John (not his real name) and I were very close friends in college. He was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a brother. I think he felt the same way about me. We drank together, laughed together, and I was the first person he came to see when his mom passed away. At the time, I was still inhibited enough by my midwestern upbringing that I wasn’t really comfortable hugging another man, but I did, because my friend was hurting. As he sobbed in my arms, I rubbed his back and let him know I loved him. After that, we always ended each phone call with “I love you man!” and although we were referring to an old Budweiser commercial, we both knew that we would each do anything for the other.
John joined the Navy after college and we lost touch for a while, until one day he called me out of the blue. It was a happy reunion and it seemed like we had never really parted company. I had gotten divorced and was living a pretty dull existence other than going to work. It was the mid 90’s and my life consisted of going to work, coming home to surf the web and play computer games, and going to bed, only to repeat the same inane activities the next day.
As the years went by, John tried to get me to move closer to him, but I didn’t want to move away from my kids, since I didn’t get to see them very much as it was. It became a sort of joke between us. He would do his best to lure me with promises of good trout fishing and a ready supply of new people to meet, and I would put him off with the same answer, I can’t move that far away from my kids.
When Anne and I met, and finally got engaged, my first call was to him to be my best man. I had always regretted that he wasn’t able to be my best man at my first wedding. He came and it was like we hadn’t been apart at all. We still finished each other’s sentences and could riff off each other with the same old jokes. I was really glad that he was able to be there. He mentioned preparing for the turn of the century, convinced that he needed to be ready in case the year 2000 bug caused a total collapse of society. Being in the IT industry, I tried to reassure him that the problem was not as severe as he feared, but he seemed more dedicated to the fantasy of being one of the survivors than he was in critically considering the possibility that nothing was going to happen.
Fast forward 9 years. I am not sure what changed. I had always thought of him as pretty sensible, a good critical thinker. He had always had a bit of a tendency to feel that feminism and political correctness had gone too far, which wasn’t necessarily something I disagreed with in some respects. Of course my idea of a rampant feminist was someone like Andrea Dworkin, who was not so much a feminist as she was a sexist. I have always disliked extremes, in politics, religion, philosophy or anything else, simply because they so often make their adherents blind to other possibilities. Where we parted company was that he increasingly felt that white males were becoming an oppressed underclass. My sense was that while they were not an endangered species the way he seemed to feel they were, they were in the process of losing their assumed privilege which I wasn’t really sure was entirely a bad thing.
During the run up to the 2008 election, we had several conversations, and it became increasingly apparent that his view of the world and my view had diverged not only radically but somewhat violently in the interim. I was not a George W Bush fan because I felt he had been a bad president. Many of his decisions seemed to me to be poorly thought out and knee jerk reactions rather than plans with the consequences considered and accounted for. While I supported the actions we took in Afghanistan, the diversion of men and other resources to Iraq seemed to be the most foolish thing we could do when we were already fighting one war.
I was an early supporter of President Obama. I liked his pragmatism. I liked the fact that he was cerebral, that he appeared to be someone who thought things through before taking action, the exact opposite of many of the people he ran against in both the primaries and the eventual election. John McCain scared me, not because he was a strong supporter of the military, in fact, I had considered if I would have crossed party lines to vote for him if things had turned out differently. But he made one decision that led me to believe that he showed incredibly poor judgement, but that he was also a coward. I refer of course to his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Sarah Palin scared me. She seemed to me to be the literal embodiment of everything that George Bush and Dick Cheney had wrought on the body politic during the eight years they were in power. The contempt for critical thinking, the dislike of science or anything else that meant that someone might actually have an idea of what they were talking about. People that actually had expertise were “elitist”. In other words, she hit every hot button that every conservative white male in America had exposed. She confirmed a great deal of their preconcieved notions and in fact told them that they were the ones being persecuted by the liberal elites, the media, and anyone else who didn’t think the way they did.
John and I sparred a few times over politics, him insisting that liberals were beneath contempt, myself arguing that neither side had a monopoly on truth but that it was important that they talk to each other and try to solve problems. It became apparent that he had become “radicalized” when he started quoting World Net Daily writer and well known conspiracist and birther Jerome Corsi as an expert on President Obama’s motives and background. When we talked about terrorism and Islam, he was prone to quoting people like Robert Spencer, a well known Islamaphobe, whose Stop Islamization of America organization and Freedom Defense Initiative were both designated as hate groups by the Anti-defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It became increasingly apparent that he had somehow bought into the hateful rhetoric of the far right.
He seemed to buy into every crazy conspiracy theory about President Obama that the right wing was tossing out. For a while it seemed like people like Rush Limbaugh and others of the right wing noise machine were throwing whatever rhetoric they could just to see if anything would stick. And it did, but only among those who were already convinced that someone who didn’t look like them running the country was some sort of disaster. Old prejudices about minorities of faith or race came boiling to the surface, enhanced by those who fanned the flames of old resentments into white hot fires of anger and fear.
They were made to feel like a persecuted minority, when they were simply being forced to compete on a level playing field against people of color, women, and other people that they had always assumed they were superior to. I think it scared them as it still scares them today. Change is hard, especially when it feels like it’s imposed from without rather than embraced from within. I’ve always said that the only person who likes change is a baby with a full diaper, but even they will scream bloody murder until the new diaper is safely on and fastened up tight.
Things continued to get worse.
I won’t dismiss my role in this whole thing. I was as absolutely convinced I was right as he was. My sense of correctness didn’t come from knowing I was right, but because I was willing to admit that I had no way of knowing if I was right or wrong about much of anything except that I had empirical evidence on my side and a willingness to consider evidence to the contrary. Absolute certainty about anything tends to make me suspicious. That’s perhaps a personal failing, that inability to have unquestioning faith. Frankly if you think you’re right regardless of whether there is evidence to the contrary your grasp on reality is a bit loose.
Finally, it became painfully apparent that John lumped me in with everyone else who didn’t share his beliefs and thus was not worth consideration. I was the one that ended the relationship, in what was perhaps a fit of pique, but I’m willing to own that. We’ve not communicated for 3 years now, and I feel his absence every single day. I also realize that I just need to grieve because he’s not coming back to sanity anytime soon.
I have looked him up on Facebook a few times, and what I see tells me he’s not gotten any better and in fact gotten much much worse. His friends are all like minded “patriots” and talk shows specializing in crazy conspiracy theories and fearmongering. The amount of hate and fear is overwhelming. I don’t go there very often. It hurts too much, like losing someone to a cult.
So that’s that. John I’m sorry. Sometimes you have to accept that while someone will always be in your heart, you can’t have them in your life.