They said that prisoners liked to have fun with little boys like me. They said that I would soon find myself defenseless and scared, forced to complete unsavory favors to survive a lifelong sentence. It was only a matter of time before the sounds of sirens on the street would drown out the cries of my dogs and wood would splinter off my front door frame under the weight of an officer’s foot. I had aided and abetted a criminal who laundered money for drug lords. I had committed treason for a pedophile’s best friend. I had answered the phones for a U.S. senator.
As someone who refrains from the bitter taste of coffee, it was nice to find something palatable during my Capitol Hill internship that could jolt my system at 9 a.m. —-— a middle-aged man screaming “f*** you” at the top of his lungs through the receiver of a government-issued landline. But just like with sustained exposure to any drug, my body quickly developed a resistance to the effects of hateful tirades. Sharp words became dull as their speakers appeared less human.
Sure, the first time a caller crafted a fantasy of my or my boss’ languishing in prison or called back twice to shout that I was a “fairy” for refusing to refer to the 44th President of the United States as the “mulatto one,” it stirred a deep, visceral and energizing resentment inside me against the constituent on the line. But after having to sit there from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and hear vile words from strangers 50 times a week, my unsympathetic brain started to process their previously booming voices as a lifeless drone. Their anger became my monotony.
It was harder to remember why I wanted to help my community in the first place if I’d mostly be met with character assassinations, unburdened by accompanying policy proposals. I started to feel like the Joker, laughing as I listened to decency burn. And as I robotically recorded only the heart of my callers’ messages — “I hate the senator” — the constituents lost a piece of their voice. They lost an advocate to help them stop struggling. The revered civic ritual of contacting your representative felt like a hollow gesture.
About two weeks after I left my internship, I stumbled upon the news that David Koch died. Koch dramatically damaged our country by bankrolling destructive causes like the fossil fuel industries and the Tea Party. Despite this, I couldn’t help but feel there was something disquieting about celebrations of his passing, watching a comedian post a dancing video over the news of his demise.
Even the most cynical among us could see that Koch attempted to do good for the world. He funded medical research, backed efforts to address mass incarceration and prison reform — garnering the praise of even President Barack Obama — and characterized himself as pro-choice and supportive of same-sex marriage despite his notorious ties to the Republican party.
Nonetheless, the joyous revelry surrounding his death dismissed any complexity he had as a person. It reduced him to a pure evil and left no room for compassion over the loss of a real man.
I started to picture an idealistic young person from a traditionally Republican household, watching “malignant” liberals spew generalized hate and spit on the life of a man who, in some way, tried. If all we express is revulsion for one another, I asked myself, how do we move forward?
Of course, there is an important distinction between the callers who attempted to dress me down and those celebrating Koch’s death online. Many of those liberals faced grinding, oppressive forces in their lives: racism, sexism and homophobia that were arguably propagated by Koch’s funds. Many heard far crueler words over their entire lives than I did in a single internship; it was an invaluable privilege that I could get off the phone and go home at the end of the summer. Plus, none of those celebrating Koch’s death were engaging in racism, sexism or homophobia, making their position much more morally sound than that of many of the callers. But celebrations of death, especially when they don’t voice specific critiques of life, just look like taunting tragedy, regardless of where they come from.
It is not my place to tell others how to express their pain and needs. Nor would I ever suggest that someone in need stop screaming against the forces suffocating them. But as someone who was recently on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks, I can say it is hard to listen when all you hear is spite and no solutions.
Loud, emotional pleas in politics are powerful. They build empathy and shine a light on what should be addressed. But they work best when they clearly express “what,” not “who,” is wrong. What kept me going through all the thankless callers was one man in particular who got on the phone and said, “I’m sick. I am going to die before I have access to my Social Security. I need your help.” Those stories are why Washington can be more than a swamp.
Jacob Hutt is a junior in Silliman College. His column usually runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .