I recently played poker with a bunch of Republicans. My husband and I, both bleeding-heart liberals, are part owners of a cabin in the Sierra outside Fresno, a very conservative area. The Camp Sierra Assn. president has an annual poker game, and this year we, the newcomers, were invited.
No one mentioned politics. We talked instead about our kids and Las Vegas and the odd warm weather. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of very good Scotch. I had fun even though I lost $4.
When the game was over, we walked home with our across-the-road neighbors and invited them in for a final nightcap.
They are the best neighbors in the world. Always ready with a tool, an ingredient or a jump-start for the car. Whatever you need, if they have it, they will give it. They are a lovely family: husband, wife and four smart, funny, polite children. I was sure they were Democrats.
As the husband sat down in our living room with his drink, he announced, “The tea party is not racist.” We just looked at him. “The tea party is not racist,” he continued, “because I am a member of the tea party.”
I laughed. I thought he was joking, but he quickly made it clear he was not. He is white and his wife is African American. And they belong to the tea party. They don’t care who becomes our next president as long as it isn’t Barack Obama. The conversation devolved from there until he was shouting, I was shouting, his wife was trying to calm him down, my husband was trying to calm me down, and our other friends — Democrats — were trying to keep everybody from breaking the furniture.
We argued about healthcare and welfare, President Obama’s nationality and religion, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We did not agree on anything. But honestly, the issues were not important. What matters is how personal it quickly became, how vitriolic, how filled with hate. He said I was sucking the country dry with my support of food stamps and public education. He said I needed to get off my butt and take care of myself. I suggested he sign his kids up to die in Iran, the next place he thinks we should attack. He called me a spoiled idiot and worse. I called him selfish, shortsighted and worse. It was awful, and it went on until after 3 a.m.
The next morning, they knocked on our door and we apologized to each other and laughed sheepishly. All in good fun, the wife said. It was the Scotch talking, my husband replied. But my feelings about them are changed. I cannot respect them as I did before. And as they headed back across the street, I saw the look they gave each other: They don’t like us anymore either.
My mother had Republican friends. She was a lifelong Democrat, worked with the Adlai Stevenson for president campaign and was a precinct chairman for Hubert Humphrey. She was ashamed of Richard Nixon and thought Ronald Reagan was misguided. Still, she didn’t hate Republicans. She disagreed with their politics and they with hers, but she believed people, no matter how they vote, are basically all the same.
I don’t agree. I don’t want to be friends with someone who is a member of the tea party or is a Newt Gingrich Republican. We are not the same. I equate their political views with thoughtlessness, intolerance and narcissism. I think they are not kind or empathetic. And my neighbor made it clear that he does not respect my opinions or me.
“You’re what’s wrong with this country!” he shouted. “No, you are!” was my intelligent retort. In only one area could we agree: We each would prefer the other just didn’t exist. If only they would all go live in Gingrich’s moon colony. If only we would all move to Canada with the other socialists. My mother would have been horrified, but times have changed.
My neighbors want good jobs, nice houses and security for their four children. They want to be able to retire before they get too old so they can spend more time at their cabin. They love the Sierra Nevada and want it to remain pristine. I want those things too. I want it for their children as well as mine, and for all children everywhere. Of course I do. And that’s what I find so frustrating.
My views on all these things — gay marriage, abortion, the war in Iraq, healthcare, education, food stamps, even NPR and PBS funding — seem so logical to me. Of course we need to take care of those less fortunate; of course we want everybody to have the joy and legal benefits of a life partner; of course we want every baby to be wanted and every person to be safe, healthy, informed and looking forward to a better future.
These things are no-brainers to me, and it kills me that my neighbor disagrees. I wonder what would happen if he woke up one morning to find that his son had been killed in Iraq or that his 15-year-old daughter was pregnant or that his favorite sister was gay. What if he suddenly lost his job, his wife got cancer, there was no insurance and not much food? I’m not saying I want life to knock him around. But would he still feel that the government shouldn’t be helping anybody out?
Next time I drive to our cabin, I’m going to make sure I take everything I could possibly need. I don’t want to ask my neighbors for help. I hope it’s their weekend to stay home.
Diana Wagman is the author of the novels “Skin Deep,” “Spontaneous” and “Bump.”