Monday, September 26, 2005

The Political Divide - Comments on Comments

Psalm 119:129-130 (New Living Translation)

129 “Your decrees are wonderful. No wonder I obey them!”
130 “As your words are taught, they give light; even the simple can understand them.”

I thought I’d take a few minutes to respond to a couple of comments readers have made over the past few weeks. I’ll begin with this one from Jay, who lives somewhere in Kansas (Topeka, I think). He commented on my post titled “The Little Wonders of Fly-Over Country.”

“Isn't it interesting how some folks in our state can embrace the image of John Brown...but somehow lack the conviction he had and, in fact, seem to oppose the liberal ideals he died for?”

I think that what Jay was trying to say was that John Brown was willing to die for a cause he believed in while Kansans like me aren’t. He couldn’t resist getting an uppercut in, even though the essay was about small city life here in Kansas. The comment reminded me a bit of a couple of songs, one from my military days and another from Bob Dylan. I’m told that the barracks ditty goes back to the forties and goes something like this:

“The movies in the army, they say they’re mighty fine,
You ask for Betty Grable, they give you Frankenstein.”

The Dylan number goes back to 1981:

“Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery,
Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your shyness for snobbery,
Got the message this morning, the one that was sent to me
About the madness of becomin’ what one was never meant to be.”

What can I say? I’ll attempt to set the record straight.

I served in the U.S. military for eight years, almost all of them serving under the leadership of the Democratic Party. I went wherever duty called, and that duty included one tour of duty in Vietnam. From 1965 till 1966 I got acquainted with Vietnam from Saigon to Can Tho to Hue to Danang. I also became very acquainted with how many folks back home felt about folks like me. They got the media splash and attention while those of us who served got to go back home to the contempt and hatred of those whose “principles” kept them out of harm’s way.

In spite of all that I found Vietnam a very formative experience for me. I found the strength to live by principle or give my life in their behalf, if necessary, while I was there. And I also found faith in God, something that I had invested in mortal men before. About a year ago I described how it happened. A short excerpt from that piece follows:

Some of the other troops picked up on my surly attitude and tried to befriend me. The especially vulnerable of them, the Christians I met, got it full bore. They would usually start with the obligatory, “How you doin?”
“Alright, I guess, but I’d really prefer it if you’d leave me alone.”
“Why? I’m just askin’ because I care.”
“People should care about each other. I mean, God cares.”
“Let’s not go there, alright.”
“What’s wrong with you, guy, don’t you believe in God?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Trust me, it’s true.”
“I don’t understand. I mean, look at all the beauty in this world. Where do you think it came from?”
“About the same place as all these mangled bodies we see every day.”
“I don’t understand how you can’t believe in God.”
“Well I don’t understand how you can, so we’re even. Now leave me alone.”

The conversations with Christians would almost all end that way. There was one exception, Paul Vartenisian. Paul was an NCO assigned to my duty section. He took an interest in me about six months into my tour. He seemed like a nice man to me and it seemed he really cared about me. The casual friendship went well until he came by the barracks one day. The conversation started innocently enough, then it got religious. “Phil,” he said. You’ve got to know God loves you. You really do.”
“Come on Sarge. Leave me alone.”
“He cares, Phil. He cares.”
“You’ve got to know He loves you. He died on the cross for you.”
Those words – “died on the cross” – hit home, although I wouldn’t admit it. They brought me back to my childhood and the man who was being crucified on the fence outside my apartment window. “Just leave me alone. I want nothing to do with this.”
“I can’t, Phil, I can’t. Your life is worth everything to Him.”
“Get the hell outta’ here and leave me alone.”
Fred turned to go. “I’ll go, Phil, but I won’t leave you alone. I’ll be praying for you.”
“You just go right ahead for all the good it’ll do.” I said. “Your prayers mean nothing to me.”

“In the six months or so I’d been in Vietnam I’d gotten used to sleeping with helicopters constantly flying over our barracks or the sound of bombs exploding in the distance. But after the conversation with Sergeant Vartenisian things changed. I began to toss and turn throughout the night, replaying the conversation with him over and over in my head. It really bothered me but I couldn’t make sense of it. I would lay awake at night and wonder, “What are you so worried about. He isn’t praying to anyone or anything. Just go to sleep.” But, I couldn’t. The next time I saw Paul I took him aside and told him that while I respected his rank, I would kill him if he didn’t stop what he was doing. He never flinched. “Don’t you understand, Phil, God is trying to talk to you.” He said no more.”

