form an impromptu bicycle parade merrily weaving in and out of the billowing white fog of bug-destroying chemicals spewing from the back of the city truck.

The pesticide smell was terrible and I expect we must have known, deep down, that it was bad for us. But the experience was so exciting, and the fog was so wonderfully disorienting as to be irresistible. And, of course, we didn’t remain behind the truck for more than a few minutes. As it made its way out of our neighborhood we woozily rode back to our homes for the remains of our dinner and cleaner air. Still, who knows the long-term damage we may have done ourselves by gulping poison from breath to breath?

Now, years later, I feel as if we’ve all been riding behind another fog truck. As the election nears we have been enclouded in an unrelenting news and social media miasma, weaving back and forth, light-headed, between the twin poisons of indignation and condescension. Who knows the long-term damage we may have done ourselves by gulping outrage from meme to meme?

To be honest, I learned a whole lot about America this election year that I wish I hadn’t. It has not been pretty and I don’t suppose I can unlearn it at this point. The electoral choices were so stark that I struggle to understand how some of my friends could decide so differently from me, just “bumfuzzled” as one fellow Texan described the sensation. Of course, I am going to be livid if my candidate loses this election. But I have dear friends about whom I care very much, who will feel equally bad if my candidate wins. Instead of lamenting that I have friends who, to me, have gone off the rails, perhaps I should be rejoicing that my circle of relationships is not yet so narrow and self-reinforcing as to exclude all those who have different perspectives and think that I’m the one who has lost his mind.

“Each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde. The campaign toxicity to which we’ve all been exposed may not disappear in November, but rather find new public spaces to infect. Everyone professes affection for the United States but the survival of the American democratic experience is not an inevitability. It is entirely possible for us to embrace our positions with such force and fervor that we squeeze out the very breath of civil discourse from the democracy we profess to love.

We have two choices: shun those who deeply disappointed, even offended us, in their political choice, or reassert an American community. I propose the latter, not because I believe the issues that divide us are simple or unimportant but precisely because of their consequence. No one has ever changed my mind about any big issue with message alone; the credibility of the messenger has always been as important: my own experience with his or her perspective, judgement, precision, and demeanor. The more significant the opinion, the more confidence I must have in its agent.

So then, it stands to reason that if I sincerely want to change minds I should begin by exhibiting those selfsame attributes. But that sort of modeling cannot happen if we have chosen to cut ourselves off from each other. Perhaps we should love America with a little less devotion to our fiercest positions, and a little more readiness for diverse thought, openness to correction, and dignity even in disagreement. We may prove Wilde wrong simply by attending to that timely Biblical admonition to “bear with one another”.

Finally, it’s almost over. So even though we may all still be smelling of poison as we leave the voting booth, it’s time to ride together, for home and cleaner air.