I went to listen to Joe Wurzelbacher when he came to Jacksonville. I want to hear opinions directly from the people who express them. I didn’t expect to agree with Wurzelbacher, but he is a spokesman for conservatives across the country. The media provide a lot of information about him, but that’s not enough. What is he like as a person?
I also went to learn more about my neighbors. What do my neighbors who support conservative ideas do and say when politics is the subject? What is a conservative political event like?
I heard Wurzelbacher say over and over that he was a Christian, that he prayed often, that he let God guide him. Many people have loudly professed their belief in God and their adherence to their religion, including Martin Luther King and Jimmy Swaggart, Pope Benedict XVI and the 9/11 bombers, those Israelis who hate all Palestinians, and leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.
Belief in God is no guarantee of goodness. I want to know how a person acts before I make judgments. I don’t find it that useful to know what a person’s religion or job is, what color their skin is, where they were born or who their daddy is. That information might help me understand their behavior, but it doesn’t determine my judgment of character.
I didn’t find Wurzelbacher to be a particularly admirable person. He enjoys thumbing his nose at big groups of people who make him uncomfortable. Homosexuals are “queers” and he’s proud enough of using that word to tell us about it. Liberals, the half of the electorate who voted for Obama, or maybe just the third of the country who call themselves liberals, are “a sickness in our society.”
Worse even than being called a Commie, I have now been diagnosed with an incurable disease.
When he says that “global warming is a joke, a farce,” he also means that all those people across the country who worry about it are fools. He didn’t pay his state taxes until a lien was put on his property. He told us that if he had the respect of his neighbors and his family, then “the rest of the world can go to hell.”
Wurzelbacher is not a bad man. I appreciated his emphasis on fatherhood and his exhortations to be more active in politics. But I don’t think we would be friends. And I sure wouldn’t jump up to cheer everything he said.
That’s what the whole gathering around me did. Do my neighbors think that these things are OK? Is this man a hero just because he preaches conservatism? Does saying he’s a Christian mean he can also say whatever else he wants, no matter whom it offends? Does his quality of thinking earn their admiration? If they win in November, are the people from Take Back Illinois going to treat gays like queers and liberals like sick people?
If they don’t agree with Joe the Bigot, why don’t they say so?
I don’t know what the answers are, because I don’t understand what my neighbors were thinking. Maybe they think I’m sick. Maybe they would say, “Oh, he’s OK, but all other liberals are sick,” like the “good Negroes” that racists used to talk about or the one “good Jew” that every Nazi knew.
Perhaps it’s my concern about character that puts me out of step. These days it seems like only political allegiance determines judgments about whether people are good or bad. I want to be judged by how I act, not how I vote, by whether I tell the truth, how I treat my neighbors, how I live in my community, how well I take care of my mother. (Hi, Ma.)
That’s how I judge other people.
Does that make me sick?
Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).