Monday, March 29, 2010

Living With the Gray

One of my readers has suggested that I write more about controversial issues. This reader is not in my target demographic, and so may be less than captivated by my nostalgic Baby Boomer musings.

However, being controversial at my age is not as easy as it sounds. When you get older, things turn gray. I'm not talking about hair. I simply mean that once you've lived through multiple decades, crises, and presidents, life's political issues don't seem so black and white anymore. For example:

War. History vilifies English prime minister Neville Chamberlain for appeasing the Nazis in 1938; the Germans then overran Europe. Sometimes I think we suffered through the Vietnam War because politicians didn't want to see that same sequence of events — then referred to as the domino theory — replayed in Southeast Asia. It didn't happen, but we spent 50,000 lives and untold billions figuring it out.

We're purportedly in the Middle East today to keep it from being taken over by Islamic fascists, and yet, some of our allies there are as bad as the people we're fighting. World War I sowed the seeds for World War II; are we sowing the seeds for World War III in the Middle East today?

Pre-marital Sex. Once upon a time, pre-marital sex was bad. It brought unplanned pregnancies (the term "unwed mother" predated "single parent"). It spread sexually transmitted diseases. But society's disdain for it, like so many things, was hypocritical. Before marriage, boys were supposed to sow their wild oats and girls were supposed to be virgins. This is mathematically impossible.

Today, of course, there is no such thing as pre-marital sex. It's just sex. To my moderate mind, it helps couples see if they can reach the deepest levels of intimacy before they commit to a lifetime together. The alternative is to wait, discover you've chosen badly, and then divorce. But the same people who are against pre-marital sex seem to also be against divorce. This is emotionally impossible.

At the same time, it strikes me as unfair and even sexist that when young men and young women engaging in premarital sex create an unintentional offspring, it's the women who end up being the single parent. I believe the vagaries of the human spirit require some societal flexibility, but I worry about a world populated by only children who don't have the advantage of two parents who can trade off when one gets tired, not to mention the social graces they learn by having to share with siblings.

Politics. This is my grayest area of all. Rebelling against New Deal-Democrat parents, I registered as a Republican after my 18th birthday. But I went contrary to the tenet "if you're not a liberal by the time you’re twenty, you have no heart, and if you're not a conservative by the time you’re forty, you have no brain." I have become more, but not completely, liberal. Like a lot of people I know, I've left the Republican party but still can’t bear to join the Democrats.

I've come to realize that not everyone has had the advantages I had growing up, and the government in its vastness should offer some assistance to people who are trying to better themselves. But I also believe that you can't fund everything forever. We seem to have devolved into government by attention-deficit disorder, wholly reactive and short-sighted as opposed to focusing on how to make the country better and stronger for the next generation. Congress uses the future like a credit card that never comes due, so it can take credit today.

But the bigger problem is that while I'm mired in gray, much of the rest of the country is mired in black-and-white thinking. The result: an increasing polarization of the country, an increasing demonization of opponents (casting a racial slur at John Lewis makes as much sense as calling George Washington a traitor to King George III). One side seems to spend precious little time even acknowledging that there may be another side. It twists the perspective on almost any situation to fit its own. I sit here discouraged because I feel like we've lost a sense of accommodation, of compromise, of working together for a common goal.

Maybe this is my generation, the me generation, writ large: we want what we want and to hell with your opinion. I find myself yearning for less extremism and more centrism, in essence a wider understanding that in a complex world, there is no black and white. There is only gray and we have to get used to living in it.


  1. I, too, have become more liberal, though having started life in Oklahoma, was it ever possible to be more conservative? That said, I only started to understand the whole liberal-conservative thing when I moved to Salt Lake City! I now live in NE England and am grateful for the opportunity to hear a different viewpoint. I, too, am really weary of all the extreme self-interest I hear from folks back home, and also from people here. I wish there was a bit less greed and a little more gratitude.

  2. About 3 years ago, I was at my parents' house by myself. Someone called looking for my dead grandfather [my father had elected to receive his mail and phone calls; his two brothers had other responsibilities].

    After explaining that the intended recipient -- and his son -- wasn't available [but I, the grandson, was], the caller identified himself as being from the Republicans and asked me what my party was.

    "I'm an Independent", I replied.

    The caller reacted much like my Freshman roommate -- he hung up.