Laughing at and Identifying with Political Outsiders
Five years ago, I visited Washington DC for the second time in my life. This visit wasn’t for a school trip—I was going as an actual grownup. Specifically as a pediatric dentist and a member of a lobbying arm of our national organization, which was spending a day visiting Congressional representatives and urging their cooperation on legislation that would increase federal funding for children’s dental care. Needless to say, I had never darkened the halls of Congress before; that day, I sat in their offices, ate lunch in their cafeteria, even used their bathrooms. But I couldn’t have felt more like an outsider.
For one thing, it was my first (and, so far, only) foray into advocacy—and I was the youngest person on my team. So...total rookie. Most of the other members of our group had years more life and dental experience than I did, and many had been to Capitol Hill multiple times, if not annually. They were recognized by representatives. They were total insiders. Meanwhile, I held my breath and prayed that my role as an observer learning the ropes would prevent me from having to speak aloud in these offices. I flitted from floor to floor like a silent companion, wondering if I was accomplishing anything by being there.
A few months later, I returned to my former home of New York for my bachelorette party. Because I had served on jury duty with a vice president of one of the major news networks, and because I am a total news junkie and dork, the kickoff to the weekend was a guided tour of said network, including a visit to the set of one of the daytime news shows. While my friend quietly ushered us through the set, I would excitedly point to anchors and guests, all, “Is that [insert name here]? Does he still write for [insert publication here]?” My friend would nod, surprised at what I knew—probably because I had been reading chick-lit during our many jury breaks. It was a highlight of the weekend, though I couldn’t tell you anything I accomplished besides enjoying myself and boring my fellow bachelorettes.
This is the difference between feeling a part of something and being an outsider. In my life, I’ve had plenty of experience with feeling like an outsider: I’m so introverted I almost come back out the other side. I leave parties without saying goodbye. I’d rather sit on my couch reading a book than...well, just about anything. So I know all about being in a room and feeling entirely alone, or being a “member” of a group in name only, while not identifying with it in any real way.
But there’s a distinction between feeling like an outsider and actually being one. Take this blog: I’m the only contributor not living in DC. Based on demographics alone it doesn’t make perfect sense for me to be here. It also doesn’t make sense that one of my best friends, also a contributor, is on the other end of the political spectrum from me, or that, were you to look at my Facebook status updates from just a few years ago, you’d ask what my business is urging cooperation and thoughtfulness in politics. But here I am anyway—brought to you by grace.
From where I stand, decidedly outside the Beltway, we all have enough to disagree on. Which is why election cycles are especially depressing: They make these disagreements their currency, turning one side into the eventual winner and one the loser until the power struggle repeats itself in two, four, or six years. As a believer, I should be the first to admit that I am an outsider in so many ways without the intervention of forgiveness and grace. Not to mention than I am a citizen of a different kingdom. How, then, does that leave me with any room to look at a group as unwelcome or unworthy? To be clear, I’m not talking specifically about policy here; we can all love our country and have different ideas about how to defend it, how to make it better. But there is a way to practice principle without hating people or demonizing them. And I’m working on it.
Much can be said about the entertainment value of debates and rhetoric, the sound bites-gone-bad and the ones that beg for apologies but don’t engender them. Much could be written about the line between honesty and political correctness—where it lies, whether it should exist at all. And we’ll be given plenty of opportunities to talk and write about these things in the coming months and beyond. But what should not be happening, for me, is any gleeful or sustained involvement in the writing people off or excluding them from the human experience based on their demographics or opinions. Any time one of those sound bites inspires laughter, or—worse—a cheer inside me, I think about how I once was lost, then I was found. That fact makes me all the things I’m tempted to write off: the fringe element, the immigrant, the other team, the refugee.
In a recent conversation with President Obama, Marilynne Robinson said this: “But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—’Love thy neighbor as thyself’—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are.” As a believer, I am both the ultimate outsider and insider—and I am called to a love that closes its doors on no one.