Friday, May 27, 2016
I'm Mark Grimsley. The photo above was taken probably in 1971. That's me on the left. My brother Scott is on the right. Our father is in the center. Dad died at 54, less than twenty years after our mother took this snapshot. She herself died at 47. I mention the ages at which our parents died because they matter. I'm now well along toward my 57th birthday. This year Scott will turn 55. In short, we've so far managed--barely--to outlast our parents. We're both in fairly good health, so there's no reason to suppose that we won't live for many years to come. But having lost our parents at such early ages, it skews our sense of mortality. At a gut level, it's hard to believe that we'll live as long as the actuarial tables say we will. It shifts our sense of the importance of time, and the need to make the most of the time we have left.
Our parents' death has affected us in another way. In modern America, once children reach adulthood, the centrifugal forces of life tend to carry them in different directions. The main thing countervailing this is a surviving parent or parents. To pursue the analogy from physics, they act as a force of gravity pulling the kids back into orbit (family re-unions, holiday dinners, etc.) Since Scott and I haven't had this second force acting upon our lives--nor for that matter, has our younger sister--it's been easy for our relationship to become tenuous. And all the more so because our worldviews and our politics are so different.
The relationship between Scott and myself has seldom been easy. This has been primarily the case since we reached adulthood, but it tracks back all the way to early childhood. I suspect this is because fewer than two years separate us in age. I'm the older of the two, but not enough to create a clear distinction between "big brother" and "little brother." In such a context it was understandably Scott's inclination to compete with me and my inclination to compete right back. We long ago recognized this dynamic but have yet to overcome it. We probably never will.
Throughout most of our adult lives, this mutual competition has played itself out through debates about politics and religion. It's a cliché that you should never talk about politics or religion because they are inherently so divisive. That may be so. But I'm pretty sure our debates have often served as a proxy for arguments about things even more divisive.
Since our relationship seems condemned to play itself out largely through discussions about politics and religion, Scott and I have decided that we can at least make this dynamic redemptive.
Well, as much as we disagree about political issues, we share a common concern: the toxic nature of political discussion in our country today. Civility has never been the foremost hallmark of political talk, but incivility has become the norm to such an extent that our society no longer has good models for how people can disagree about politics in a respectful manner. The reason isn't hard to find.
Political talk shows on radio and television model the kind of discourse that caricatures and demonizes the other side, when the other side isn't present in the discussion; and becomes little more than a shouting match when the other side is. This has had the effect of repelling many Americans to such an extent that they have given up on politics. And among those who choose to remain politically engaged, this form of discourse has poisoned us. Our ability to carry on a civil discussion has not only atrophied, we have, by and large, lost sight of it as an ideal. It has instead become a blood sport.
Historian Richard Hofstadter long ago identified what he called "the paranoid style in American politics." In capsule form, the paranoid style asserts: Our side is nobly defending liberty. The other side is willfully, culpably trying to destroy liberty.
Present-day Americans create didn't this style. But we have industrialized it. I suspect that among the "chattering class," the scorn and ridicule they heap upon their political opponents, and the zeal with which they wrap themselves in the flag, are largely performance art, like professional wrestling. But when performance art is mistaken for the real thing, and ordinary citizens choose to regard it as the way in which we should actually discuss politics, then we are in real danger.
The only way that Scott and I can think of to push back against this is to model the kind of political engagement that we would like to see. Sibling Rivalry is an effort to do that.
Neither of us has a completely developed idea about how we'll go about this. And we know we have many competing responsibilities that are going to pull us in other directions. But we will do what we can.