Dear Politics: Please Pick Your Battles
Years ago, whenever my mom deemed it necessary to declare war on someone I or my sister was dating, she would execute a pretty ambitious—though usually ineffective—battle plan. Her strategy? To “prove” the person wasn’t right for us by systematically pointing out every last imperfection this person might have.
If character assassination is what you do when you want to discredit someone, then mom’s strategy was character napalm. She didn’t just destroy. She utterly annihilated.
Mom’s misgivings with our dates ranged from the questionably reasonable:
She’s too chatty, he’s too quiet, she’s too young, he’s too old, she’s a social butterfly, he’s too shy….
To the grotesquely superficial:
She has bad complexion, he has gray hairs, she doesn’t look very smart….
That last one is particularly memorable, by the way, as it was spoken regarding a girl she had just met and hadn’t spoken one word to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my mom, and I know she only wants the best for me. But, this… this just struck me as being a tad on the overkill end of things.
So, I decided to take a stand one day. And I told my mom that if she did have legitimate concerns about the people we were dating, the legitimate concerns were usually lost in the firestorm of superficial complaints. Over the course of a surprisingly civil conversation, I gave her the extended, half-Taiwanese/half-English paraphrasing of the age-old saying:
Pick your battles, mom.
Finally, she got it. She realized that plowing into us with a barrage of minutiae only infuriated me and my sister and made us want to defend our dates. But, focusing on just the legitimate concerns actually got us to listen. And, I’ll admit, sometimes she did have legitimate concerns. It just took a bit of discussion before we finally eked out an appropriate way to address them without getting mired in the superficial.
All this happened a long time ago, but every four years or so, I’m still reminded of that conversation my mom and I had. How so? Because I really, truly, strenuously wish all the political advocates out there would learn the same lesson.
Just last week, this video clip started making the rounds of the internet. In it, according to Gawker, Rick Santorum almost calls Barack Obama the n-word during a speech.
A friend of mine posted the link on Facebook, and I voiced my hesitation. I replayed that clip four or five times, and truthfully, I just didn’t hear it. The discussion went back and forth for a while, and it was clear we would have to agree to disagree. But, for the most part, most everyone stayed fairly civil.
Hours later, a friend of this friend (someone I didn’t know) decided to lecture me about the importance of uncovering Santorum’s character. He explained how Santorum’s underlying racism is in fact a huge concern, and how I, as a self-professed conservative (I had never professed such a thing), needed to be aware of his true nature.
That’s when I found myself defending Rick Santorum.
And do you know what’s bafflingly ironic about that?
I can’t stand Rick Santorum.
In fact, I vehemently disagree with the vast majority of Santorum’s, well, existence. As a political centrist, I can’t comprehend a scenario where I would ever vote for someone as extreme as Santorum.
And yet, here I was, defending him. Somewhere out there, the Gods of Irony are bumping fists and high-fiving each other.
I’m a swing vote. I’m the guy who votes Republican one year and Democrat four years later. I’m the guy who actually decides elections. Not the bleeding heart on the left, or the reactionary on the right. And in attempting to convince me of Santorum’s alleged racism, an outspoken liberal had pushed me to defend the very guy I would never consider voting for.
As a staunch centrist, I’m swayed by the legitimate issues. If you cite impartial evidence that Obama’s policies will bankrupt the nation, I’ll listen. If you cite impartial evidence that Santorum’s policies will be a huge blow to civil rights, I’ll listen.
On the other hand, if you tell me that Obama will bankrupt the nation because he is a foreign-born Muslim socialist, then the first image that pops into my head is of a little cartoon monkey playing the cymbals, because that’s what you’ve just reduced yourself to with one simple, ignorant utterance.
In a similar vein, the more someone insists that the Santorum video obviously reveals his racism, the less I’ll be inclined to listen to any other concerns—legitimate or not—this person might have with Santorum.
The way I see it, centrists are centrists because they don’t buy into sound bites and propaganda. Centrists are centrists because they like to weigh the issues, rather than vote along party lines. So, if you want to win over a centrist—and, again, that’s what you need to do to win an election—I’d argue that you do so by focusing on the issues that matter, not on the almost-issues and the outright non-issues.
And that’s why election years are a constant reminder to me of the lesson that my mom figured out years ago—a lesson I’m now going to restate a little more bluntly, since I’m not talking to mom anymore:
Pick your fucking battles, people.