My husband and I came to parenting late in life. We were equally slow to realize how much having a child affects your social world as adults. We were fortunate to be able to decide that one of us could stay home: for various reasons, it was my husband who stayed. After the first six months with an infant son, it was clear that if he didn’t get some regular adult interaction, he would go ballistic.
So, he got involved with an online Stay at Home Dad’s group.
Through the early years, this small localized group with children ranging from infants to early elementary age met face-to-face in parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, children’s museums, and on rainy days, in malls or pizza places mid-day Monday through Friday. On the occasional weeknight they’d have a Dad’s Night Out, where the guys would go to a sports bar (sans children) to remember that they were, indeed, grown men. There were birthday parties and discussion list politics, and as the kids grew older, extracurricular play dates began to occur between those with natural affinities among the children and adults.
Such was the development of our friendship with a couple who watches Fox News.
The wife and I got along fine: She is razor sharp and ambitious and very funny, and our kids are the same sex (male) and less than 6 months apart, so it seemed like a nice family-to-family match. And though my husband had some other friends in the group, he and “Klaus,” as I’ll call him here, seemed to enjoy a real bond: they could talk to each other for hours about guy things like motorcycles and power tools, and seemed to share a general frustration for the lack sanity in modern times that allows friends to bitch together as an entertaining game.
The men began to visit privately in our respective homes two or three times a week as the boys got older and we mothers worked.
Looking back, we didn’t even realize that there was a serious difference in our politics until the 2008 elections, when they began to talk openly about voting for McCain. Of all the Republicans, McCain was the least offensive to us, and we probably wouldn’t have been crushed if he won. Now, I’m only mildly political, a registered Democrat who has voted from Republican to Independent to Green to Libertarian, depending on who better supported funding for arts education and women’s reproduction rights and seemed truly interested in avoiding war. At the time, I was very sad about Hillary’s ungraceful fall, and was loosely following the career of Governor Huckabee, because he, oddly enough, (like many Republicans) was a strong supporter of arts education. My husband liked honest John Edwards...sigh. But that doesn’t matter, because my husband hasn’t voted in twenty years and doesn’t believe our votes count anyway. This is just to say how little my husband and I are invested in politics, and to justify why we chose to overlook our friend’s increasingly conservative political views as long as we did.
To complicate matters, “Klaus,” as I am calling him, had only recently immigrated to the United States from Germany. It was his life dream to come to this country, to be free to pursue the American dream. We celebrated the day they got their green cards, and they’re counting the days until they’re eligible for citizenship. While he was socially liberal, generally supporting women’s reproductive rights and gay marriage, he was dead set against any liberal economic policies: new taxes or regulations on business. He wanted to start his own business and own a lot of land that he could will to his son. He was against the repeal of the Bush estate tax cuts and dead-set against “Obamacare.” He had horror stories about the socialized medicine of Europe, which he and his extended family had experienced first hand with some serious ongoing health issues.
And we admired them then, and still do. They are exceedingly industrious, risk-taking, and hard working. They are generous and gregarious and give a great party. And they are pursuing the American dream. He took out loans and started an online business that is slowly working, and they found a deal on a lovely, modest home with 5 acres of land, albeit 25 miles away from town. We continued to visit them on a regular basis, often staying the night and swimming in their pool and having a great breakfast that they cooked for us as the children played together.
Still, none of this prepared us for their increasingly fanatical rants against Obama, directed at us as if we were among the President’s staunchest supporters. First, there was the snarky “How’s That Hope and Change Working Out For You” bumper sticker that appeared on the back of their American-made SUV shortly after the economic collapse, which we intentionally ignored. Then, there was the Sarah Palin biography that she gave me for Christmas last year: which I wasn’t sure was intended as a gag gift, or a not-so-sly attempt at a political conversion. I haven’t been able to open the cover long enough to entertain actually reading it. But this past holiday season, they took to leaving Fox News on the big screen television for long periods during our visits to their home.
There it is, in the background, like a strange alter-America: a throwback to the 1950’s with a glossy theatrical sheen. Why are all the women on Fox News young with caked-on make-up, and all the men as white and grey and stiff as sin? How can they say with deadpan seriousness that it’s “no spin,” as if they are the ultimate harbingers of truth, and no one else has a clue about any issue on any subject anywhere in the world? My husband and I believe the world is an exceedingly complicated place, and that it can’t be reduced to simple, crude, often moralistic, black-and-white explanations.
But I barely allow myself to think this way while I am a guest in there home. It's like a vacation. It's like some kind of escape from reality.
