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O My America: Breakfast Out

January 26, 2016

by Lawrence Bush

deising-s-bakery-restaurantI SAT at the counter in Deising’s reading the New York Times, drinking coffee, and waiting for them to cook my breakfast, when three nearby jerks started grousing about Caitlyn Jenner and her motivations for transitioning to female. Someone on the overhead TV had just referred to Jenner as “courageous,” and that was really setting off one of them. Jenner was just trying to keep up with the Kardashians, publicity-wise, he said. What’s courageous about that?

He was speaking in a loud voice, hard to ignore, but I didn’t say anything, just shot him a couple of disapproving glances, which didn’t get him to lower his voice one bit.

After the three were gone, and I was done buttering my roll, two older men, retirees, also nearby at the counter, started complaining about Bernie Sanders and his supposed endorsement of communism, which had failed so miserably throughout history, they observed. Their conversation turned next to the “Employment Prevention Agency,” that is, the EPA: how it was interfering with prosperity, hampering the country, spending too much money, etc.

I looked up from my Times and asked if I could join their conversation.

“You’re old enough,” I said to the elder of the two, “and so am I, to remember what it was like before the EPA. The air pollution. The filthy rivers. The lead paint and asbestos. The chemical stuff leaking everywhere. So don’t you see what the EPA has done for our country?”

Oh yeah, he said, the EPA used to do a okay job, but now it’s gotten out of hand. There’s just too much government...

“So why is it,” I pressed, “that you’re unconcerned about corporate boards, which are unelected by anybody but a few shareholders, why are you so unworried about these small bodies of rich people who make decisions that affect us all in major, major ways, but when it comes to a government that we actually elect, that’s the problem for you?”

Well, the other guy replied, the problem in America was not really the influence of the wealthy, but the extravagance of the poor. His tenants right there in Kingston, he observed, often don’t have their rent money, but they’re buying new iPhones and electronic gadgets every three weeks... and then he went on to blame the housing crisis and the 2008 meltdown of the economy on the likes of them...

IT’S RARE that I get to have a conversation with conservatives, even here in upstate New York. On those infrequent days when I’m actually out and about, having breakfast or lunch and reading a newspaper, I’m usually not looking to talk to anybody. Still, I theorize about them all day long as I contemplate my next blog, my next article, my next editorial: whether Bernie has a chance in hell of getting elected; whether there is a possibility of mobilizing all of the anger in America in progressive ways through cultural activism; whether people’s politics can actually be changed at all; whether fascism could actually take soil in our country...

So here’s what I learned from my brief morning conversation, my five minutes outside the bubble:

For these two guys, political ideology seemed to be based on their sense of strict justice and their resentment of other people. They think of most others as less upright and virtuous than they, and they don’t want to see such people “rewarded” by government for their bad behavior. (We didn’t talk about race issues at all, but I can only imagine these fellows’ assessments of the character of non-whites.) They are self-interested in a fundamental way, and their “patriotism” is limited to their conservative club of “worthies.”

At a certain point I said to them, “Why do you want to see policies shaped that only reward people when they’re behaving well, rather than lifting them up when they’re having a hard time?” I felt a surge of compassion and mercy in my own heart when I asked them this, and I wondered if they had a religious vocabulary to which I might appeal.

They stared at me blankly. Didn’t know what I was talking about. I thought to ask them about hard times they might have had with their kids or grandkids next, only that’s dangerous territory to enter with strangers, so I kept my peace.

MY SEVENTH-GRADE social studies teacher, Miss Patricia O’Rourke, one day offered the following definition of “conservative” and “liberal” to our class. Conservatives, she said, were people who thought that people are basically bad, lazy, at-fault, and need to be controlled and punished when they get out of control: a policy of the stick. Liberals, she continued, were people who thought that people are basically good, eager, and victimized by circumstance more than by individual choice, and need to be encouraged and rewarded: a policy of the carrot.

These guys at the counter made me think, once again, that Miss O’Rourke was spot-on in her analysis. And just as I am constantly asking myself whether my hopeful, liberal assessments of human possibility are simply out-of-touch with reality, I wonder if these codgers ever ask themselves if their punitive, conservative assessments of “what is to be done” are out-of-touch with the quality of mercy.

On my way out, I told the cashier, a young man with traces of a British accent, to add the New York Times to my tab. He commented that he was not surprised to see me with the Times, and that he was glad to hear my politics enunciated at Deising’s. Me, I felt embarrassed that my booming voice had carried all the way to the register, just like those jerks who’d been heaping scorn on Caitlyn Jenner. But then I thought, a little soapbox speechifying never hurt anybody, and wished him a good day.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and JEWDAYO, its daily blog.