My Turn: Love your enemy? How? A modest proposal

  • Electoral College votes are brought as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence officiate as a joint session of the House and Senate reconvenes to confirm the official results of the presidential election at the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/21/2021 6:41:01 AM

(Editor’s note: The following address was originally presented to the Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Feb. 14. The author would like to thank the KUUF for inviting her to develop these ideas.)

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), author of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is also famous for his Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick. That was in 1727, almost three hundred years ago.

Why not, his argument went, allow the Irish poor to raise their children for sale as gourmet delicacies for the rich? “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasee, or a ragoust.”

This, of course, was satire, to protest the indifference of the rich to the sufferings of the poor. Infanticide and cannibalism, metaphorically speaking, would only be a couple of degrees worse.

In our time of partisan divide, satire seems dangerous. There are already folks out there advocating murder and kidnapping of people with whom they disagree. If you put out a “modest proposal” for cannibalism, you might be taken seriously.

Watching the news coverage of the invasion of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, I pulsed with rage. “Savages!” I thought. “Thugs! Barbarians!”

How to deal with them? Modest Proposal: Round them up and administer massive tranquilizers? Tempt them with a cruise offering free booze and gourmet food and then dump them in the ocean?

Let’s leave that aside and just consider those who aren’t murderous, but who differ hugely in political beliefs. Like most of the members of the U.S. Congress. These folks vote time after time along party lines. They act like enemies. Could you get them to love each other?

I sat down to assemble some notes on this and even my electronic devices balked at the subject. I dictated to my iPad: “Love Your Enemies.” Up on the screen came the words “No No.” I tried again and now what popped up was “No Strong.”

Wondering if gremlins had gotten into the device, I powered it off completely, waited a minute, and turned it back on. This time it displayed what I dictated. That’s the way these machines are, sometimes they just need a reset.

People, too.

So here’s a modest proposal for a reset in the U.S. Congress. It’s gentle – no murder, cannibalism, or kidnapping.

Send them back to school.

The purpose of this school would be to get the members to know each other better and to practice working on things in which ideology has no place.

A waste of time, you say? Hmm. They don’t waste time already? Seems like they’re always being let out for recess, like restless kindergartners.

Instead of recess, let’s have a reset.

Before school starts, there will be placement tests on U.S. history and the Constitution and world affairs. For geography, they will all be given huge wooden jigsaw puzzles of the United States and the world and will have to assemble the pieces. We’ll test them on basic science. The Latin test will be simple – translate three words. E Pluribus Unum.

Those deficient in the basics will have to do remedial work.

Now, imagine that the students, all dressed in their school uniforms, are ready to go.

First step: in school, political parties are absolutely forbidden.

George Washington in his farewell address spoke of the poisonous effects of political parties. “The spirit of party,” he said, “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption.”

Oh, George, where are you when we need you?

But to return to my school.

We have 535 students (435 voting members of the House, 100 of the Senate). However, classes will be taught not in huge lecture halls but in little discussion rooms, with a maximum of a dozen people in a section.

Report cards will be issued and posted on the Internet.

Here is the course curriculum:

I) Humanities. No – humanity, singular. Classes in empathy, humility, grace, generosity, and wit.

■Humor 101: You will learn to tell jokes not directed against others, but yourself. You will be graded on whether your classmates laugh. Advanced section: cartooning. You’ll draw a cartoon of yourself.

■Confessions 102: You will tell stories of your most embarrassing moment, your saddest moment, your happiest moment. You will be graded on whether your classmates cry over your troubles and applaud your triumphs.

■Apologies 103: In hypothetical situations, you will make egregious mistakes, or post something false or ridiculous on social media against a political opponent. You will practice retracting the statement and phrase your apology in a sincere way. You will avoid non-apologies such as “I’m sorry if you were (stupid enough to be) insulted.” The final exam is a genuine apology. You may well have a backlog of those to make.

■Generosity 104: Randomly, you will be paired up with another member of the Congress, and you will interview them and write their biography. You will emphasize their strengths, even if you can’t stand them.

