Monday, September 2, 2019

The Townhall, Anger, and Fear

For as much as I pay attention and participate in the political process and civic discussions, I still get surprised at what I don’t know.

I attended a townhall event last week, with my US Representative, Dan Crenshaw. (Yes, the guy with the eye patch. I worked hard to get him elected, and I’m proud of the work he’s doing.) I’ve been to townhalls before, with previous congressmen. And I’ve participated (mainly listened in) on telephone townhall meetings with various elected officials. But it has been a while since I attended such an event in person.
I got to meet with my
Congressman, Dan Crenshaw
at a townhall August 28th.

Rep. Crenshaw began with a speech, and mentioned in there that he prefers the less formal meet-and-greet type meeting with constituents, but occasionally he does these more structured ones. The setup was that he would speak and then answer questions. On every chair there was a note card to ask questions on, which we turned in before the start. It’s a pretty orderly way of interacting with constituents and their questions. If he got through all the questions and still had time, then he could take questions from the audience.

I didn’t count attendees, but I’m guessing close to 100. The stack of questions was maybe around 15. (More than one question could be written on a single card, however.)

He began by covering the committees he’s on: Homeland Security and Budget. Budget is irrelevant right now, because, with this Congress (Nancy Pelosi-led) they don’t produce a budget. He talked about a few other things: the Green New Deal—which, even if enacted, would touch only 15% of any problem, because the US is only responsible for 15% of the world’s carbon emissions. He mentioned carbon capture, and a technology company called Net Power that takes in natural gas and produces energy with zero emissions, without the drawbacks of solar and wind. He also mentioned nuclear.
He brought to our attention that Mondays are bipartisan bill days. Worth looking at.

He mentioned healthcare, and suggests approval for Direct Primary Care, an up and coming industry. I think this is similar to concierge care; you pay a monthly fee and go in for what you need. It nearly eliminates emergency room care for what should be basic clinical care.

He talked a bit about some of the water projects Houston is interested in, following Harvey flooding. (There’s a news story about the event here.)

Then he started reading and answering questions.

That should have gone smoothly, but there were people in the audience who could not—would not—hold back their opinions while he was talking. This was my surprise at the townhall setup. Apparently some people ignore the structure and think of it as a free-for-all.

The biggest issues the audience seemed upset about were related to the border and care for detainees, gun control, and LGBT issues.

A man spoke up, telling a story about having a noose left on his desk at work. He knew it was because he is gay. And that is just wrong. Rep. Crenshaw agreed, but what he’s about is making laws. When you’re doing that, you need to make sure the law will actually do what you want it to, for one thing, which isn’t easy, and there are often negative unintended consequences. And you also need to look at whether it would infringe on someone’s rights.

We can all agree, he said, that people shouldn’t do or say mean things at work. But it’s a very different thing to say you want government to come in and make those things not happen. You can’t legislate against people saying mean things.

Somewhere in there, Antifa was mentioned. They’re doing violent things in addition to saying ugly things. Someone in the audience shouted out something about the KKK. And Dan Crenshaw said, “Yeah, but we’re seeing Antifa marches; we’re not seeing KKK marches.” And the audience loudly shouted, “Yes, we are.”

That is factually untrue. There are, nationally, maybe 3 a year, with maybe up to a dozen participants. And none in recent years has produced violence. This fringe is so limited and near to nonexistent that a rational person can hardly sit around fearing them.

Rep. Crenshaw, unruffled, but recognizing his audience, said, “Well, we can agree we don’t like either of them.”

Because the district encompasses the Montrose district of Houston, LGBT issues came up repeatedly. There was a man a few chairs down from me who shouted out his concern. The Supreme Court, he said, just heard arguments three days ago on whether employers have the right to fire people because they’re gay. He said he’s been working since he was 16, except for two weeks between jobs once—meaning he’s hard working. And now, because of this president, he has to fear that he can be fired from his job at any moment just because he’s gay.

First, I was confused because the Supreme Court session ended the end of June. Soon the Court will begin to choose cases for the next session. In August, hearing oral arguments isn’t a thing. And “three days ago” was a Sunday.

