Friday, September 14, 2012

"Conservatives Close Up"

As they started charging more to spend a week at this spa and exercise place I go to in Mexico, the diversity of the clientele noticeably narrowed, teachers, librarians and social workers who formerly patronized the ranch gradually priced out of the market in favor of wealthier visitors with more conspicuous jewelry.  As a result of this depletion in diversity, for a while, Dr. M felt considerably less enthusiastic about going there. 

(When she heard me say this, the late Texas political satirist Molly Ivins confided, “Tell your wahfe that the teachuhs still come heah in the summah when it’s cheap.”)

To give you an indication of the current ideological breakdown of the guest list, when I dropped in to the Rec Center to check out Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention, there were a total of three people in attendance.  (Out of maybe a hundred and twenty guests.) 

The next night, though I missed Obama’s speech – being in a remote location attending cooking school (I can now chop rhubarb) – when I arrived for Obama hugging his family onstage, I found eight people watching the event.  (When I asked a young woman how Obama’s speech was, she said, “He made me cry.”  I was sorry I missed it.  Barack Obama has poetry; Bill Clinton has fiery wonkiness.  (And an appeal to the ladies.)

So that’s how it is.  I’d been visiting the same place for thirty years, and gradually, like with the frog immersed in the imperceptibly warming water, the ranch had evolved into a raging hotbed of conservatism. 

And there I was. 


Among them.

What did I do?  I shut up, and I listened, eager for a rare opportunity to learn about people who believe things I don’t.  Why is it rare?  Because the people I know are unilaterally on the other side.  (Many of them might doubt my ideological purity for just considering conservatives worth listening to.  For me, in line with the Muppets Take Manhattan premise that

“Pipples is Pipples”

it’s important to understand how pipples can survey the same situation and emerge with a diametrically opposing point of view.)

In a recent post, I mentioned a compassionate-souled dentist named Ken who shepherded me through my troubles on the hiking trail.  Ken kept talking to me over the challenging spots, to distract me from my exertions.  What he was talking about, however, in part at least, was about people who did not want to work, existing instead on free handouts from the government.  Talk about ambivalence.  This Angel of Mercy was generously ministering to my needs, while at the same time spouting right-wing doctrinarity I did not want to hear.

Subsequently, I ran into a man named Jeff who told me that after a stint in the military, he took a job, and then, as he said it, “instead of buying a nice, new car”, he put his savings down on an apartment property in San Francisco.  Jeff and his wife have now retired to Sonoma, where he manages their real estate holdings from the “Wine Country.”

A further encounter found me hiking alongside a woman who, after working many years for a company devising computer programs for hotel registration, no longer interested in enriching the coffers of her employers, she decided to leave the company, and go into business for herself.

A woman I sat with at breakfast revealed that she had jettisoned her training in psychology, caught on with a Fortune 500 company as an executive, and then, after twenty years, she retired from that, and is now in a company personalizing yoga regimens for the wealthy.

Lastly, less a “success story” than a “success-to-be” story, I had lunch with an attorney who was being dropped by a major Manhattan law firm because she had, in the period of time allotted for it, not made partner.  I told her I had a feeling things would work out for her.  She shot back that she was sure they would, her confident and coolish tone suggesting that my encouragement was unnecessary, and perhaps even patronizing.   

We’re not talking about billionaires or Trust Fund Babies here.  These are standard-issue American people – and I continued meeting them all week – who’d found ways to succeed.  When you investigate the subtext of their stories, what you inevitably find is,

“If I can do it, why can’t they?”

Leave out the bigots, the zealots and the idiots, and this, I believe, is the core of conservatism. 

“If I can do it (without government handouts), why can’t they?”

Fair people know there are explanatory answers to that question.  Historical answers.  Psychological answers.  Genetic answers.  Environmental answers.  Nutritional answers.  They’re schools really sucked.  There are a substantial number of legitimate reasons why not everyone’s outcome is as likely to be as successful as those of the visitors to this ranch. 

I am unaware of the backgrounds of the people whose stories I heard.  Perhaps they had mountains to climb as well, mountains which they, at least, believe rival those of the horde of shirkers – though it may in reality be significantly smaller than a horde – who refuse to even try.

Let’s consider the essence of their argument:

“I’m no different than they are.  If I can make it, so can they.”

Two thoughts come to mind.  The people who succeed are, in some meaningful way, different.  They make the requisite effort, while the people enjoying government assistance refuse to even try. 

My second thought is this:  The people in the two groups are not different.  As the “successes” themselves actually assert.

If, in fact, the “successes” are no different from the “failures”, why then do the “successes” impute such different, more insidious motives to the “failures”?  Either the “failures” are no different than the “successes”, and would therefore, were it in their power to do so, reject government handouts.  Or they are different, and they are perfectly happy with them.  You can’t have it both ways, can you?  Either they’re not different, or they are.  And if they’re not, why do the “successes” view them as an entirely different and inferior species?

I know it’s complicated.  I have compassion for the people who for whatever reason cannot make it on their own – minus my TV-writing talents, I could easily be one of them.  On the other hand, I found the stories I heard repeatedly at the ranch to be impressive, encouraging and inspirational.

In those stories somewhere is the reason the people who don’t think like me think the way they do.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like you are trying to say that conservatives mean to say, "they're just like me, except they don't want to work." Or in other words, "we both have free will. I made a good decision that involved some hard work, and they made a long series of bad decisions, and avoided the hard work."

seandelville said...

question for you Earl: do you think you could still 'make it' with your TV writing talents in this day and age? what steps would you take as a young writer trying to break in?

Doug said...


A thoughtful post, this. As a conservative fan of this blog (and of your TV work, too) I merely want to congratulate you on your open-mindedness to listen to diverse viewpoints and treat those people with respect. I think most people, whether they are liberal, conservative or somewhere in the middle, just want to live their lives, have a chance to succeed and certainly to help the less-fortunate. We spend far too much time yelling across the aisle while real people, with real problems go unnoticed. This phenomenon crosses idealogical lines. I think that if you, a Jewish liberal from Santa Monica and I, a Christian Republican from Arizona sat down over a beer (or whatever), we could enjoy the moment because we're gentlemen. And aren't gentlemen what's really in short supply? Be well.

James said...

I was taking a night school course and part of it talked about starting a business using the skills we were learning. The instructor read off a long list of "attributes" that make up an entrepreneur. The lady next to me said, "that's exactly my husband!" I thought, that's exactly the opposite of me.

Hotcha said...

That is a very interesting way to look at these people who obviously believe they made it, and that they made it all by themselves. Very logical, love it, thank you.

Hank Gillette said...

Sometimes they are just in denial about the help they received. A cousin of mine was telling me how his father was a self-made man. His words:

"My dad by the way was given nothing. He served in the service to get his GI Bill and then he and my mother worked hard to get himself through school."

Ben Kubelsky said...

Ever since I read this, I've applied the "why can't they" filter to many situations and found its a dead-on accurate description. Well done!