They seemed like a nice enough couple. They had been sitting at the table next to us at the Cafe Zinc, the favorite outdoor hangout for good food at breakfast and lunch time in Laguna Beach--a couple in, say, late middle age, rather stocky, both of them, and speaking with a distinctively Russian accent. About to leave, they stopped by at our table to admire George--a not unusual event, since George is a cute little dog who invariably manages to attract attention--and the man squatted down to pet him.
Which led, as it so often does, to the opening up of a friendly conversation. We are always curious about people, where the come from, what they do, their families, and we soon discovered that they had escaped the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and had emigrated to Israel, where they spent the next sixteen years before crossing the Atlantic and settling, finally, in the United States. We heard about their two sons--the first, born in the USSR, had spent his formative years in Israel. The younger, born in Israel, was brought up largely in the US. One of them, we heard, was a Republican, the other a Democrat.
Which led us, unfortunately, into politics. That, too, started out calmly enough. Until our new friend flew suddenly into an unprovoked and totally unpredictable rage. What was the difference, he demanded to know, between Obama and Osama bin Laden? Initially, foolishly, I thought that this was a joke, with some kind of witty answer. But no. The man was serious. There was no difference between the two of them, he yelled, his face now scarlet and distorted with fury; none at all. (I'm not exaggerating!) This Barack Hussein Obama was an Arab, no different from the rest of them. He was no friend of Israel... Between the Russian accent, now more pronounced than ever, and the rage, he soon became more and more incoherent, and it was only the tenor of his rant that was understandable, not its argument.
The man was coming, clearly, from a place of very deep emotion. No rational argument could possibly have engaged or satisfied him. We have heard that there are people--many of them--who harbor such thoughts and feelings, but we had never before encountered someone not only willing to admit to them, but utterly convinced of their incontrovertibility. So there was really nothing we could say, except that we understood the depth of his emotion--but that we totally disagreed with him. This, of course, did nothing to calm his rage.
But at least he had the good sense, after a while, to back away, to make some space between himself and us, and stood glowering a few feet from us while his wife took over and attempted, by way of an apology, to explain. Something--I suspect a kind of protectiveness--had been unlocked in her and, once started, she was simply unable to stop. By this time I had given up listening to what she was trying to say, and simply waited for the energy to run out. And, when it didn't, and seemed not about to, and she kept running on and on, I found an excuse for Ellie and myself to hurry off from there and left her in mid-sentence.
It was a rather disconcerting experience. Even knowing that such unreason plays a frighteningly large role in our political discourse, we usually find ourselves talking to those people who agree with us. It's rare to find ourselves in conversation with the opposition. We'd like to think that, if that happened, we would be able to find common ground and discuss our differences with calm and reason, that we could listen to arguments on the other side with an open mind and learn from them. In this instance, that was clearly not the case.
I know that not every conservative believes as fervently as this man that there is no difference between President Obama and Osama bin Laden. But the conversation did bring me to reflect on my perception that, in our current political debate, one side is reasonable, and the other is not. I am distressed to hear the expression of similar unreason and barely concealed hatred from the lips of many Republicans these days--and not only the back-benchers and their vociferous support base, but from the Republican leadership. No matter how hard I try to see things from their point of view, for the most part I am simply unable to do so. Their words, their policies, their proposals for the most part fail the test of ordinary common sense. If I learned anything from our experience at the Cafe Zinc, it is that sheer unreason has become a significant driving force in the affairs of the inhabitants of this planet, and that it threatens to destroy all possibility of discourse.
(After writing this piece, yesterday, ready for posting this morning, I happened to catch a few excerpts from both the Chuck Hagel hearings in Washington and the gun control debate. Unreason, again, seemed to prevail. The anger--and there is plenty of it in both situations--again seems to be coming from one direction only: from the right. And again, the Obama hatred erupts in toxic outbursts. His reelection is apparently a grievous insult to the righteous right, and he will not be forgiven for beating them. Forgotten is the fact that he speaks and acts in the interests of the majority of voters in this country--and that he himself is a supremely reasonable man who argues cogently for what he believes. What could be more infuriating than that?)