I was away most of last week, during which I was able mostly to steer clear of the news. I don’t do it very often. Regular filter maintenance is a better way of coping with toxicity than is the ¾ shutdown and purge. They’re not mutually exclusive, though, and both are necessary. Reading myself back into the loop and up to speed has been fairly depressing. That’s the way of it, in this line of work.
While I was away, some very smart friends got into a very stupid fight over voting. That’s par for the course in an election year, I suppose. Still, no one likes to see people who ought to be friends pushing each other toward enmity. It’s like we’ve not just lost, but collectively repudiated the pursuit and practice of basic aptitudes, which make civility possible.
If you doubt me, ask yourself when was the last time you had a frank exchange of views—I mean the sort almost devoid of argument in the proper sense—followed perhaps by some probing and clarifying questions, which ended in nothing more than an expression of gratitude for the opportunity to understand one another better?
When was the last time you hashed a thing all the way out, only to end with a shrug and a shake and a, “Well, I guess we see this differently,” before parting ways on the promise—implicit or explicit—to meet again as friends?
We all fail in these things from time to time, but it strikes me that we’re all failing more often these days, frequently in unison, and that we generally welcome or even celebrate our collective failure as a sort of sundering of the veil.
Now, at last, we see each other plainly.
Or is it that we’ve put a lot of bad days together, and have lost interest in not judging one another according to what we are when we are at our worst? I’m sorry to wax didactic, and I do not mean to exclude myself from anything that might be an indictment. I’m just thinking out loud and making a steno of my thoughts.
In any case, I think there’s something else at work.
Almost everywhere I turn, I see two things: readiness to tell others what they “must” do; insistence that anyone inclined to do otherwise is either incurably stupid or wicked. There is an inexhaustible ambient supply of both tendencies at any time of any year, but election years tend to concentrate and increase the useful supply and the potency of each.
I remember when Trump got elected, and people were wondering what they were to tell their children.
I never understood why it had to come up at all with small ones—still don’t—and always figured that older children should be learning how to make up their own minds in these regards, so the question struck me as rather out of place with them.
It wasn’t the first time the American people elected a bad man president, nor did it seem at all likely to be the last. Ours is not a perfect system. It does tend to give us the political leaders we deserve, though. That’s true whether we voted for them or not, and should give us all more pause than it appears to be giving us this time around.
Presidents are not Messiahs, nor even in the strict sense rulers, but mere servants of the people: to be supported when possible and resisted when necessary.
I suspected that we should all have cause to do much more of the latter than of the former during Trump’s time in office, but our fundamental attitude toward any incumbent ought never be any different.
None of that will matter, if we aren’t even trying to be better citizens: to treat everyone we meet with respect; to stand up to bullies (whether they be classmates, schoolmates, teachers or strangers—and whether we agree with them or not); and above all, and before all else, to be good neighbors.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep smiling at the folks telling me to vote for Trump or else I’ll burn in hell. I’ll keep smiling at the folks telling me to vote for Biden because—I’m not making this up—he’s the “real” Catholic and if I’m not all in for a host of social programs, I’m not. I’ll keep smiling at the folks telling me not to vote for either of them.
I have never presumed to tell any of my fellow citizens what to do with their votes. God help me, I never will. I’m happy to listen to arguments, but I won’t be cajoled, and I won’t be bullied. Just the other day, Mr. Zuckerberg’s engine reminded me of a thing I said four years ago about this time: “What I might do willingly, or consent to do under constraint of force majeure, I will never, ever do under extortion, blackmail, or any other kind of threat.” I don’t think I was talking about voting then, but it applies. God help me, it’s still true.
Finally, I will keep my own counsel in these regards, and I will urge each and all my fellows to do the same—only let us be kind to one another, today and every day, and always do our best.
That last is good advice for any season, at any age.
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief and International Editor of the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Into the Storm: Chronicle of a Year in Crisis (416pp. TAN Books, 2o2o).
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