We agree to avoid talking politics, but I am curious about what they think about social issues from time to time, and why. So I ask them earnestly why the health care reform isn’t a wholly good thing. In an attempt to keep our friendship going, I take to reading some of Fox News online, trying to give it the benefit of the doubt: The tech news is kind of interesting, and sometimes breaks sooner than some of the other media outlets. But I have to say, I still find the general reporting, well, you know, rather thin.
And even though we have an agreement not to, it’s hard not to let the politics creep in, particularly via the economy and the military. I tried not to take the bait about how Obama was spending millions on his recent trip to India (a later-refuted ultra-conservative story) vs. the billions being spent in Iraq for the past seven years; or how bad the taxes were going to be next year for those of us who make under $250,000 (I’ve looked at mine already, they’re pretty much the same as before). I try not to cringe when they speak so emotionally of supporting the troops, ignoring the fact that my husband himself is a veteran who has no love for the so-called wars our country has fought and is currently engaged in. We actually sat politely with them and watched the Bush interview with Bill O’Reilly the day after Thanksgiving, trying to speak positively of how charismatic the fellow is, which is hard for anyone to deny. They somehow took that as criticism and more evidence of our ultra-liberal leanings.
Looking over at Klaus watching Fox News in his easy chair, it is hard for me not to feel sad that this basically gentle Stay at Home Dad who wanted so strongly to escape his nation’s ugly political legacy can so deeply embrace a new fanatic rhetoric without apparent question, without a healthy doubt. “I’m a simple man,” Klaus likes to say, which I always took as a cover up for his more tender, retrospective inner core. Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe he's really just into America for the power and money.
It still seems ironic that liberalism compels us to try to understand the other side of the story, while conservatism seeks only to control, humiliate, disarm, and dismiss other points of view. But maybe that assessment is also biased.
Are we at fault for letting our need for companionship overshadow our liberal social values, even if they are only loosely held?
In the end, it is not Fox News that has caused the most serious rift in our family-to-family friendship. It is the more fundamental, in-the-moment issue of parenting.
During the last visit, the kids were playing more rambunctiously than usual. Over the years, my husband and Klaus have always managed to support each other’s parenting styles, although Klaus is more verbally direct in his disciplining, and my husband is more rewards/withholding based. Their child is naturally more aggressive, and ours is more inquisitive. The boys have always had a tendency to fight.
This visit, Klaus’ kid was being even more dominating than usual. They were playing “hunter,” due to his new fascination with crossbows, which a neighbor in law enforcement had introduced him to. His kid was pretending to have a crossbow. Our kid was playing the deer. So Klaus’ kid was running around saying, “I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you.” And my kid was saying, “I can run, don’t kill me, I can run faster than you.” This bugged me, but I said nothing. At some point, my kid backed off from his role, wanting to change games, and called Klaus’ kid “stupid.”
Well, that was the proverbial straw. Klaus, who had pretty much refrained from disciplining our kid, as we had from disciplining his, came down on our kid verbally. “You don’t say that in our house. You don’t call someone stupid,” looming down with loud voice like a commandant. My husband intervened, “Don’t yell at him like that. I’ve never yelled at your child. No, he shouldn’t call anyone stupid, but, come on, they’re only 5 years old.”
What ensued was a long, very tense, but civil discussion of how my husband was too lenient with our son and how Klaus had double standards about what he let his child get away with and how he as a rebellious youth who worshiped "Easy Rider" was raised. My husband is not lenient at home, I assure you. He just doesn’t yell at other people’s kids. It was heartbreaking to witness the quiet anger and grave disappointment I saw my husband going through as a result of this argument with the man who had become his best friend.
What is the root of evil? Maybe it is a kind of stubborn blindness towards ambiguity and multiple, conflicting views. Maybe it’s a grasping embrace of false certainly, false comfort, false understanding, which temporarily relieves the discomfort of discord and responsibility and choice, which is why so many Americans do watch Fox News.
It sort of comes down to the same argument the kids were having in play: Liberals: "You're stupid." Conservatives: "I'll kill you." Which in both cases isn't very constructive.
So, maybe I’ve lost the thread here, but I don’t know what going to happen next with our friends who watch Fox News. Klaus and his wife have called and texted several times to see how we are doing, but we’re just not yet ready to see them yet. At this point, I don't know if we will.
There was a whole lot more to our friendship than our differences about politics and views on the news media. There was a love of family, of freedom, of individuality and entrepreneurial expression. And that is something that I can respect about the Republican agenda, as a whole.
But somehow, the fact that they actually seem to believe in Fox News, and Fox News alone, becomes an unavoidable symbol of why this friendship might not be worth a deep, personal investment over the long haul. The price of our unquestioned tolerance might just be too steep.