Everything is complicated right now. I don’t need to tell you about the world at large (how bad is Omicron? What on earth will happen with voting rights and the midterms? Etc.). But the world at large has so thoroughly invaded our lives that our most intimate choices are now shaped by those big-picture questions too. “The personal is political” was the women’s movement’s rallying cry at one point, and now the political is personal.
I’m in the Midwest right now; I came here to (cautiously) be with (a small part of) my extended family, and I’m having a version of the experience that I’m sure a lot of you are having, wherever in the country or the world you may be.
My loved ones are all over the map, geographically but also in terms of both politics and pandemic: They are proud liberal democrats, fiery socialists, Trump voters, and folks who really would prefer not to think about any of this stuff. They come from different racial, economic, religious, and national backgrounds; they include veterans and conscientious objectors, nurses and tradespeople and tech workers. There are those who raced to get the booster, those who refuse vaccines and treatments, COVID long-haulers and those who are immune-suppressed and vulnerable. There are those who pretty much live normally, and those who are committed to caution. And all of them love each other and are worried about one another.
I won’t be seeing all of them this holiday season, or this year. My personal approach to the complicated choices of this moment has been a few small get-togethers, with those who are vaccinated and with testing where possible. There will be time, down the road, for the big gatherings, and for the hugs with the unvaxxed (I hope, anxiously).
But even these small, careful moments of togetherness remind me of this: Political divisions are painful and real, but they are not our only reality. There’s a lot of talk about how we all live in bubbles, but few of us are more than a friendship or family tie away from people who think very differently. Rather than bubbles, we live in circles, and the circles overlap.
It was an email from Bill Penzey, whose family spice business has made my cooking (and my holiday giving) infinitely better, that articulated a way to think about this overlap and how we can exist in it. Bill brings the political and the personal together in his business, and no wonder, given that cooking is both intimate and connected to the world. As the anniversary of January 6 approaches, he wrote, “now is the time for honest outrage” about the Republican leadership’s refusal to confront the attack on democracy. He urged his customers to take a stand: “Your decency and wisdom and the respect you’ve earned as a cook gives your voice the ability to cut through all the noise and shine a spotlight on just how truly outrageous the actions of the Republicans have become.”
Bill acknowledged he’d probably lose some Republican customers over this. But, he wrote, “This is about supporting who our Republican customers actually want to be. If the right-wing propaganda hadn’t gotten the best of them and they still were of sound mind, I really feel they would desperately want everyone to work together to find a way to prevent them from hurting the America they love…. Decade after decade, they, with an open heart, pledged their allegiance to the Republic for which our flag stands and now here they are giving up their allegiance to those openly plotting to bring that very Republic to an end. This is not who they want to be. They are in need of your help. Please help.”
I read over that paragraph a bunch of times, and I wanted to argue with it. Wasn’t that an overly rosy view? How do we know that those who embrace the attack on democracy want to save American ideals, as opposed to simply protecting an unjust American reality?
Ultimately, I realized, both things can be true. The political is personal, and everyone comes to their politics for personal reasons, which can include confusion, fear, the racial resentment that is so deeply intertwined with the American experience, and more. Some version of these exists inside each of us, and we can’t wish them away. But each of us is also human, and the worse angels of our nature, to borrow from the 16th president, are more likely to prevail when we stop seeing each other’s humanity.
There are those, right now, who want us to do that. These are the folks who weaponize Americans’ differences for their own profit, both financial and political. It is for them, in their official capacities, that we should save our outrage and our energy for change. It is on them that Mother Jones will shine as bright a spotlight as we can in the coming year, because that’s what our investigative newsroom was created to do.
But for each other, personally, maybe we can keep looking for humanity across difference. A couple of years ago my colleague Stephanie Mencimer, who has been covering America’s conservative movements for many years, wrote a tribute to a man she met while reporting on the tea party. He was a source and became a friend, even through the bitterest political challenges of the past few years.
“I was never gladder that our friendship survived Trump,” Stephanie wrote, “than I was this spring, when, in a strange twist of fate, we were both diagnosed with cancer within weeks of each other—Robin with esophageal cancer and I with breast cancer… He cried and told me he loved me like a sister—though he acknowledged that he rarely talked to his own sister. I cried, too. A week later, I told him about my own cancer diagnosis, and from then on, we didn’t talk much about politics. Instead, we compared radiation notes and made inappropriate jokes about death and cancer that we couldn’t make with anyone else. Mostly we just talked about life, which suddenly seemed so much shorter.”
As we turn another calendar page, that resonates. I hope you and your loved ones, including those who drive you crazy, have a safe, healthy, and warm end of the year.