It was the sip seen around the world. A sitting US senator places his water bottle a little too far from himself while on national TV, makes a lunge for it, and now has a permanent place in political lore as an Awkward Turtle.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy.
I’ll admit, I saw it live, but I was a whole lot more interested in the fact that it was Mardi Gras and that the next day was Ash Wednesday than in the State of the Union and the Opposition Response. I saw it while I was sitting in the bar, but I was enjoying a nice pint of English bitter too much to really notice or care.
And then it hit the social media fan, and well, went everywhere.
Wednesday morning I posted this comment to my Facebook account:
And then I walked out the door to go to work. I didn’t think much about it. (For the record, as of right now 13 people have “liked” this comment, 9 of them women)
But then my buddy asked me a question:
This resulted in an exchange that was limited by the fact that I was (a) at work and (b) on my phone (I’m still not really comfortable typing long responses on my phone).
Here is the thing, I think that Rob has asked a good question, one that deserves an answer.
While I am disgusted that Rubio voted against the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), that wasn’t the frustration behind my post. I muddied the water with my comment that his vote was heinous, but the primary frustration was (and is) aimed at the news media and all those that are talking about how Senator Rubio drinks his water, not how he voted on VAWA.
Instead of asking questions and having a meaningful national dialogue about why the Senator, and 21 of his (male) colleagues voted against the VAWA, or any of the other policy points that Senator Rubio talked about in his rebuttal, we are being bombarded with jokes and comments about a single awkward moment, a moment that did nothing to let into the mind of this man who has been deemed by those both inside and outside the GOP and being the savior of that party.
The State of the Union address should be a time where we have a national dialogue about weighty matters. It should be a time where the two parties lay out agendas for the coming congress. It should be a time of thoughtful conversation and respectful argument and disagreement.
Instead, Senator Rubio has gone into the water bottle business.
People love a simple narrative, an easy story to tell. They love a good guy and a bad guy, a guy in a white hat and a guy in a black hat. They want someone for whom to cheer. Someone with whom they can identify.
Simple narratives are easy to enter. It is much easier to understand a problem when there is a right and wrong, a correct answer and an incorrect answer. This ease makes these narratives prime candidates for quick consumption, and quick consumption can mean big ratings and big ad revenue.
This is a driving factor for the rise of celebrity news and the gossip industry. Rich people living outlandish lives is an easy narrative. It isn’t complicated. It isn’t nuanced. It’s blunt. It’s simple. And it sells. Like hotcakes.
And simple narratives are fine, as far as they go. I’ve been known to read an Us magazine and goodness knows I love my sports talk radio.* But when I get more nuance about a football game or a baseball trade or what Singer X wore to the Grammys than I do about a vote on Capitol Hill, there is a problem.
Political issues aren’t, for the most part, simple and uncomplicated. They are complex and nuanced. They defy simple story telling and narrative building. They require details and time and can be, to be honest, boring. And boring doesn’t sell.
But the problem is we need the boring, nuanced, complicated, messy details to see the full picture. Our system of Government can only work when we have an educated and engaged electorate. It is our responsibility to demand these details.
When we allow our political system to become just one more sport, just one more game we watch to be entertained, we run the risk of allowing whoever has the most polish, the most palatable narrative, the most money to be the author of what should be our collective political story.
It isn’t just the political narratives in our cultural that are overly simplified. Many of our narratives about religion are as well. If you were to listen to the dominate narrative told in the media, there are two groups in this country: the Conservative “Evangelicals” and Liberal Secularists, with a few Jews, Muslims, Others, and Nones thrown in.
But the religious landscape in America is much more nuanced than this. Sure there are “Evangelicals” that are conservative, both theologically and politically, but then there are those that aren’t. Just as there are secularists that are conservative politically and socially.
Just as a disservice is done to the national dialogue when we aren’t given the full picture politically, so to when we are given a warped picture of the American religious landscape. If you have ever spent significant time with me in person, this subject has probably come up. And I am sure it will again.
But what about Rob’s question? Is there is there a reason that I would find acceptable for a no vote on the VAWA? And do I do understand Rubio’s stated rationale?
In these two questions Rob got to the center of what I am talking about. These are the questions that need to be raised in the public square. And I fell into the same trap that I am critical of others for falling into. Well, let’s engage these questions.
First, there is no reason that I can think of to vote against the VAWA as it is currently written. I think that it is a great bill. And 23 of Senator Rubio Republican colleagues agree, including some of the most conservative members of the Senate. If you are keeping score, it means that Rubio is actually in the (bare) minority on this vote in his own party’s caucus.
That said, I am aware that the legislative process is often akin to the sausage industry. Sometimes things are put into bills that ruins the whole bill. Amendments happen. This leads to the “I voted for it before I voted against it” phenomena. And sometimes perfectly good policy goals are simply the victim of bad bill writing or bad policy specifics. So in the abstract, I could see a situation where there is a VAWA that it would be acceptable to vote against, it just isn’t this version.
Second, I feel that what I stated above rules out Rubio’s rationale: if there was a significant problem, even one of ideology, with this bill, Rubio wouldn’t be in the minority of his own party.
But beyond that, is this idea of “local control.” Local control sounds great, on paper. However, our history has taught us that, unfortunately, local control often fails to protect the most vulnerable in society. If local control were an effective way of fighting this problem, a federal bill wouldn’t be need, and by Senator Rubio’s own admission, this bill, or one if its kind, is needed.
So no, I don’t see Senator Rubio’s rationale. I find his argument weak and unconvincing. And I think the citizens of the State of Florida deserve a better answer as to why he voted against the VAWA. And if Senator Rubio wants to be the standard bearer for the GOP, he needs to find a better answer.
Complicated narratives are hard. Hard not just to sell, but also to own.
Because complex stories tell us that we may not be right.
That we may not have the full picture.
That we may not have a monopoly on Truth.
That other people’s experience, no matter how different from our own, may be valid as well.
We must embrace the complicated narratives in our lives. These complex stories are a more true depiction of the reality of our lives and world. While these complex narratives may not be complete and may still mislead us, it is much easier for a simplified narrative to do so, because in its construction it is already false as it denies our complexity.
*Rob Brown, the inspiration behind this post, is the host of hands down the best radio sports talk show in the country. Forget Jim Rome or whoever else you are listening to, you need to stream Rob’s show [weekdays from 6-9PM CST]. It streams off the website linked above. Seriously, if you are into sports, especially in the South, you deserve to listen to this show. You’ll be glad you did.