Smile Politely

In Champaign-Urbana, honest political discussions are long past due

On October 1 at 10:05 p.m., a gunman leaned out a window on the 31st floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas and opened fire on 22,000 people below. By 10:15 p.m., he’d left 58 dead and 489 wounded. The whole incident took just 10 minutes.

Reactions were quick. Per custom, Republican politicians scrambled to recite their set script: “thoughts and prayers,” “don’t politicize tragedy,” and of course, “now is not the time to discuss policy changes.” Theirs is a difficult position given that most Americans support common sense gun legislation but the NRA generously funds many Republican political campaigns.

Our local Congressman, NRA-endorsed Rodney Davis, did not disappoint. He shrouded himself in self-serving piety, solemnly declaring that “there is no place for politics in [the gun] debate” while conveniently ignoring that (1) He was elected precisely to provide political solutions for problems, (2) he took $15,000 in campaign donations from the NRA, and (3) he wants the NRA’s endorsement to help him stay in office.

Sadly, we’re used to cynicism and insincerity from career politicians like Davis. We can recite his self-righteous  “vitriolic rhetoric” narrative from memory. Most importantly, we know he won’t talk with us.

But what’s become increasingly clear over the past year is that, in CU, we’re not talking to each other about politics either.

Champaign-Urbana is politically moderate, and we place a high value on politeness. We may disagree with our neighbors’ politics, but we wave at each other at the farmer’s market and chat at little league just the same.

Local progressives like me, horrified about what’s happening in our country, have turned a blind eye to neighbors who donate to Rodney Davis. (Among other radical positions, Davis is still campaigning against gender neutral bathrooms in public schools. It boggles the mind.) Even C-U’s Trump supporters typically get a pass. We may rage against Trump and Davis on the national stage, but we stay quiet when it comes to matters at home.

Polite avoidance is particularly prominent among white, privileged members of our community — those with the luxury of “staying out of politics.” Besides, we want to believe that our Republican neighbors are better than the current state of their political party. We want to believe that surely, albeit silently, they disagree with Trump. Their campaign donations must be about something else, we reason, some vestige of party loyalty.

But we’ve never asked, and donations continue to roll in. As we politely look the other way, local Republicans are actively engaged in what can only be described as a power grab on the county level. They’re also giddy about the nomination of a woman for attorney general whose cause célèbre during her time as Miss America was, bafflingly, “no sex before marriage.”

And so it seems that the divides keep growing, and I’m left wondering: what good are all these polite non-conversations we’re not having? Why don’t we just say something already?

The final straw that helped me gather my thoughts on that question arrived in the form of a paid advertisement on Facebook this past Friday night. Once again I was left wondering: what are our Republican neighbors thinking?

Less than a week after 547 people were shot, and just 2 days after a gun violence vigil in Champaign, the Champaign County Republican Party paid to run a Facebook advertisement for a “consulting and safety” event that promises, among other things, to “discuss different types of weapons you can or should keep at home.”

The timing of this ad is suspicious. We know gun ownership is used, lately quite literally, to rally the GOP base, and the phrase “weapons you can or should keep at home” sounds an awful lot like fear mongering. I wondered: why is the local GOP, by timing or intent, capitalizing on what happened in Las Vegas?

But this time, instead of polite non-conversation, I opted for direct questions. I sent a note to Mark Ballard of the Champaign County Republican Party (CCRP). What happened next was the kind of exchange that needs to be more common in our community.

Ballard said that the CCRP’s gun event had been planned for months. When I asked about the ad, he said that creating Facebook and Twitter events are standard practice. Perhaps picking up on my concerns, Ballard characterized the event as a “public service” and made a point to say that it’s intended to be neither pro- nor anti-gun. He concluded, “[The event is] simply a time for people to learn about home safety and learn a bit more about themselves so they don’t make a serious decision like the one to purchase a gun without thinking it all the way through.”

Ballard was a smart and capable spokesman for his group, and I was grateful he answered my questions. Nevertheless, I still had my concerns.

Then something happened that gave me hope. Ballard wrote again to say that he’d been considering the wording of the event and decided to add the following note to its description: “No weapons will be on site for this eventyou may even leave it deciding that gun ownership and concealed carry is not for you.”

I know what you’re thinking: that’s not a groundbreaking change. You’re right, it’s not. But it’s a small shift brought about by one progressive reaching out and asking questions of one conservative who was willing to consider those questions.  That’s something, and Ballard deserves credit for it. After all, if we’re going to ask pointed questions and expect change, we should recognize it when it comes, no matter how minor.

Of course, questions about the timing of the paid ad, not to mention the pro- or anti-gun nature of the event, remain. It’s well known that NRA contributions and gun sales go up after mass shootings. The CCRP is no doubt aware of those facts. If they didn’t mean to capitalize on Las Vegas by scaring their base, they should have been more deliberate and thoughtful in promoting their event. And if the event truly is “neither pro- nor anti-gun,” then the phrase “weapons you can or should keep at home” is misleading at best. Nevertheless, the CCRP’s willingness to respond to questions and, more importantly, to reflect on the message they’re sending was heartening.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think I’ve stumbled upon some kind of panacea, a cure for all that ails us. Far from it. Pointed questions may result in minute changes, but ultimately, we must accept that there are right and wrong answers to those questions. When it comes to guns, for example, the Champaign County Republican Party, like their state and national leadership, is just plain wrong. Concealed carry reciprocity, the SHARE Act, and the sale of bump-stocks are a threat to public safety and to anyone who responsibly owns guns. Many modern guns more closely resemble weapons of mass casualty than the (much less plentiful) muskets of our founding fathers, yet the GOP wants to protect them all the same. What’s more, too many people have access to these deadly weapons and see them as solutions to their problems.

More guns, and looser gun regulations, aren’t going to solve any problems. The Republican party — at all levels — has been and will remain impotent on this issue until they can divorce themselves from their fear mongering (Obama never did come for our guns, guys) and hefty donations from gun manufacturers.

Nevertheless, what I am suggesting is that if we’re going to solve serious problems, we need to start by pointing them out right here in our own community. We need more progressives willing to speak up about local politics and more Republicans willing to reflect and explain.

So I argue, fellow Democrats and progressives, that now is the time to start asking our Republican neighbors all those questions we’ve been stewing about this past year. Now is the time to ask why the local GOP would advertise, much less follow through with, a gun event after a horrific mass shooting. Now is the time to look at who in our community is donating to Rodney Davis and Donald Trump and then ask why they’re giving money to politicians with such extreme views. Now is the time to ask our friends at the GOP if the best we can expect from a smart, powerful woman seeking prominent office is a lecture about premarital sex. And now is the time to ask, yet again, why exactly they wanted a county executive.

We progressives need to break the cycle of polite non-conversation in our community. We need to ask difficult questions — the ones we’re whispering to our likeminded friends but never quite get around to asking our conservative neighbors. We need to call our Republican neighbors to task, and we cannot allow politeness or fear of confrontation to keep us silent — and complicit.

Honest political discussions will make this community stronger. They may even result in some really small shifts that, together, could add up to important changes. We simply can’t afford any more polite non-conversations, not during extraordinary times like these.

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