Despite the timing and the title, I want to state upfront that this post has nothing to do with the recent election. This post is entirely personal, not political.
I have had a hard time mourning my father’s death. In recent years we had grown distant, as distant emotionally as we were physically; an ocean stood between us, and it wasn’t just the Atlantic. I’ve been working through how and why that is, and I keep coming back to one answer: Fox News.
When I was growing up, and especially in my late teens and early twenties, my father and I were close. We would stay up late into the night, talking about life and experience, the world at large and the world close to us. These conversations were possible because he was respectful, compassionate, and accepting, and because I valued the unique perspective he held and wanted to hear what he had to say. My father understood, and lived in, shades of grey; he realized that a black-and-white morality left out most of human experience. He didn’t agree with everything I—or anyone—said, but he was willing to engage in a human and compassionate conversation.
My dad was the person who would sidle up to the uneasy newcomer at a family gathering, drink in hand, and make them feel at home. He could tell if someone was uncomfortable and would engage them, finding common points of interest, and make them feel seen and heard. As several friends have pointed out since his death, he was the dad who made you feel totally at home in your own skin, totally welcome in his house, and totally respected and accepted as a human being.
When I almost died in 2003 due to an unknown ectopic pregnancy, he was all love, compassion, and concern. (This was not the response I got from everyone in my immediate family.) When I told him that I’d had a relationship with a woman in college, he was curious, understanding, and loving. (This was not the response I got from everyone in my immediate family.) When I left Michigan time and again to go college, complete a year of national service with AmeriCorps, move to Los Angeles, and travel solo, he recognized the seeker, the adventurer, and the dreamer in me, and he wished me well.
But as time went on, our late-night talks tapered off. I went to college and encountered people and new ideas from around the world. While I had always held some conservative views, I started to consider, with slightly more intellectual rigor, other viewpoints. Around the same time, Fox News began to air (Fox News began to air in 1996; I began college in 1997). Without his children around to bring home new friends and drag our parents out into the world, my father had fewer influences and perspectives in his life. As he ran his construction business from home, he kept the TV on more and more.
When I traveled back to Michigan, I found it harder to talk with him. Whereas in the past I felt unconditionally loved and accepted, I began to feel judged for my life choices. While we absolutely did not grow up with Christianity as a fixture or even participant in our home (except a Christmas tree in December), he questioned, from a religious point of view, my decision to move in with my boyfriend (who is now my husband). Nearly every time we sat down to dinner together, my father, with no provocation, would take aim at liberals, Democrats, or environmental “wackos.” He would fall asleep to the angry, yelling voices of Fox News blaring on his giant-screen TV, and it would remain on all night while he slept only feet away.
Eventually, nearly every single conversation I had with my father turned to him telling me why liberals were destroying American culture and sending us “into the dark ages for centuries to come.” He and my mother derided everything about California, from its laws to its people, while I lived in California. Whereas my father once could have understood that two approaches to the same problem might both have merit, he came to view anything a liberal proposed as vile and despicable. His only frame for looking at the world and US politics was that every single liberal intentionally wanted to destroy the American way of life. And I was a liberal.
I slowly learned that many of his positions were based on blatantly false information, and that he had no interest in checking the facts. He believed, and argued vehemently, that the first Speaker of the House was African-American. He insisted that the first Congress of the United States was one-third African-American (1870 was the first year an African-American served in either house of Congress). He averred that racism was virtually non-existent during the founding of our country, and that the Three-Fifths Compromise was reached because the South was advocating for slave rights (!). He announced to my husband that Barack Obama was not technically an American. In conspiratorial tones he explained to my husband that everything about climate change was a massive hoax, that “all of the climate scientists got together at a conference and agreed humans had nothing to do with climate change”. (My husband is a PhD-holding marine ecologist, much of whose work deals with responding to climate change—though my father never asked my husband what he believed vis-a-vis climate science).
My father became so certain that his viewpoints were the Truth that he became evangelical about them. Whenever even moderately relevant, my father complained about elite institutions of higher learner and the people who attended them—despite the fact that my husband did his post-doctoral research at an elite institution of higher learning, and I had graduated from one of America’s top universities.
Before the Fox News obsession (though still with conservative viewpoints), my father argued points—scientific, political, historical—for the joy of an argument, often intentionally choosing what he knew to be the wrong side. He wanted to engage his opponent and ignite their mind, and he usually wanted to make them smile—in agony, defeat, or confusion, and in realization that they were both playing a game.
Now, he discussed topics with such righteousness that he was no longer willing to truly listen to the other side. Where once I found nuance, compassion, and acceptance, now I found only certitude, dismissal, and blame. As he became more homebound because of his failing health, his influence from the outside world came from only a couple of sources—Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and even some MSNBC (“to find out what the other side is thinking”)—and those sources did not encourage logical, factual thinking and a clear-headed engagement with the other side: those sources encouraged anger, yelling, debasement, and bullying. My parents came to yell at the TV and mutter under their breath about liberals—us—in our presence.
I never doubted that my father loved me. But I certainly doubted whether he accepted me as a human being.
My grievance here is not that my father was a Republican. It is not that he was conservative. It was that he was so deeply convinced that everything he had heard about the world from Fox News and AM radio was true (despite all evidence to the contrary), that all of his beliefs about society, politics, and rights were the Truth, that he was no longer able to see the common humanity in people whose views differed from his. He was so righteous in his opinions that he used every opportunity he could find to tell me why my type was ruining the world.
And so a great chasm grew. I will admit that I stopped engaging him. I stopped trying to find common ground: I felt that there wasn’t any to be found. I stopped wanting to know his viewpoints, because it seemed more and more that his viewpoints were bigoted and hateful (and all too often, based on factual inaccuracies). I wanted to try to keep loving him, but when I knew how much hate and vitriol he held, it became harder to do so.
Again, I am not mad because my father was a Republican or because he held conservative viewpoints (I hold some conservative viewpoints). I am mad because anger-fueled rhetoric and misinformation dominated his life to such an extent that he believed anyone—even his daughter—who believed something different than he did was actually a bad (or at least fundamentally misguided) person. The compassionate and accepting person my father had been for most of my life had vanished in the last years of his life. To which I can only say: Fuck you, Fox News.
Photo by Solid Pixel.