A friend and I had a short discussion on facebook the other day regarding federal government “bailouts” and today’s political and social divide. My friend asserted that homeowners who are struggling with mortgages they can’t afford, in homes worth less than what they owe, shouldn’t be helped by the government because they made their own “bad decisions” and therefore they should bear the consequences on their own. I would agree that as individuals we all must be responsible for our own actions, and yet I also believe that often things happen to people through no fault (or “bad decision”) of their own. In the case of stuggling homeowners, I can think of many extenuating circumstances; not to mention the social cost of cascading foreclosures. This is however, not meant to be a post on “bailouts” for homeowners. That is just an example. The question is, do conservatives always see issues in terms of “right and wrong,” “good and evil,” “black and white?” And, do liberals always see issues in ”shades of gray?”
I, personally, try to question all sides of an issue. I think in part this is because I believe in the old maxim, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” As I told my friend, I’ve made plenty of “bad decisions” in my lifetime. There have been times I’ve needed help. On the other hand, much has happened to affect the course of my life that I have had little or no control over. I therefore, have a difficult time passing judgment on others. This, I suppose, colors my social and political views.
In my last post I noted that I recently read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. In an early chapter of the book, Perlstein wrote an account of the 1966 gubernatorial election in California, which pitted incumbent Democrat Edmund G. Brown against the former New Deal-Democrat-turned-Republican Ronald Reagan. Perlstein maintains that Brown, first elected in 1958 and re-elected in 1962 (running against Richard Nixon), had done a lot of great things for California during his eight years in office. But between 1962 and 1966, much had changed. Long oppressed segments of the population had begun to agitate for civil rights, in particular African-Americans. In California, this had resulted in the Watts Riots of 1965. Many young people were actively promoting social change and beginning to oppose the war in Vietnam, and this resulted in unrest and violence on the campuses of California’s universities. Perlstein maintains that Reagan responded to this upheaval in “black and white” terms. Perlstein: “At his announcement in January of his candidacy for California governor, Ronald Reagan had blamed the original Watts riot on the ‘philosophy that in any situation the public should turn to government for the answer.’” It was said that Brown “had the grays and Reagan had the black and whites.” Perlstein: “Brown did his best to sail a course more like Reagan’s, not quite getting the coordinates right: signing the nation’s first law outlawing LSD, he promised it would ‘not hamper proper use of the drug for legitimate purposes.’ He put in gray – ‘proper use…legitimate purposes’ – what Reagan rendered in black and white: ‘The smell of marijuana was thick throughout the hall.’” (The reference being to Reagan’s denunciation of a particular event on a California university campus.) Reagan said “the one overriding issue of this campaign [is] the issue of morality.” If there has ever been a codeword for “black and white,” it must be “morality.” Of course the difficulty is in defining “morality.” And again, we are into “shades of gray.”
My friend contends that bleeding-heart liberals (the extreme left) actually see all issues in black and white, just as the extreme right sees all issues in black and white, and that it is the moderates, the people in the middle who actually view issues in shades of gray. Interestingly, Perlstein contends that Brown lost support on the left, in part due to his support of President Johnson’s Vietnam war policy. Perlstein: “Moral panics from the right, moral panics from the left; poor, dumpy, Pat Brown pinioned helplessly in the middle.” As I mentioned in my last post, Perlstein contends that we are still living in “Nixonland,” a country dangerously polarized, where there is no room for a compromising middle ground. This brings me back to the question of knowing when compromise is good and when it’s not.
I sometimes think it would be easier to be the kind of person who sees things in black and white. Life might be much simpler. But that’s just not me. Then again, how useful is this “black and white vs. shades of gray” construct?