The Ambush

I was once ambushed by a right-wing radio host.

And it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my current politically active life.

I have been more engaged than ever before during this crazy time in our country’s history. Since December of 2016, along with my wife Alma Gottlieb, I have participated in more protests and rallies than I can count, including a march on Trump Tower and one at the White House, the two Women’s Marches so far, a march against gun violence, a march against family separation at the border, and more. I’ve attended protests against neo-Nazi violence and against the Republican tax bill; I’ve been to a ripsnorter of a town hall, and joined weekly demonstrations at the offices of my state’s congressional Representative and two Senators. I’ve given public speeches at demonstrations and on local TV, hosted Postcards to Voters parties, done phone bank canvassing and voter protection poll inspecting. I know all the liberal protest cheers by heart.

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All of this political activism can be tiring. But my occasional exhaustion also comes from a private place. My protesting has become so obsessive it threatens the worlds I try to create as a writer. It’s difficult to call up the imagined or remembered worlds of my fiction and nonfiction when this world seems on fire.

When I’m at a political gathering, I KNOW I’m right about the threat of Trump. I’m certain of that. But all my training as a writer, and the influence of everything I understand about the making of art, tells me that life is complicated, not simple, and that the best art can reveal the hidden complexity of oneself and others. Writers struggle to achieve what is rounded, we attempt to bend the straight line.

Sometimes, when I’m in a crowd of protesters and shouting with gusto, a part of me separates and tries to turn my self-righteous knob down to a reasonable level. So last March, when I was invited to do an interview—as a board member of Indivisible Rhode Island—at a radio station just across the border in Massachusetts, I was of two minds when I accepted. It would probably be a call-in show of like-minded individuals grousing together. The comfy prospect almost bored me.

When the day came and I arrived at the radio station, Tony, the program host, introduced himself and said, “Hello, Professor.”

“Hey, you can just call me Phil,” I replied.

“Anything you say, Professor.” Tony grinned. “You should know, by the way, that I’m a pretty conservative guy.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking, until we entered the studio, and the previous program’s host, clearing out, smiled at me and said, “Ah, the Bolshevik is here!”

This interview invitation, I realized, was really an ambush.

Well. What to do, now that I had entered the conservative information bubble? I certainly wasn’t going to back out. And to tell the truth, a part of me was guardedly pleased. How many times, after reading some crazy right-wing letter to the editor, had I fantasized about sitting that lost soul down at a coffee shop and challenging the logic of his arguments? I knew how to hold my own. Of course, in these imaginary scenarios, I always triumphed. But this interview would be no fantasy. Tony, and his radio studio, were real.

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As I settled in the guest’s chair and adjusted the microphone, I said, though not entirely convinced of my own bravado, “I’m looking forward to this. I never get a chance to talk to conservatives.”

Tony wasn’t sure how to reply, perhaps because, at least as far as he could see, his ambush hadn’t spooked me. He concentrated on adjusting knobs and dials, getting ready for the show. Then he pressed a button for his show’s intro music, a hard rock song that sounded vaguely familiar. What was it, and why, at this moment of all moments, should I even care? Then I finally placed the tune: it was performed by a group whose music my younger brother, a zillion years ago, used to play day and night.

“Isn’t that Grand Funk Railroad?” I asked Tony.

He paused, only able to nod at this second time in less than two minutes that I’d surprised him. I mentioned that this Grand Funk song reminded me a little of Novum, the latest album by Procol Harum (one of my favorite bands from the 1960s). I’d actually been listening to it during my drive to the radio station. And so, Tony’s right-wing political talk show began in the middle of our conversation about classic rock.

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Here I began to see the path I might be able to take in this interview, but Tony had already turned to politics. He handed me across the table a hefty stack of articles and charts he’d collected that he said proved climate change was a hoax.

