The Politics of Listening

Fred (not his real name) is a common presence at  coffee shop I frequent. I have had brief conversations with him before, but yesterday we talked for hours.

I had intended to spend time writing, but I suppose Fred and I enjoyed each other’s company. He is a 65 year old retiree and I am unemployed.

The topic of the day was what you would expect at any watering hole: politics. I knew that Fred was something of a left winger, but I had no idea how deeply he felt about his socialism until we talked.

We live in a Rust Belt city in Middle America, one that has undergone massive change in our lifetimes. Fred has lived here his whole life and I am a fairly recent “immigrant”.  He had been a factory worker.

As we talked, he told me of the old days. The town used to have a vibrant economy with plenty of well paying jobs, several high schools, and a flourishing population. Fred mentioned the Chevrolet plant and its suppliers and major manufacturer Westinghouse. They’re both gone now. There used to be three high schools here. Now there is one.

Somehow “prison” and “unemployment” became related while we talked. Fred told me that there was an effort at one time to turn the old Westinghouse facility into a prison. I joked with him that at least they were trying to offer people work–as prison guards.

From his perspective, people who in the old days would be employed in well paid secure jobs, including a large number of African Americans, are now incarcerated on trumped up charges working for corporations or the state for free (or at least low wages).

Fred (who is white) also was wistful about the historical power of unions to negotiate fair pay and conditions for workers. Those days seem to be long gone.

It was clear who he blamed for the current state of things in America. Fred told me he hated Ronald Reagan. “The bastard destroyed the country,” he said.

I occasionally parried Fred’s comments with a gentle rebuttal, but mostly I listened. And learned. I personally find it difficult to pin down my own political beliefs these days.

For most of my life I guess you could best call my politics as conservative. But as I have gotten older, I have reversed the old adage that “if you are young and not a liberal you have no heart and if you are old and not a conservative you have no head.” I suppose that with years I have developed more empathy, not from my own volition but from personal struggles that have helped me change my world view to a degree.

Thus, as Fred spoke I genuinely felt compassion for his experience and contempt for the politicians and other varmints that have helped bring our country to its current state.

What worries me about our country at the moment is the volatile environment generated by one-sided media, corrupt politicians and gutter morality. No one seems to be willing to listen to anyone else. Their mind is made up. (Try throwing out a political statement on social media and see how that flies?)

If we are going to survive the aftermath of this current election and its aftermath, we need to listen to one another. Everyone should have a stake in this country, not just the victors at the polls.




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