How We Got Here

The real story is how we are ready to trust and follow our hot emotions rather than our cool intellect in our quest to find our core identity in our political tribe and defend it with our lives, if necessary, regardless of the cost.

Doug Craig holds a bachelors in journalism and a doctorate in psychology. His monthly Op-Ed column for Shasta Scout explores the nexus of tribe, truth, bias and climate from a psychological perspective.  You can read more about Doug here.

I once told my 80-year-old mother that Dick Cheney was Satan. I didn’t say it nice. I might’ve yelled it. My words weren’t meant to hurt so much as to express a deep, unfathomable frustration with her — someone I loved but felt I’d lost to the dark side. I said those words the way an angry man might throw a spear, full of force and fury, and behind it all, tremendous love and sadness and almost immediately, guilt; thick, dark and heavy like old motor oil, staining my soul again.

I loved my mother like a son does. She was the solid rock I stood on and took for granted all my life. She was like oxygen; I breathed in her love, admiration and trust and knew there was nothing I could do to lose it. How often do we thank the air we breathe? She was my everything until she had to give way a little for my wife and daughters. Even then, she remained my foundation for all that came after.

After my dad’s affair in 1973 and his exit from our lives, it was just me and her; a 46-year-old woman and her 16-year-old son, her youngest, bonded by our mutual trauma and our need for rescue, loyalty and love. She got me counseling and persuaded me to join her in volunteering at a local crisis center, experiences that inspired me to become a psychologist. She was always there for me but it was never easy. It seemed everything I wasn’t supposed to do, I had to try. Starting with smoking cigarettes and shoplifting when I was ten; breaking twenty-seven windows in some newly built houses nearby with a couple friends when we were eleven; egging a school bus and skipping school when I was twelve; camping out in the churchyard behind our house and getting drunk every summer weekend with friends when I was fourteen; smoking marijuana on a regular basis starting when I was fifteen. My mom put up with it all and still loved me.

Even when she was a substitute teacher in my ninth grade English class and I gave her such a hard time that she gave me detention and I talked her out of it after class, she forgave me. Then my dad left and it was just me and her. When she noticed the plastic sandwich baggies were missing from the kitchen drawer and my savings account was empty, she accused me of dealing drugs. Which I was, of course. I had bought a pound of pot and was selling ounces to my friends and she became a little hysterical and called my dad who wasn’t much help. They
let me sell my remaining stash and I promised I wouldn’t deal anymore, a promise I stuck to mostly.

When I was seventeen, I started hitchhiking around the country, and later, instead of going to college, I got a job as a printer’s helper and saved up $1500. That was enough for five months of vagabonding through Europe and North Africa when I was nineteen. I enrolled in college, but dropped out before classes started and moved into the Ghetto’s Palace Yoga Institute, a kind of religious cult I suppose, but to me it was family. My mom tried to understand and never judged.

I eventually went to college and then grad school, got married and had kids and through it all, I always knew I had my mom’s support. So, it came as a shock in the 90’s when I realized she was changing. It felt like her mind was closing and suddenly she seemed afraid, judgmental and strangely political. I first noticed it when she refused to listen to Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio because she had heard he was “liberal,” like that
was a horrible affliction.

I blamed her long-term boyfriend, a conservative guy who hated the idea that Tiger Woods, a black man, could dominate the sport he loved. But looking back now, I realize that what happened to my mother had happened to millions of Americans and is still happening.

We can blame Ronald Reagan, Antonin Scalia, and Robert Bork for getting rid of The Fairness Doctrine in 1987, paving the way for Rush Limbaugh’s debut the following year — which single-handedly saved AM radio and inadvertently revolutionized the Republican Party, permanently ridding it of liberals and moderates.

We could blame Newt Gingrich in the early 90’s for abandoning the soft guardrails of mutual toleration and forbearance that had kept our country sane and unified for 130 years after the Civil War and making it not only acceptable to hate one’s political opponents but essential to his plan for electoral success.

We could blame politicians like Gingrich, entertainers like Limbaugh and of course Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck at Fox News for deliberately training conservatives like my mother and others that there was one group they could safely demonize, hate and revile: liberals.

But of course, though all of this is true, it’s never that simple. The real story, the reason I told my mother that Dick Cheney was Satan, the reason our nation has been ripped apart, polarized and hopelessly divided along political lines as wide as the Grand Canyon, is way more complicated than simply blaming political hacks and media propaganda, although these factors have been huge.

The real story has to do with our brains and how we are ready to trust and follow our hot emotions rather than our cool intellect in our quest to find our core identity in our political tribe and defend that tribe with our lives, if necessary, regardless of the cost to ourselves, our families and our friends on the other team.

That’s a story worth telling and worth understanding if we are to prevent the next Civil War.  It’s a story I will be telling in future columns.

Doug will be responding to comments on Shasta Scout’s Facebook page. Join us there!

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