He’d certainly come prepared! But I barely glanced at his reams of so-called evidence. Engaging with this stuff would only lead to a fruitless argument. “Look,” I said, moving it aside, “you’re never going to convince me that climate change doesn’t exist, and I’m never going to convince you it does. So for the moment, why don’t I concede your point and agree that all the scientific evidence is wrong, there is no climate change. Maybe it really is a hoax.”

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Poor Tony. He’d expected to rile me into a red-faced angry response. And if I’d caved in so easily, all that research he’d done had been a waste of time. But I wasn’t finished. “Even if climate change really is some left-wing conspiracy,” I continued, “that’s still no reason not to invest in solar and wind. They’re both getting less and less expensive, and if we don’t develop cheap and clean energy technology, China and Europe will. Do we want to sell the energy of the future to them, or are we going to buy it from them? It’s a matter of smart economics.”

Tony reluctantly—and I do mean reluctantly—agreed. Here, finally, beckoned that path I’d initially intuited: abandon my ideological corner and employ a form of rhetorical rope-a-dope: gently agree to disagree, look for some sliver of possible common ground, offer an alternative way to look at a hot topic, keep my sense of humor, be my ordinary self.

Slowly, I began to wear Tony down. During commercial breaks and pauses for pre-recorded news and weather reports, I took the opportunity in those down times to tell Tony about my life, my family, my volunteer work, quietly refusing to embody the stereotype of a dreaded liberal and encouraging him to see my human face. I asked about his family, his life. When he said that he worked as an accounts manager for a bread company, I mentioned that my daughter did similar work for a PR company in New York.

Still, Tony kept identifying me over the air as “PROFESSOR Philip Graham,” really leaning into that professor part, because he was trying to rile up his listeners, goading them to call in. “Professor,” I realized, was quite a dirty word with this crowd. And what a crowd. One caller peddled a George Soros-conspiracy, another quoted from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion! I seemed to be getting through to Tony, though, because he actually winced, embarrassed that I was being subjected to their ranting. In spite of himself, Tony had come around to see me more as a guest and less as a threat. Together, we had begun the journey of becoming rounded, complex people to each other, rather than one-dimensional embodiments of fantasy and fear.

Our discussions became so civil that, at one point, he agreed that Trump is a horrible misogynist, and I agreed that Bill Clinton was terrible to women too. A couple of Tony’s listeners called in to complain that he wasn’t being mean enough to me.

By the end of the show I was finally, simply Phil, and Tony actually offered to have me back on the show. There was so much we hadn’t covered—hard topics like abortion and racism. I agreed, and we shook on it. But I never did receive that return invitation. Maybe his audience read him the riot act the following week, overruling that brief moment of connection.

The glorious 2018 Midterm election has come and gone, and a majority of Americans has risen up to repudiate the present version of the Republican Party. Every day, as new returns are reported of absentee ballots being counted, the Democratic victory deepens. Soon, despite recent and disturbing threats to his investigation, Robert Mueller will finally deliver the goods against the traitorous, racketeering Trump enterprise.

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What then do we do? Too many of our fellow citizens have been poisoned by the actual fake news of Fox and its various right-wing radio minions. Some, I believe, are simply lost souls at this point. But not all of them. Will it be possible for both sides to talk to each other again in this country, to see each other not as threats but fellow human beings? Or are our mental ecosystems now so rigid they can’t bear the force of counter-influence or contradiction? In my worst moments of political despair I remain skeptical, uncertain of what will rise from the ashes of our present political dilemma. But I’ve learned that, at least for two hours, it was possible to temper partisan anger. Two short hours.

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An early version of this blog post was originally presented on the panel “ThreaTs of Influence,” at the NonfictioNow conference in Phoenix, Arizona, November 3, 2018. Hats off to my fellow panelists, Amy Benfer, Mary Cappello, Maria Tumarkin and Jean Walton, and to our friendly “hecklers”: Ames Hawkins, David Lazar, and Patrick Madden.

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