I sent this email to my district’s representative in Lansing last week. She has not replied, so I am making it public here. In a nutshell: I suggest to her that constantly demonizing opponents is not a productive way forward.
In turning this into a blog post, I selected four pull-quotes. You could just skim those to get the essence.
People like you and me can’t change the whole national political culture. Our first project—and it will be an ongoing project, for most of us!—is to change ourselves. What will the tone and content of my own public commentary be?
But we can try also to engage, encourage, and challenge others who are in a position to change the tone for the better locally, and whom we are able to reach: our own local politicians.
So far I’m not succeeding well in engaging my state rep. She is pretending not to hear me. But I’m not going to quit trying yet.
From: James Ernest
Date: Sat, Feb 4, 2023 at 7:07 PM
Subject: a suggestion
Dear Representative Rigas,
When Governor Whitmer gave her state of the state address you posted a meme depicting Whitmer as a Star Wars villain. You posted it publicly on your candidate page and reposted it on your public figure page. (You have blocked me from those pages, but of course I can see them anyway.)
This is not as bad as the crude condom meme that you posted earlier. Still, I was disappointed, because I wanted to take it as a hopeful sign when you stood up in the January school board meeting to apologize for your role in making the 2022 election season nasty.
Of course you didn’t invent this style of discourse; you just picked it up from others. Our culture in general these days has this habit of corrupting our public conversations with caricatures and demonization. Democratic officeholders sometimes do that too. It’s corrosive no matter who does it.
I do believe that certain forces at work in our midst are every bit as evil as the Imperial villains in the Star Wars movies. You may believe that as well, though you and I would locate the evil differently. But if our aim is to seek progress not breakdown, peace not civil war, unity not division, then in our public conversations we must avoid caricature, hyperbole, and name-calling. Labeling opponents as Darth Vader or Voldemort or whoever this anti-Whitmer meme depicts is caricature. It is name-calling.
It’s no good saying it’s just a joke. It is ridicule. Invective. Sure, some people who see it will laugh. Some may ignore it. Others will be further hardened in their unwillingness to try to listen to people they see as opponents. (Look at the comments it got.) The massive vilification of Governor Whitmer a couple of years ago resulted in a kidnapping plot. Demonization of one public official by others is not funny, or harmless, or innocent.
Multiple strategies are available for dealing with our current political situation, but not all of them are appropriate for everyone. A comedian can caricature and point and laugh. That’s what clowns and jesters do, and maybe we all need them. We private citizens may do some of that among friends, though maybe we should do less.
But we do not want our elected officials to be clowns and jesters. And we certainly do not want them to be deliberate provokers of serious hatred. We want them to use other strategies: listen well to everyone in order to seek understanding; make constructive proposals that have some possibility of convincing parties who disagree about many things to come to agreement about a few things that are important; make powerfully persuasive arguments, grounded in verified fact and built with flawless logic, both to oppose wrongheaded proposals and to support positive proposals. We will still have plenty of disagreement if we all do that. But we would have less stupidity and nastiness.
If you wanted to crack a joke like this in a friends-only post on your personal page, you could. I don’t think you’d be helping yourself form your own soul into the soul of a responsible politician, but maybe everybody has to be allowed to crack a joke in private. But when you post things like this publicly—on your candidate page, and on your public-figure page, or your government-official page—you are forming the souls of your fans, followers, and constituents. You are reinforcing cynicism. You are not making them (or us) better. You are making us worse. A true political leader should be devoted to making her people better.
The meme calls Gretchen Whitmer “Supreme Leader.” She is not that and is not supposed to be that. She is governor of Michigan, which means governor of, and for, all the people of Michigan. You, by the same token, are not supposed to be a mocker and scorner. That’s not the job description of a state representative. A state representative is supposed represent all the people of this district, including the people who did not vote for that representative. Including me. Our representative is supposed to say and do things to make us better, and to make our lives better, by finding her best self and, from deep inside that self, calling upon us to be our best selves. That is my idea, at least, of your most important job.
At the last school board meeting, I told the school board members that I would pray for them regularly. I meant it. I also pray for you regularly. I pray that you will find your best self and embrace your true job.
This was going to be a blog post, written in the third person, or perhaps a letter to the editor. But then a funny thing happened: I ran into you in Meijer and we spoke briefly. Actually, I didn’t realize that it was you until I had walked away. But it made me think: you’re another person in this community, who also buys groceries for her family. So I thought: I’ll try communicating directly rather than publicly this time. I’m not expecting a long reply. I would just appreciate a brief acknowledgment that you got this and read it.
Postscript: Representative Rigas posted this meme yesterday, describing President Biden as being, like the spy balloon, “Full of Hot Air Owned and Operated by communist China.” So the governor is Darth Vader and the president is a hot-air balloon. Yuk, yuk, yuk. No civility, and no creative and constructive leadership in sight. We must keep trying.