Check Your Friendships: The Voting Has Begun

Women relaxing with coffee
Women relaxing with coffee

Here are a few of the recent Facebook posts my "friends" have posted:

"Here is a list of Bernie Sander's $19.6 Trillion tax hikes."
"Muslim Refugees Cause Panic: Rapes and Looting Become Widespread in Europe."
"Putin to Show Proof 9/11 was an Inside Job."
"Trump's Claim: "Shooting someone wouldn't lose me a single vote!"
"Chemtrails and the Secret Poisoning of America."
"Hillary Clinton: Career Criminal."
"One more reason to love Pat Buchanan!"
"Twin Kittens Play Chopsticks on Family Piano."

The cacophony of anger, disappointment and outright disgust with the American political process coupled with the banality of cat videos and lottery winners gone bust has reached epic proportions. I've written before about the state of madness we are witnessing as concern over mass shootings results not in gun control but record sales of handguns. Millions are convinced that government measures to limit the sale of weapons of war like AK-47s are only meant to disarm an unsuspecting public.

A national disagreement over mandatory vaccinations versus parental freedom has led to numerous state-sponsored legislation both pro and con with those on each side claiming science as its champion. While election polls gyrate, town halls turn into shouting matches and televised debates create never before seen revenue for the media. Citing the public shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, a neighbor of mine, when informed about a local "talk-back" with our Congresswoman, told me she wasn't attending since, "I don't want to be a target for some whacko." Stories about terror and homelessness receive less attention than football scores and reality stars. No one can claim we aren't entertained but are we better informed? And so I wonder how many, new online friendships have made a meaningful contribution to my personal growth and evolution as a caring man?

My first experience with political activism occurred when I was 12 years old. A recent transplant from Pittsburgh, I found myself in Atlanta only a few months before a 34-year-old attorney named Charles Weltner announced his candidacy for a seat in the U.S. Congress. My new stepfather (also an attorney) was a friend of his, and soon other teenagers in our community became interested in his message. We were easily inspired by this young liberal Democrat and within a few weeks, many of us volunteered to stuff envelopes, working nights and weekends in his campaign office. I cannot think of one person I knew who didn't support him.

Later that year, Weltner first defeated a seven-term incumbent in the Democratic primary and went on to win the general election, trouncing his Republican opponent by ten percentage points. Weltner was the only member of the Georgia congressional delegation to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Two years later, he refused to run for reelection when the state Democratic Party demanded he sign a loyalty oath that would have required him to support Lester Maddox, an ardent segregationist who eventually became Georgia's governor. Weltner told his supporters he "would give up his office before giving up his principles." U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. both hailed his courage for rejecting Maddox. Those years in Atlanta marked the beginning of my active involvement in the larger, social landscape and partisan politics. My small circle of friends defined my white privilege and soon gave birth to our shared interests for the rights of minorities, poverty, health care and education.

Charles Weltner went on to become a highly respected judge and served for 12 years as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia until his death in 1992. Only a year before, in 1991, he became the second recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. From my perspective, few elected officials in modern times truly embody the essence of that award as well as he did.

"Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction."
John F. Kennedy

For a multitude of reasons, political activism today is vastly different than it was 50 years ago. I am not pointing to problems with campaign finance, immigration, racial and ethnic tensions or robocalls; instead, it is the impact of television and social media in the global village we share with so many friends both down the street and on the other side of the planet that has vastly changed the landscape. The world is no smaller; we're just closer together. And ironically, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and hundreds of blogs are not only sources of endless information that can be easily shared but have at the same time become turbocharged fuel for conflicts between cultures and even the best of friends.

Passionate devotion to a principle or candidate in ways less obvious to me than when I was 12 now seem to intensify rapidly into bitter arguments where civil discourse is almost impossible. Some issues are so important to many of my friends that a calm difference of opinion or support of an idea or candidate often gives way to harsh words and a deteriorating friendship. It doesn't seem to matter which idea, person or party is discussed since the difference of viewpoints can be so great. More and more people, identifying as "independent voters" are often the opposite: slaves to mainstream media, the internet and tired dogma and misinformation.

