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Guide to Making Enemies

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-06-18


During the Bush/Clinton election season of 1992, I took a road trip to Madison, Wisconsin for a friend's wedding, and what I encountered there left a lasting impression on me. I'd heard that the city was strongly liberal but I was surprised to learn how stridently leftist it really was. I went to school in Bloomington and the political climate at I.U. was noticeably less charged Liberal Lite compared to Madison. Odd, to me, for much of Wisconsin is fiercely conservative, right in the heart of NRA country.

Anyway. I had a free night so I went to a show at a local club and before the concert I chatted up the bartender who was pouring my drinks. Nice guy, smart guy, graphic arts major, and since I was there way early we had a long conversation about bands and writers and artists. Entertaining, interesting. When the conversation turned to politics, though, things got a little dicey. I told him, shyly, with a smile, that in the upcoming election I was probably the only one in my circle of friends in Indiana who was going to vote for Clinton. The bartender leaned back from the bar, stared at me for a good ten seconds, then said with absolute sincerity, "Probably time to get some new friends."

It was an astonishing statement. I probably should have let it go a careless, presumptuous statement best forgotten but he pissed me off and so I went to bat. I'll never give those guys up, I said, because they're good guys and they know me. Plus, I said, they all share something that I value more than their politics or cultural values. They're funny. Nights out with them are long, can-you-top-this comic riffs from a bunch of quick-witted guys who like to bring out their new material and perform for their friends. It was then I realized that the bartender, for all his cool and hipster knowledge and totemic references was basically humorless and I hate humorless guys.

It was one of those epiphany moments when I could only identify one of my core beliefs as I was speaking the words out loud. I realized that in the great cultural divide in America, "liberal/conservative" was considerably less important to me that "funny/not funny." This belief was always bubbling under the surface for me, but I never articulated it until that moment.

As a handy guide for how to choose friends and live your life, "funny/not funny" is a pretty good place to start. I was reminded of this on a subsequent trip to San Diego, where I encountered a friend of a friend, a guy who was a leader in the city's most militant environmental movement. It took me all of five minutes to realize that the guy was a jerk, and I don't mean the good kind of jerk, the jerk that gets things done, the break-a-lot-of-eggs-to-make-an-omelet jerk. No, I mean jerk jerk, i.e., completely humorless, creepy with women, self-righteous, self-important. After a heated conversation, I told him that the best thing he could do for Mother Earth was to leave it, and that his exhortations only inspired me to burn Styrofoam and open a strip-mining business in his back yard.

Funny, because at the time, I ostensibly shared some of his beliefs, and with a gentler touch he probably could have converted me to take his side and become more of an activist. But he was such a radiant a-hole that I would've moved heaven and earth to contradict everything he believed in. Whatever group he stood with, I vowed, I was going to make sure that I was visibly on the other side.

I've backed off considerably from that reactionary stance since then, so that now, politically at least, I've found myself square in the middle of most debates. It sounds like a paradox, but hate has actually made me more tolerant I hate extremists on both sides so much that I can only feel comfortable in between. Michael Moore is a hero to a lot of folks but to me he's a born rat-bully, a mean-spirited man who ridicules everyone, even the people he's supposedly championing. Similarly, I can't bear the sight of Dick Cheney, the former vice-president who recently tried to pin 9/11 on Richard Clarke, despite the mountain of evidence that points to his own culpability. Both are strident ideologues of the worst kind, the kind that make it impossible for me to ally myself with. They make the "whatever they're for, I'm against" declaration an enviable position.

Of course, in this polarized era, championing the middle ground only makes me suspect on all sides--to liberals I'm a sell-out, to conservatives, I'm hopelessly naive. I cautiously hope that the current animosity between both sides fades a bit, and that the atrocities committed by Scott Roeder and James von Brunn will be revealed as nothing more than the actions of madmen and not some sinister national trend. I hope that the guys in the middle will get the fringe players to simmer down a little.

I recently finished Lawrence Wright's great book about 9/11, The Looming Tower, and in the book there is a telling explanation about how the extremely religious terrorists could justify the murder of fellow Muslims. It is a loophole for the ages. Killing Muslims is wrong, they agree, unless the Muslims in question are heretics. They further justify their murders by saying that anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic.

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