II) Anthropological field trips for legislators: This will go way beyond holding town halls in your district. There are two levels, beginner and advanced.

Beginner:

■You will spend a significant amount of time in the homes of your constituents (if they’ll have you). You will sleep in their guestroom or on their couch and wait in line in the morning for the bathroom. You will eat their food, even if it’s something you never heard of and that looks revolting. You will make phone calls for them, for example, to Social Security, where you will go through menu hell and listen to Muzak for hours.

■You will add up their bills and compare them to their bank balances.

■You will go to their ceremonies: weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, christenings.

■You will accompany their children to school and sit in their classrooms.

■You will visit their aging relatives in a nursing home or their sick spouses or children in a hospital.

Advanced:

■At random, you will be assigned to do the same kind of visits in a district or state that is not your own. You will be as attentive to these peoples as you are to your own constituents.

III) Extracurricular activities.

■Sports. You will participate in some sport or game, even if it’s just Chinese checkers. Teams will not be formed on a partisan basis. Yes, a bipartisan team is possible! Between 2009 and 2019, a women’s congressional softball team played eleven games against members of the press to benefit breast cancer charities. (By the way, the press won eight out of those 11 times.) If you win, you will not gloat. If you lose, you will not complain that the game was rigged.

■Music. You will all sing in the choir. No solos. You will share sheet music with the person standing next to you even if you don’t like them or their perfume or their shaving lotion. You will not sing easy tunes you already know. You will learn long, hard pieces with many parts, by Brahms and Mozart and Scriabin. You will also learn folk and popular songs in close harmony. You will perform for the American public.

■Dance. You will learn contra dancing. The dance involves two long lines that face each other. Couples work their way down the line and dance with every other couple. After every dance, you will change partners. Over the course of an evening, you will perhaps dance with every person in the room. You will pay attention and follow the instructions given by the dance caller. If you mess up the figures, you will accept help from more experienced dancers and keep going. When you are not dancing, you will go up to the balcony of the hall and look down on the dancers. You will admire the patterns and beauty and intricacy of the dances below, of how the whole is more than the sum of the parts. You will notice how the participants laugh and smile. Perhaps you will smile, too.

So that’s the curriculum for my school. It would work for other disputatious groups – faculty councils, churches, businesses. Obviously, with the intimate contact involved, folks will have to wait until the pandemic is over to put these principles into practice.

In the meantime, a few thoughts.

We tend to demonize people in a group not our own. We feel that pounding in the arteries, the rush of hatred, more against someone who’s absent than who’s present.

But perhaps loving your enemies is easier than commonly believed, as long as a favorable structure has been set up.

Hate is very close to love, as anyone who has been estranged from and then reconciled with a family member knows.

Former enemies are sometimes fascinated by each other. Encounter groups have taken place between past Nazis and Holocaust survivors. American veterans going back to Vietnam have received amazing welcomes.

We have seen the enemy, said Pogo, and he is us. The enemy is not only some other person, but our own fear, shame, regret, embarrassment, rage.

So, what if we had to listen to and laugh with and confess things to our enemies? Play on the same teams and sing in the same choir, and line up on the same dance floor?

In a Scottish music society I belong to, I once overheard a conversation between two other members. They’d both attended the same rally in Washington, D.C., one marching for abortion rights and the other on the right-to-life side. They were politely – even amiably – comparing their experiences. Given the emotion surrounding this issue, I found that extraordinary. Being together to play music made a civilized exchange possible.

Singing or dancing with your enemy – are those more difficult than the biblical directive to turn the other cheek, not expect repayment for a loan, or give someone your shirt when they’ve snatched your coat?

The biblical “do unto others” is for individuals, and my school is a modest proposal for groups. Eliminate the factions, as George Washington said, and let individuals meet each other and perform and work in new groups not built on the old ideological lines, but on the task at hand.

Perhaps we could actually put elements of this modest proposal into practice.

(New Hampshire native Betsy Woodman is an essayist, public speaker, history buff, and author of the Jana Bibi trilogy of novels.)




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