Notes of a Conscientious Objector
After a whole lot of soul-searching I did file for “conscientious objector” status during the Vietnam War. I was very torn about doing so. In my heart of hearts, I knew that if it were a generation earlier I would, like my father before me, have gone to war against the Nazi’s and fascism. I was not a pacifist. But I believed the Vietnam War was a terrible mistake, morally wrong and sustained by lies.
These days I agonize about the American Culture Wars. Regrettably, there is no official way to file for “conscientious objector” status. In fact, it seems that these days everything is framed, immediately, inexorably, to the culture wars narrative. I had hoped that in the Biden dispensation there might be less of this.
Perhaps it is unavoidable. Few of us can digest the quantity of news coming our way. It’s too much. How do you cope with an information overload? How do you make sense of it?
One way, is to fit it into a narrative, a story. So our news sources (all of them) frame the facts according to a narrative, whether progressive or conservative, red or blue, Republican or Democrat. As an information management tool, it is understandable. As a citizenship practice, it is dubious.
Take the recent Georgia legislation on voting. Is it “voter suppression” and a new iteration of “Jim Crow?” Or a plan to make voting more secure and above reproach? It does extend the period for absentee voting. The business of not handing out water to those waiting in line to vote seems ludicrous and inhumane. But a similar provision already exists in Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware.
Or consider “the Trans Wars,” and Andrew Sullivan’s proposal for a “truce.”
Being of liberal bent, I incline toward the interpretation of the Georgia law that sees it as a Republican bid to disenfranchise eligible voters. But I note that one whom we sainted two months ago, Georgia election official, Gabriel Sterling, who then called out Trump’s “Big Lie,” now says that those shouting “Jim Crow” are trading in fabrications no different than those of Trump and his “big lie.”
Should I cheer the businesses that jumped in, i.e. Coca-Cola, Delta and Major League Baseball? Or should I regret their action as unnecessarily adding fuel to the fire, and freighting consumer choices as political declarations? Our life, it seems to me, is already over-politicized.
In one of the better columns exploring the Georgia law, the NYT writer, Jamelle Bouie, said that context matters. The problem with those objecting that the new Georgia legislation has nothing to do with the Jim Crow heritage is that this, “Asks us to ignore context and extend good faith to lawmakers who overhauled their state’s election laws because their party lost an election.”
Context does, inescapably, matter. Which is why it’s hard to view the video of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck and not think of the long, terrible history of lynching and the breath stolen from countless African-Americans at the end of a rope.
Still — and this is my fear — that our recourse to choosing sides, to combatant status in the Culture Wars, to one explains-it-all narrative for each and every event reduces the beautiful/ terrible complexity of human life to an ideological strait-jacket. And it makes it far more likely that that we will chose being right over being in relationship. In doing so, we make any real progress on issues, or reconciliation among us, all but impossible.