catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 13 :: 2008.06.27 — 2008.07.11


An ode to the ambidextrous

The pursuit of politics is religion, morality, and poetry all in one.
J. Christopher Herold

There is a time in my life of which I don’t often speak. It was during my freshman year at Hope College, in a required “real world” placement with my political science course, that I campaigned for Republican Governor John Engler. I’ll be honest with you—I can’t even remember whether I was helping with his gubernatorial campaign or some pre-cursor campaign for presidential election. In fact, I hardly knew a thing (and still don’t) about John Engler, except that he was a Republican. At the time of the placement, I wasn’t even old enough to vote. I would never have even ventured toward such an experience had it not been for my first year political science course.

My political science professor was a beautiful person, the kind of guy who could calm a mother in hard labor, settle an argument between two angry children or make the prognosis of a fatal disease seem downright palatable. Before the first class of the year, he committed to memory the names and faces of each of his students. If you passed him in the hallway or on the path to the cafeteria, even years after taking his course, this professor did not turn away or mumble a low “Hi”; instead, he looked you right in the eye and greeted you by name. This guy utterly amazed me with his knack for making each person feel special, regardless of whether or not she expressed even an iota of interest in the political process. Despite my complete lack of curiosity about or understanding of our government, and the fact that I slept through the majority of his classes, drool running blithely down my chin and onto my notebook, Dr. James Zoetewey continued to smile at me and call me by name from the day I entered his class until the day I graduated. Thanks, Professor Zoetewey, for taking the fear out of political science for me with your warm heart and your innate talent for educating. Had I not slept through the important parts of your fine lectures, I might be running for president by now.

Back to John Engler. So, for this course, I was supposed to “work the campaign” in order to get a real “dirt under the fingernails” experience in politics. Basically, this meant begging for a ride each Tuesday to get down to Engler’s Holland headquarters in order to stuff envelopes, and surrendering a few Saturdays to the mindless chore of door-to-door campaign salesmanship. It is ironic to me now that I should have given so much time to a political party that I currently oppose; but still, I am glad for the experience. Through it, I met some people who, although we disagree on nearly everything political, are intelligent and interesting and engaging friends. One of them, a guy so whipsmart and friendly I am forced to concede that some Republicans aren’t totally out to lunch, has even gone on to work in government, wielding a resume and stack of fellowships so staggeringly weighty I can hardly believe that I—a mixed-up, liberal,  “pro-Obama/Clinton/Nader/anyone who isn’t the current president” ex-patriate—am his friend. In fact, had I not participated in Engler’s campaign, we probably would have never taken the time to get to know each other in the first place. Likely, we would’ve remained separated by ideologies and opinions and hard and fast stances that never the twain shalt have met.

This is the thing about politics (and religion, and any number of things, for that matter): it seems that we are often so set on proving our point or defending our position that we don’t make space for the ideas of others. Being open to others’ opinions seems like such a simple, basic notion, yet I know that I often fail in its practice. It is far easier for me to remain dogmatic about my particular worldview than it is to allow another’s perspective to penetrate the thick membrane of my belief system. And how much do I lose in terms of intellectual rigor or spiritual understanding when I allow myself the luxury of a knee-jerk response to every person whose ideology is different from, or in opposition to, my own?

Perhaps we should take a cue from the latest tabloid romance, the “Dirty Hippie + Hardworking Redneck” (or “Ag-Enviro”) love affair. Inspired by the current economic and environmental crises, environmentalists and farmers everywhere are defying stereotypes by putting aside their differences and uniting themselves under the umbrella of shared goals. Rather than waste their energy blaming one another for global ills, more and more folks of differing stripes are joining together to defend their common interests: the health of animals, the conservation of land, the purity of waterways and the buying and selling of locally grown food for fair prices.

One might imagine a typical Ag-Enviro meeting: In the musty confines of a local town hall, illuminated by a flickering overhead light, metal folding chairs are pulled together in a tight circle. The group has purpose; they are united in their mission to plan a protest, re-write a law or initiate a campaign. They munch on lemon bars and carob chip cookies, and sip organic, shade grown, bird-friendly, fair-trade coffee out of Styrofoam cups. The meeting ends and they wave their goodbyes in the parking lot, accompanied by the cacophony of diesel and hybrid engines gurgling and whispering their sweet duet into the evening air.

Okay, perhaps the Ag-Enviro love affair is not quite as idyllic as all that, but I do think we have something to learn from their efforts. In a time of great potential and great change, when politicians are as sensationalized as rock stars, it can be difficult to maintain a balanced perspective. When every lapel is expected to hold a political button and every person is assumed to have a staunch opinion on who should be the next leader of the free world, it can be difficult to find a forum in which a nuanced approach to the discussion of politics is celebrated. Although I doubt I will ever aid in the campaign of a Republican politician again in my lifetime, I do hope that I can recall and retain the sense of openness and curiosity that I had when I was a college freshman and Engler supporter. I may not agree with my in-law who rallies daily for the Canadian Christian Heritage Party, but perhaps I should, instead of preparing my mental defense from the get-go, give him more of a chance to voice his opinion free from my judgment the next time we speak.

I have heard several wise people speak on the concept of being open to the ideas and beliefs of others, and the thesis of each was the same: it is not opposing ideas that separate us, rather, it is the fundamentalism with which we hold to our perspectives that drives us apart. There are fundamentalists on both sides of every argument, whether the topic is political, religious, environmental, or anything in between. Perhaps the most important thing is not how stubbornly we defend the Left or the Right; but rather, how open we are to the potential for the Ambidextrous in our lives.

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