The man who sat on the mall bench next to me was in his late 70s, maybe, or early 80s, no doubt taking a break, as I was, after having been outshopped by his companion. I had taken Jayden out of the stroller to stretch his legs, and he sat on my lap behaving like an exceedingly cute 1-year-old.
So that was the scene when the man sat down and made conversation with Jayden, said he’d retired from the Air Force, mentioned his recent back surgery; we exchanged the names of our home towns; and casting about for another topic of conversation, he said that the government spends too much money.
I had turned Jayden around on the bench, and he was watching with fascination the people go by below. The man, thinking I had missed his topic, tried again: “Congress spends too much of our money.”
Thinking about it later, I realized that there were many things I could have said: “Preach it, brother!” or “What programs do you disagree with?” or “It seems to be what the voters want them to do.” Or even, “I don’t talk politics [although it’s not “politics,” strictly speaking, but policy; anyway] with strangers; pick another.” But what came out was, “…”
My first thought was why am I such a loghead? But if he had had a specific policy issue, we might have had a conversation. But too often, these entrees aren’t about conversation; they’re about finding out if the other person is one of us or one of them. I suspect that I might have been “us” to the man, but I hate being “us” that way even more than I hate being “them.”
I know a man who plays this game with every person he meets — and he meets a lot of people. I’m among “them” to him, and when he finds a kindred political soul, they ramp up the rhetoric together in a sort of bondng ritual. It’s not persuasive — there’s no need to persuade, because the assumption is that being “us,” we already agree; if we had to persuade each other, we wouldn’t be “us.”
I wonder how much the state of our political discourse comes back to the inanities people proclaim when they’re trying to find fellow members of their political clans.
How much more appealing just to stare over the railing at the many fascinating people walking about below.