Bumper Sticker Shock:
I take my next-door neighbor’s political temperature by perusing his bumper stickers. During the reign of Bush II, Rob’s work van sported this exhortation: “Visualize No Liberals.” I didn’t take it literally. I even managed a smile. It was pithy and rather witty.
I knew Rob didn’t want me gone, just like I didn’t believe what I heard in Catholic school: that all Protestants were going straight to hell. My mother was an eminently lax Episcopalian.
No, it would take more than a bumper sticker to drive a wedge between Rob and me, not to mention his wife, Helen.
For years, Rob hayed my field and stored the bales in my barn before selling them. We’ve cut firewood together, drunk beers together on our decks, swapped organic vegetables and fresh eggs. I feed his cows on occasion, and a time or two I helped corral them when they got out. When an intruder spent the night in our house while my wife and I were away, Rob collared the guy. Now that’s a good neighbor.
Besides, I like bumper stickers. One of my all-time favorites was on the rusty old pickup driven by a guy who helped build our house: “I Brake for Hallucinations.” Nobody tailgated John for long.
A while back Rob got a new van and some new bumper stickers. The election of Barack Obama, who promised change, inspired longer and less subtle bromides: “I’ll Keep My Guns, Freedom, and Money, and You Can Keep the Change” and “Does Your Obama Bumper Sticker Make You Feel Stupid Yet?” During the 2010 midterm elections, there were lawn signs, too. Politics-wise, it wasn’t a happy eight years for Rob, I assume.
I have to assume because Rob and I rarely discuss politics — we know just enough to know that we’re 180 degrees apart. Recently I alluded obliquely to Donald Trump’s election while chatting with Helen. She smiled and changed the subject.
What Rob and I talk about mostly are animal sightings, our children (now grown), our travels, late-middle-age afflictions and the like. We laugh a lot.
I have to confess, however, that his more strident bumper stickers give me pause. Whether you agree with them or not, they are premised on a black-and-white world of right and wrong. They seem designed to preempt the possibility of discussion, much less self-reflection. No new information need apply. They also demean those who disagree.
I did discuss politics with Frank, who lives up the road and fixes my lawn mower. He had a Trump sign on his lawn. We kept it civil and finally agreed to bet a bottle of booze on the election. When I dropped by to pay up, Frank was chatting in his yard with a fellow Trump supporter, and they gave it to me pretty good. I survived.
I play Friday night beer-league hockey, and the election has never come up, not once, not in the run-up, not in the aftermath. I found that comforting somehow: a politics-free zone. Did that studied avoidance imply courtesy, or was it resignation — that no one is changing anyone’s mind in this locker room?
The guy who cuts my hair told me just before the election that everyone who’d come in so far had been for Trump. “Not anymore,” I replied. Lou didn’t rise to the bait. Politics can be bad for business.
Rob and Helen didn’t have any signs up this fall, which was interesting, although I’m not sure what it means. Maybe they were busy. Rob is the hardest-working guy I know. Or maybe he and Helen weren’t that excited about Trump, but were even less so about Hillary Clinton. Like I said, we don’t talk politics. I’ll probably find out when they read this.
American politics have been extreme before. Franklin D. Roosevelt was branded a traitor to his class, if not the nation, for promulgating government programs such as Social Security, which soon will ease Rob and me (and our wives) into retirement. Jefferson and Lincoln were called every name in the book.
I’ll survive the Trump administration. Maybe some good will come of it, inadvertently or otherwise. What we may not survive is the trend toward labeling everyone who disagrees with us as stupid or — worse — ill-intentioned. Don’t take my word for it: Look at what rigid ideology did for the Soviet Union.
Rob isn’t stupid, and I don’t think he thinks I’m stupid. Perhaps it’s time for us to talk directly to each other, rather than via bumper stickers.