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Farai Chideya Headshot

The Gulf: Can We Bring Empathy Back Into Politics?

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America is too big to wrap your brain around, at least all at once. So, apparently, is the GOP. At times, speakers at the Republican National Convention contradicted each other. Rand Paul's argument for cutting military spending was followed directly by John McCain's critique of military cuts. Ann Romney's ode to love was followed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who criticized politicians for wanting to be loved. He expanded on the point, saying America in general has to choose between love and respect. "I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved."

What's healthy about that is that it shows less of a party moving in lockstep (or, to use a beauty metaphor for lockstep, think like the strands in Callista's hair). But the Republican party has yet develop a new rhythm for incorporating differing ideologies. The entire 2012 race on the Republican side has been driven by the social-conservative grip on the party as a whole (witness its platform on abortion) being led in this race by a fiscal conservative and social moderate. His move from passionately defending women's right to choose in 2002, in the gubernatorial election, to pronouncing himself a strong pro-life conservative in 2012 is striking. Although, unlike the party, Romney favors exceptions for rape, incest, the life and the health of the mother, that still means he publicly desires an end to legalized abortion as we know it.

The Guttmacher Institute, an independent research group that was once a part of Planned Parenthood, wrote a paper stating:

"Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. One analysis, extrapolating from data from North Carolina, concluded that an estimated 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions occurred in 1967.

One stark indication of the prevalence of illegal abortion was the death toll. ... By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher."

I remember sitting in the back of a cab in Washington, D.C., during one of the election seasons with George W. Bush. The driver, who was African-American, told a very graphic story about finding his dead cousin slumped in the barn after she'd bled out from a coathanger abortion. With palpable scorn in his voice, he said, "I can't respect anyone who doesn't vote. They don't know what we'll go back to."

It was one of those rare moments where I am quiet as a mouse, just listening and visualizing all too clearly the young dead woman propped against a pole, the lower part of her dress soaked in blood.

That's where my mind goes when people talk about banning abortion. For some people, their mind goes to the tiny broken fetuses removed in abortions. We've all seen those pictures hoisted at anti-abortion-rights protests. Even as I remain opposed to the specific protests that harass women entering clinics, I can understand why an image would hold such power, and also give the person marching the feeling of defending the powerless.

The New Testament, John 13:34 reads, "I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you, so you also should love one another." The Dalai Lama says, "All major religious traditions carry basically the same message -- that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives." Many Buddhist teachings ask practitioners to live in love and acceptance of all circumstance -- including bad breaks, outrageous fortune, and everything in between. Another Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote in his book True Love: "So if we love someone, we should train in being able to listen. By listening with calm and understanding, we can ease the suffering of another person."

Convention season puts our listening skills to the challenge -- not just to note the badly broken facts, but also the silences. America espouses a belief that anyone can become rich. Statistics show that you are less likely than ever to become rich if you are not already, i.e., diminished social mobility. The Republican convention became a meta-dialogue on class and social mobility. Just about every speaker, including Mitt Romney, talked about humble beginnings. If not theirs, then a parent's or grandparent's. It's a better strategy than Romney being defensive about his tax returns, but a worse strategy, to me, than him talking about how he uses his tremendous wealth for good. If he does use his wealth for good, in a religious context or otherwise, now would be the time to talk about it... the same way he finally introduced church members he had helped at the convention.

As I watched the convention, I thought of all the different places in America I've been. A Tea Party rally on a pristine new college campus off the lettuce fields of Yuma, Arizona. The Tohono O'Otham nation, far afield from any city, straddling the U.S. and Mexico. Skid row in LA, where I saw a man drop his glass eye while being rousted by police for smoking crack. The mansions of LA -- bright and gaudy, some of them, but a revelation to a New Yorker like me. Katrina. Covering Katrina changed me. I saw starving dogs on the streets of New Orleans; people trying to ride it out without gas and electricity; and even sat in on a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney while traveling with the military in Biloxi, Miss.

The thing I remember most from Katrina is actually the downtime. A friend of mine gave up her house in Baton Rouge to family from New Orleans. She was staying with her friend, a mother of two tweens. The kids were charming and funny and welcoming beyond belief, considering their mom had just taken in strangers. We were black and white, local and from far away. A couple of other people came to stay at the house and volunteer. Even if there were disagreements, it was all done in a sense of love and healing.

How can we bring that spirit of dialogue to politics -- maybe not during the fraught election season, but more of the time? I think our country depends on us figuring it out; getting out of political gridlock; and making tracks for higher political and economic ground.