Steve was one of the first people I talked with at the beginning of the 2012 edition of the project. He is a retired lawyer, and he coaches a very successful high school constitutional debate team in Portland. He has never been someone whose perspectives cleave to party lines though he still identifies at least nominally as a member of the Republican party. He considers his membership in the party to be a waterline, a way to measure where the Republican party’s values once were and maybe could be again. We met in person at a cafe outdoors over lunch.
In response to my question about what has changed in American Politics over the last 10 years he started right off by saying the biggest problem we have politically right now is a breakdown of truth. He is appalled by the big lie of the stolen 2020 election. “It is incredible to the point of being fascinating or mesmerizing to see this phenomenon happen, and how 30-40 million Americans are devoutly attached to untruth.” He believes that there must be psychological reasons for so many people being completely swept up by clear falsehoods, but also noted how there is a whole media industry set up to feed our confirmation biases.
Later in our conversation he said he feels it is embarrassing that we could be so close to falling for fascism as Germany once did.
He strongly believes that how we should respond to this political crisis is through education, and he feels passionate about continuing to be a volunteer educator, to “give young people a sense of history because things were not always this way and do not necessarily have to be this way.”
I wondered where he stood on the charged debates about teaching the history of race and racism that are sweeping schools and legislatures. He told me the story he tells his students about how many times throughout his life when he has been pulled over by cops for speeding they have just given him a verbal warning and let him off. He shares that story as a way of acknowledging the reality of white privilege.
From there he started questioning me about how we as a society should go about trying to address racial and economic disparity and challenged me about how we could pragmatically implement something like reparations in a way that would actually create truly equitable outcomes. His emphasis wasn’t on whether we should address those historical inequities, but instead about questioning whether any strategy to address them would actually fix the problems. I felt the distance in my mind between intentions and outcomes growing farther apart as we spoke.
He asked me whether I had attended the Black Lives Matter uprising in Portland 2020 and in particular what I thought about activists toppling the Lincoln memorial. He wanted to know whether I believed the activists had the right to make the decision on their own to topple the monument, when others in the community disagreed. I told him that it made sense to me that people whose voices haven’t been heard through existing political systems would find ways to effect change outside of sanctioned channels. He pushed further about the specific choice of why Lincoln was toppled. I told him I had interpreted that action as a call for our society to change the way we tell the story about how slavery came to and end. Instead of celebrating one white president bestowing freedom upon enslaved people it feels important that we recognize all the many black organizers and their allies who worked for years to create the conditions that made the presidential decree possible.
He perceived the uprising and the monuments coming down as violence for violence sake. He thought it was a bad strategy because it didn’t elicit supporters, and it set public opinion against the activists because of that violence. I pointed out it also successfully moved police reform laws more than anything else ever had in our state. He acknowledged that might have been true but still challenged me on where the line was when violence became unacceptable. I said I didn’t think we should be concerned with property damage compared to the harm happening to people because of systemic inequities in policing, schooling, housing and healthcare. He objected to equating those types of harm with physical violence to justify it. I said it takes actions outside the law to change unjust laws. He agreed but said civil disobedience without violence is his standard for what is acceptable action outside of the law in the service of improving the law. I realized that I now question drawing the line at non-violence, that over the last decade I have come to see that political struggle for any substantial change usually involves some level of violence, even though being brought face to face with my own shift in beliefs around this makes me squirm a bit.
At one point I asked for his perspective as a conservative on something and he reminded me that only some parts of his perspective are conservative. Then he went on to say that one way he is conservative is that he is “cautious about human reformation”, which I understood to mean that he is skeptical about our ability as humans to treat each other better in the future than we have in the past. Mentions of human nature as something fixed and faulted have cropped up across my conversations with people on the right side of the political spectrum. The very premise of a fixed human nature stands in contrast to a progressive perspective which assumes that if people had access to meeting their fundamental needs we would create new ways of living together where everyone could thrive and exploitation would be minimal. I feel caught here because I realize I agree some with both perspectives. I know humans are always more complicated than just our best intentions, and that we are all messy imperfect people who make mistakes. And I also believe and have experienced that when people have their basic needs met they make more sensible, generous decisions and plans.
At the end of our conversation Steve looped back to how important it is that people are willing to consider the possibility they might be wrong, and how risky it is to a democracy if we are not willing to expose ourselves to opinions we don’t agree with, let alone consider the possibility that other people’s points might be true. He quoted the lawyer Learned Hand from 1944 saying “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”