But at the moment, the issues themselves are less of a concern for me than are friendships with people whom I witness taking views opposite from my own. I question if some friendships can survive the venom. Case in point, I often wonder how James Carville and Mary Matalin survive in the same house?!

"What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies." Aristotle

My friend Julie is an attorney living in New England who has been an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton. A bright woman and deep thinker, Julie frequently joins an online chat to weigh in about the Democratic race. In a thread on Facebook, she will insist that Bernie Sanders has no credible foreign policy experience only minutes before another friend will point out that Clinton looks like a neocon warmonger. Back and forth they go before other friends take sides ("Bernie isn't electable" or "Hillary will never get tough with bankers"). Soon, viewpoints turn to insults, and thoughtful observations are branded as foolish. Perhaps if we were in the same room, we could better judge facial expression and tone of voice, but I read many comments from those who attack her as downright mean-spirited and offensive.

And then there's my neighbor Wes, a construction worker who pulls out of his driveway no later than 6 a.m. every morning, who doesn't want the government to mess with his rights to own a gun. A good-hearted, tolerant family man who probably doesn't even go online except perhaps to research a new hand drill, he identifies with Trump's anger and bravado and is convinced he'd change Washington. In any discussion Wes has with our neighbor Chuck across the street - a pro-life insurance executive who says that marriage is between a man and a woman -- Wes will stand dumbfounded as Chuck quotes a verse from the Bible seconds before sharing his excitement for the candidate of his choice, Ted Cruz. The two of them could hardly be more different; Wes lives in a two bedroom log home he built himself while Chuck's residence -- quadruple the size and worth, at least, triple the value -- is one of three homes he owns. The two are at best only casual friends, but I can easily see them as enemies with little common ground in the year ahead if, that is, their friendship even survives.

A third example, Alice, who lives with her husband and three small children in the Mid-Atlantic, seems to live 24/7 on Facebook and continually posts negative bashes about virtually every candidate, often anti-Semitic vitriol under the auspices of being a "truth seeker" and educator. To her credit, she promotes many wonderful causes but seems intent on mixing them with bizarre stories that Snopes.com found totally fallacious months ago. I'm stumped as to how she has so much time on her hands given that she's pregnant and no doubt busy with everyday responsibilities, yet to my utter amazement she keeps dropping new links into her feed. It's a rare day when she doesn't also post at least one conspiracy theory about mind control, Princess Diana or the Illuminati. When Alice is challenged by any of her many Facebook friends (she has thousands), she lashes out at them, ending her diatribes with "peace to everyone." As I contemplate un-friending her and thereby eliminating the need to wade through the smorgasbord of links to irate blogs, Facebook remains one way we've stayed in touch. I'm sure I'm not the only person who faces this same dilemma - to keep in touch or fade into the background.

"Whenever you have truth it must be given with love or the message and the messenger will be rejected." Mahatma Gandhi

Facebook has no doubt conducted proprietary research on the subject of friendship and has positioned itself at the central crossroads in many people's lives. True friendships are as rare as the full truth and nothing but the truth. The best ones are the kind one of my buddies calls "the 2 a.m. friend." That's the guy who will get out of bed and pick you up on the highway in the middle of the night when you run out of gas - and make no mention of it again. Those "shirt off my back" friends probably aren't going to end a relationship as a result of a disagreement over an issue or a single news story. But I do question how easy it seems to throw caution to the wind when we exchange perspectives online about one candidate or another, an issue or topic of interest without awe for the rare privilege we have to voice even a difference of opinion.

I ask myself, with less than a year to go before the general election, will I have the courage to stand by my principles and respectfully pay attention to those with whom I might fervently disagree? Clearly, to be the change, I will continue to try to listen with compassion and respect as I roll my tongue back when my personal viewpoints on every matter are challenged. It is always helpful to remember that the great sages urged us to love others, and very few suggested we also had to like them.

"A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you."
Elbert Hubbard