“A week after that conversation I was assigned to take care of burning our section’s classified trash. It was very unpleasant duty. I took the five or six bags we had, grabbed an M-16, and went out to the incinerator, which was about a couple of hundred feet from our building. It was a very private spot on the top of a hill covered with tropical growth. I unlocked the gate, went in, and started to work. A couple of minutes into my ordeal I heard something rustling down the hill from me. I picked up the weapon and looked into the trees. Near the bottom of the hill I saw what appeared to be an old man. He was squatting down, defecating. “Something” seemed to possess me. A thought struck me. “Why don’t you shoot him? He’s just an old man. His life is probably miserable anyway. You’ll just be putting him out of his misery. Go ahead man. Do it!”
I raised the weapon and aimed down the hill. I was about ready to squeeze on the trigger when I heard these words, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” I stopped and wiped my face, which by now was sweating profusely. I raised the weapon again. And once more I heard the words, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” I knew the second time I heard them where they came from. These words that pleaded with me to stay my hand came from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. They were Portia’s words to Shylock, pleading against exacting a pound of flesh, pleading for mercy”:

“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
Therefore, Jew,Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”

“I dropped the weapon and fell on my face, sobbing. “I don’t even know if You’re real”, I cried. “But if you are please show me. Please, please, show me.”

“I look back at that day now in wonder. There was nothing else in my frame of reference that would have prevented me from killing that old Vietnamese man that day than the words I heard. I was soon to learn that they did not come by chance, but that they had been spoken to me by the man in my dreams who was being crucified on the fence outside my window years before.”

That was close to forty years ago. Since those eventful days I’ve tried my best to walk by faith and by principle. I’ve stumbled more than a few times. There are times when I’ve lurched along and there have been seasons of doubt. But in spite of the failures I’ve kept moving. In spite of the opposition I’ve remained steadfast. I’ve been cursed and cursed at. I’ve been spit on. Nothing that bitter men like Jay can change me. I am who I am by the grace of God.

A day or so ago there was a comment from Tom Knapp on my post titled “Oprah’s Chump Change” that deserves an answer:

“I cringe every time I see the word “liberal” used to portray the 20th-century trend of the Democratic Party (I'm a “classical” liberal, a/k/a a libertarian).”

His point is well taken. Political and philosophical labels, especially in twenty-first century America, are loaded with years and years of fact, fiction, invention, and sometimes hate.

I cut my philosophical and political teeth in Boston, Massachusetts and my view of the political left is colored by those times. My experience upon leaving Boston in 1961 led me to follow a course more to the right than I’d learned in my early years. Some folks, particularly detractors on the right and the left, say I’m a “neoconservative.” Some say that I’m a “lunatic.” I know the facts about myself. I’ll leave it to others to add the fiction and hate.

Now let me make it clear. Tom Knapp has never said an unkind word to me. In fact, any time he’s commented the discourse has been civil and well reasoned. Tom, it seems to me, is a good man.

If I am a neoconservative I’m sure that there are shades of meaning that others draw from what I say and write. It just comes with the label. James Q. Wilson saw this phenomenon and described it this way:

“The left considers neoconservatism with a curiosity that veers into animosity. Something about neoconservatism often drives otherwise level-headed liberals into a frenzy. The left perceives the neoconservatives as an undeniably intelligent and influential group of thinkers who speak their language, cite their sources – in short, understand them perfectly but almost always come down on the wrong side.”

There’s a reason for all this. Many neoconservatives were born into the liberal movement of the sixties and beyond and “matured” to the point that they embraced a different set of principles they had been told to live by. Among those who “matured” the movement can lay claim to men like Irving Kristol, Norman Podohertz, and Daniel Patrick Moyihan and women like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Why were they, and others who embraced neoconservatism labeled? I suspect there may be a hint of jealousy in it:

“Much of the success of the neoconservatives has been, perhaps paradoxically, due to the early attachment many of them had with the left. Writing of his own experience and that of many of his friends as socialist college students, Irving Kristol explained in 1977, “Joining a radical movement when one is young is very much like falling in love when one is young. The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love so valuable that it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment.” The young neoconservatives were highly trained in Marx, which meant that they were imbued with a sociologically sophisticated way of looking at the way the world works.”

In Flint Hills language it means that the neoconservatives who abandoned the left didn’t take leave of their senses, the embraced them. They thought about the world and came to the conclusion that there was a moral vacuum in the teaching and dogma of their mentors. They saw things very differently. They embraced, to use a weathered phrase, “a new paradigm.” For example, there was:

“Irving Kristol stressing in 1971 that real prosperity has little to do with economics and a lot to do with virtue; James Q Wilson and George Kelling writing in 1986 that the key to crime prevention is clean neighborhoods; or Daniel Patrick Moynihan attributing in 1993 many modern social problems to confusion over the ideas of normalcy and deviancy.”

