My friend, Bill Lowman, told me that he no longer believes that people can disagree about politics and remain friends. He says, “…today’s politics include beliefs that are immoral to some. Consider that [some] Republicans believe that racial divisions are okay; that we have no responsibility to help the poor; or that the US is a Christian nation. To many Democrats these ideas are immoral, and [therefore] unacceptable. On the other hand, the Democrats’ support for abortion seems like approval of murder to many Republicans, [which makes it] immoral in their belief system. Political differences are no longer just political.” He asks, “How can people be expected to maintain respect for those whom they view as immoral?”
It is a seemingly intractable dilemma, but I don’t think it’s a new one. In the 60s, more Bill’s time than mine, the student rallying cry was, “The personal is political.” Kimberle Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia, once wrote, “This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians…”
Bill is a marvelous human being, one of my favorites, but he is a white male. I expect identity politics haven’t played a big part in his life (although it can’t always have been easy living as a West Virginian in the Northeast). For women and minorities, politics have been business as usual, with a twist—Trump. Trump has invited racism and bigotry to come out of the closet. His behavior encourages others to give voice to opinions that are abhorrent to many of us, causing doors we had tried to close to swing wide open again.
I just saw the musical, The Band’s Visit, on Broadway. It’s about an Egyptian police band that comes to Israel to play a concert and ends up in the wrong town. The band has to spend the night there before they can catch a bus the next morning. The last song is called Answer Me. I loved the musical so I bought the shirt you see below. I don’t read Arabic and I don’t understand Hebrew, but I assume the shirt says Answer Me in the three languages.
Now, I have lots of shirts that advertise or commemorate something, we all do, but never have I experienced the kind of attention I got when I wore that shirt the next morning to the Guggenheim. I thought it was the Arabic writing that made everyone look twice and after I saw the post below on Facebook a few days later, I became convinced that was the case.
I discovered that the bag in the photo was created by a (now defunct) Israeli-Arab design studio. This blog post says, “…politics is not the primary reason or focus behind their designs but rather, because it is our language and part of who we are, and we think it should be part of our urban landscape…today, where we live, anyone wearing a t-shirt with Arabic words on it is making a political statement.” I didn’t think I was making a political statement when I bought the shirt, but maybe I am.
Back to Bill’s question, how do we maintain respect for people we view as immoral? I’d say it depends on how you define respect. One definition involves admiration for an individual based on their achievements. That respect is earned. The other is due regard for another’s feelings or traditions or, in the case of my shirt, language. That respect is due everyone.
I know enough about Trump to freely withhold my respect. While I will allow that, like everyone, he is entitled to his feelings, we must ensure that they don’t propel him to debase our nation any more than he already has. That means we need to be involved in politics at whatever level suits us, be it local, personal, identity, or other. If someone has beliefs that you consider immoral, you don’t have to be their friend, just be civil. Sometimes that has to be enough.