December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy

A farewell to hate

By |2018-03-21T18:48:58+01:00April 16th, 2012|"Notebook"|
Making the (hateful) rounds.

ear Classmate: Recently you asked me to be your friend on Facebook and of course I accepted. We were friends and classmates in college. Our shared intellectual vivacity and similar backgrounds with rigorous, rugged individualist parents brought us together.

But now I’m writing you to say that although I still will be your “real” friend, I no longer want to be one on Facebook.

The tone and content of your frequent posts disturb me deeply. You call a bumper sticker that calls Barack Obama “Our Worst President Ever” “great.” You cheer another one that combines his campaign symbol with the words “trickle-down poverty.” You post links to inflammatory sites that question his citizenship. Sites you link to advocate a greater role for religion in public life, as the “founding fathers” intended. You and your friends claim to care deeply about America’s moral direction, but your words are nasty and divisive.

I might understand — if not agree — with your tone if it reflected your life experience; if you were the entitled scion of WASP privilege whose “rightful” place in life had been usurped by affirmative action. Being a young black man imprisoned for a minor drug offense might explain the tone of bitterness and betrayal. If you were a middle-aged white male with only a high-school education whose manufacturing job went to Asia and whose house was foreclosed, I might understand your position and tone.

But I do not understand how such anger comes from someone like us.

I don’t understand how a graduate of a college that has spent a century giving women the vote, power over their destinies and their bodies could be a fellow traveler with groups that want to backtrack on a century of progress for women.

Our enlightened and college-educated grandmothers — and great-grandmothers — were the first to use birth control and to promote the “kindergarten movement,” which made early-childhood education part of public school. We are descendants of women such as Jane Addams, who advocated for the less fortunate by bringing them services, not taking them away. Why do you no longer believe in things that allowed you to become a successful lawyer and political candidate?

I can understand it when the uneducated attribute America’s current plight to a single cause or person. After studying in one of America’s finest colleges, you know as well as I do that today’s problems arise from the complex confluence of unique events. It is not the fault of Obama or Clinton, or even George W. Bush alone, that the unique, post-World War II economic boom ended, that the Iron Curtain fell or that Internet and China altered familiar landscapes. You studied economics, history and political science with the best, but your Facebook page blames “liberals” or the “left” for pain associated with geopolitical shifts.

I agree with you that many well-intentioned 1960s liberal initiatives backfired. Education that was intended to be less elitist and mindlessly rigid deprived thousands of basic skills in math and verbal literacy. Attempts to heal wounds left by our country’s poor treatment of minorities spawned political correctness, which chilled intelligent discourse. The 1960s desire to be less hypocritical and moralistic brought hedonism and narcissism, which have exacerbated social breakdown and poverty.

These have all hit the weakest the hardest.

You and I of course would get by and even thrive, notwithstanding all these failures. At home we learned to speak and write clearly, even if schools did not teach us. It helped to be WASPs. Not just because of the skin color, but because our heritage, which values education, moderation, impulse control, hard work and grit, equipped us for survival.

You and I came of age after the 1968 free-love generation, but our generation is equally responsible for today’s woes. Ronald Reagan was an important president, but the conjunction of his Depression-era ideas of deregulation and 1960s ideas about doing what feels good was disastrous. And we were part of it. We dated young men who got rich off mortgages that the numerically illiterate and credulous bought. We moved our children to private schools and left the public ones to rot. We lived off the earnings of LBOs that closed factories and sent jobs overseas. With our education and money we got birth control that kept parenthood from derailing our careers. Our social, cultural and intellectual patrimony meant that when divorce made us single parents it was sad — but not a grim social statistic.

I don’t understand how, with your background, you can indulge in such rhetoric. Name-calling would not have been tolerated in your home. In college, you would have been ashamed to stoop to it in a discussion with your peers. The simplistic blaming I mentioned above would have been torn to bits in a class in our college. Why do you find it acceptable on your Facebook page?

I’ve lived abroad for a while, so maybe there is something I’m not getting. Tell me if I have this right? Moral decay brought single-parenthood and bred poverty, so let’s cut access to birth control and family planning. Political correctness has made our students ignorant of basic subjects such as history and the U.S. trails many countries in elementary education. So lets allow creationism in the curriculum. Other countries admire our ability to inspire innovation. So let’s cut spending for public libraries and art and music in the schools. You want government out of business, but our world-beating tech sector owes its life to government programs such as NASA, the Internet and our interstate system.

Listening to you, it seems the solution to our country’s serious problems is not cooperating to solve them but to denigrate and antagonize anyone who does not agree with you. It all sounds so simple and direct.

I think Italy, where I live, has some lessons for you. You want religion to have a role in public life. It does here. But how then do you square crucifixes in every school and hospital room with your other libertarian principles? You hate state-run healthcare, but here a close relationship to the church has made national healthcare a pro-life lobby you could only envy. You hate political correctness in schools, but Communist Party influence dominated Italian education policy for decades without letting the shadow of political correctness enter the Italian school. Be careful what you wish for.

But there’s final lesson for you. Take some advice from the Mafia. Don’t make enemies. The best way to control them is to hold them close. Go ask the Don.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."