I suspect that Tom Knapp will continue to be misunderstood, as will I. The difference between the dialogue I continue to have with him and the “diaglogue” I have with Jay is that Tom is a man another man can talk to. There will be, as we lurch and stumble along, dialogue, setbacks, and, ultimately, progress. That’s healthy.

Jay? That’s a good question. I hope, pray, and watch.


Gone Away said...

I think what Jay was trying to say was a good deal less profound than you credit him with, Phil. It seems to me that he's claiming John Brown as a liberal and saying that, since you are not a liberal, you have no right to "embrace his image" (whatever that means). I'm no expert on John Brown's history but, as I understand it, he was primarily concerned that slavery be abolished; what he thought on other matters I've never heard.

But one thing I do know: he'd have scared the pants off any liberal today...

ME Strauss said...

Gone might be right about you scaring the pants off any liberal today.

But as I finished reading this article I had two thoughts in my head one was a response of they might not get what you're saying, but I understand it perfectly. Great Plains clear to me.

The other was that quote about being a liberal before you're 30 . . . (GRIN)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the story of your conversion. It is always interesting to me how it is that people come to faith in Christ. One constant is that it is always through human intervention--people who love God enough to obey His command (Matt. 28:18-20), and who love people enough to take the risk of sharing. But it is a team effort, to paraphrase Augustine, 'your soul was restless until in rested in Him.' And so God did his part too.

BTW, my inlaws live in Burlington and have a large greenhouse operation there. I've eaten at BETO many times--it is a treasure.

Jay said...

I just love it when people decide what I'm thinking and then argue against it....saves so much time. One thing that I would like to point out though is that I never recieved vile treatment from liberals as a combat veteran. The bad treatment I recieved was from a government which put me in the situation for purely political reasons that had nothing to do whith what I held up my hand and sworn an oath for. It was a waste, and the lives of a great many good men were wasted along the way.

I hate seeing it happen again with another generation. My anger back then was toward those who allowed the war to grind on year after pointless year, never speaking out, never wanting to end the bloodshed because 'their' president...first democrat then republican...was in office and they could not bear to criticize. Moral Christians who failed to live up to their professed devotion to a creed of peace and, instead, embraced war in the worship of a politician.

I don't intend to be the among the moral cowards of this war.

I guess that makes me a liberal and possibly anti-Christian for those that like to limit their thoughts to a word or short phrase. Whatever. Labels are good for soup cans but rarely have much meaning when applied to complicated things like people.

Phil Dillon, Prairie Apologist said...


I never said a word about what I thought your politics were, and frankly I don't care. I was answering the question you raised about lack of conviction.

Jay said...

I think you missed my point, Phil. I wasn't talking about my politics either.

Marti said...

I always enjoy reading your thoughts.

Was afraid I'd lost you went buggy and I had to delete all of the temporary files. Hadn't bookmarked you (slaps forehead for such foolishness LOL) and I could only remember "Prairie Apologist", which yielded naught in a search.

Thank heavens "Gone" had a link to you!

Will add you to my blogroll so I don't lose you again! LOL

Choicemaker said...

Conservative and Liberal are political terminology in today's vernacular in our Country.

When dealing with deeper, higher, and more far-reaching definitions of value, view-points, and behavior, 'Christian' or 'Humanist' are more precise and self-confessing than any other. A good example is to note that the Bible encourages us to be free to give to the poor - but not with our neighbor's money. selah

"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." Matthew 10:34 KJV

semper fidelis

Chandira said...

Me Strauss, I'm a raging liberal, and he didn't scare the pants off me. I heard what he said.

Phil, thanks for sharing your story, it was a moving read. I think many self-confessed liberals like me, have never witnessed something like the Vietnam war from the inside out, to be honest. I cartainly, am too young. I've never lived through combat.
We're talking hypothetically most of the time, sad to say. God knows what some of us would do in a situation like you with your defenseless old man.

The reason we're 'scared' of neocons, is their usual stampeding over the beliefs and rights of others, with their holier-than-thou righteousness and hypocrisy. But I guess it's all smoke and mirrors.
I think deep down we all agree, we just see different ways of doing it, depending on experience.
My experience is like yours to some degree, I've been through my own extremes, and discovered the truth about myself in my own versions of that moment.. I can only live life on that basis. My life has led me to be more 'liberal', but it's only a throw of the dice.
At the end of the day, can you feel love for your fellow human beings, and treat all 'as thy neighbour'?