I was standing in the express lane at the grocery store, waiting to purchase dinner, tapping away on my smartphone. Three places ahead of me in line was an older couple who were quite exasperated with the cashier, for reasons difficult to ascertain; something to do with the amount of change being incorrect. The cashier, a young kid no more than twenty, was doing his best to be accommodating – this did not impress the older man, who decided at one point to slam his hand on the conveyor and yell at him. Giving the older guy the benefit of the doubt just for the moment, he could have reached the end of his tether after a rotten day. But that was no reason to take it out on the kid, who was not being rude, or dismissive, or in any way belligerent. What surprised me most about the whole affair was how my stomach turned at the old guy’s outburst. You know that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex, having undergone the brainwash of the “Ludovico treatment,” starts heaving with nausea at any example of violence? That was me. It was this peculiar mix of revulsion and paralysis. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks reflecting on this and wondering where it came from, trying to contextualize it in terms of my overall personality. And the conclusion I have come to is this: I hate bullies.
Liberals aren’t supposed to be hateful. We are supposed to be the compassionate and empathetic turn-the-other-cheekers who look at the world in endless shades of nuance and complexity. Yet I can summon no sympathy or understanding for anyone who preys on the weak; who tries to get their way by intimidation, smears, threats and the perpetuation of hatred and fear. It isn’t that I just want to see bullies stop bullying, I want to see them humiliated and utterly destroyed. I am positively gleeful at the thought of the arrogant asses of the world sobbing in the corner. I see it as justice and fair retribution for the torment they have inflicted on other people. And it frustrates me that what seems on the surface to be wishing only for karmic just desserts makes me no better than they are.
When the news broke of Andrew Breitbart’s death yesterday, I was appalled at my initial reaction, which was, essentially, good riddance. This man devoted his life and career to spreading hatred of the things that I believe in. But at the same time, he was somebody’s father and somebody else’s son – a man with a young family and kids that now have to grow up without their dad, a situation I can understand all too acutely. Andrew Breitbart’s children don’t deserve that, and at the same time, he doesn’t deserve to not be around to watch them grow up. Maybe that is what makes liberalism such a challenging philosophy to uphold – the need to be able to look deep into the soul of one’s opposition, into the recesses of the ugliness that repels us and tears at our most cherished tenets, and locate the mutual humanity. As Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) puts it in The American President, “Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” And to that say, Namaste.
What did I want to do in that moment in line? What would have sated those intense feelings of anger and hatred simmering inside my gut? Did I want to take a swing at the old man? Did I want to excoriate him in a Sorkin-esque blaze of wit and erudition and Gilbert & Sullivan references? Which of those options would have made it better? The answer is, neither.
The perfect illustration of this dilemma, for me, is the climax of the first Back to the Future, when George McFly, thinking he’s playing out a scene to win the affections of Lorraine, realizes to his horror that he is in fact throwing down with his lifelong nemesis Biff Tannen. Biff is such a detestable character, embodied memorably by Thomas F. Wilson, that everyone who watches the movie can’t help but smile when George finally decks him with one powerful left-handed haymaker. But the crucial point of the moment is not the defeat of the bully – it’s George’s embrace of the confidence locked away inside him. Biff doesn’t really learn much of a lesson or even stray very far from his bullying ways – it took two sequels to finally defeat his ilk once and for all – but George is forever a better man. When we see George at the end of the first movie, he has no trouble dealing with Biff, and again, not because of one bloody nose, but because he recognizes Biff’s failings and pities him. One can never be threatened by someone for whom you feel pity – it is an irreversible triumph, because it is a triumph of the soul.
Eventually the cashier and his manager were able to address the problems of the old couple and send them on their way – a happy ending for all concerned. The rotten feeling I had inside, however, lets me know that I still have work to do on myself – I’m not George McFly at the end of the movie just yet. And it remains ever difficult to find that pity in a time when bullies run rampant in our governments, our banks, our schools, tearing with greed at the very fabric of our civilization. Yet ours too is a powerful flame, one that should be stoked constantly to ensure that our collective humanity shines on. Our lasting impression upon history can be exemplified by the best of us, and those are the people I’d rather stand with.