So I figured I needed to find out what the issue really was. There was something going on in a Federal District Court. But it didn’t have to do with identifying gays and firing them; it had to do specifically with churches having the right not to hire people whose values don’t align with the beliefs of that church. That ought to be a given. And there is nothing in that that can be logically construed as “let’s change the law so gay people can’t make a living.”

The man on my row had earlier yelled about white supremacists. Then he claimed he’s been called n**r and f**g. And now he’s afraid for his ability to make a living.

This man was black. Effeminate (not all gays visibly are); he wore feminine jewelry, his manner of speech was as is often portrayed in comedy as being flamboyantly gay. His orientation is not a question. This had to be visible when he was hired, and continues to be obvious to his employers, who have hired him this about him. Texas is a right-to-work state; you can be fired essentially for any reason, and you’d have a hard time proving it was in violation of a federal rule, which already includes race and gender.

So the complaint, on the face of it, is false.

Dan Crenshaw says he’s never had an issue with LGBT people. But they nevertheless pushed him to somehow vow to them that he would protect them. In the ensuing conversation, Rep. Crenshaw casually said, we can agree that a baker shouldn’t be forced to make a cake for a gay wedding when one can be bought next door. And people were actually silent. No one vocally disagreed. Dan found the common ground, even where I didn’t think we had it.

One more claim the outsized contingent of LGBT audience members complained about was doctors who refuse to treat LGBT people. Rep. Crenshaw asked for clarification: “You mean doing trans surgery?” No. That was not what they were worried about; apparently they don’t think a doctor should be forced to do that. They worried that doctors would not care for LGBT people in the most basic ways just because they’re LGBT. And they insisted that in small towns here in Texas doctors are refusing to care for kids who are LGBT. Someone claimed they knew someone who had to drive all the way into Houston to get healthcare.

I’ve got kids living in a small Texas town. Beyond the most basic family care, everyone needs to drive to a bigger city for healthcare. And then, except for transgendered children (which are going to be microscopically rare in rural Texas), a doctor can’t see a kid’s LGB status. Typically kids aren’t aware of such a status yet, and it mostly wouldn’t come up in basic care cases anyway. In other words, I don’t believe that anecdote has actually happened—and if there was an outlying isolated incident, it is certainly not representative of some crisis.

Why do these people believe so many things that aren’t true?

Meanwhile, I found myself getting angry and frustrated. Why weren’t people following the structure, instead just shouting out? One woman, whose opinion I did not come to hear, shouted to him, “Well, you have the microphone, so if you’re not going to acknowledge me, I have to shout.”

Also, I felt actually hated by the people shouting in the room. I didn’t need to take it personally, but by implication if you disagree with these people, you’re evil. While my color isn’t exactly white (I got asked recently if I spoke English), my ethnicity is American descended from northern Europeans. And I’m conservative. And I believe there are better ways to help LGBT people than pretending things that are not true. So, even though my views weren’t voiced in the crowd, I did feel hated. I felt as though I had been called a white supremacist in a mob that was ready to retaliate.

But Dan is a good example. I really appreciate his grace under fire. This was only a loud but non-violent interaction with constituents. He’s been shot at. And blown up. This wasn’t danger; it’s just a part of the job.

And when I looked at how easily he handled it, I got some perspective. I looked at the man down the row from me—the loud, black, flamboyantly gay one. I realized he wasn’t easy to love. Or like.

I thought, this is also a child of God, but I don’t feel love for him. Then it dawned on me: like me in that room, he was emotional because he was in fear.

His fears are, in my opinion, irrational. KKK marchers are nigh unto nonexistent and are in every way unacceptable in civilized society. Whoever has told these people that there are sizable numbers of KKK marchers and other white supremacists are out to get them—has lied to them. Racism ceased being a scary danger lurking in every corner decades ago even here in the south. (Where I grew up it never existed.) And tolerance is the norm for gays in work, housing, and healthcare situations in our society.

Dan Crenshaw at a house meeting
during the campaign, October 2018
I don’t know how to say, “Don’t worry, you’re not in danger,” to these loud, frightened people. Coming from a person like me, I’m sure they wouldn’t hear it. But I wish someone would give them that comfort.

On every issue, Dan Crenshaw had a good handle on the necessary information. And he had a calm and rational way of explaining it—even to people who disagree. I’ve been seeing that in him since early in his campaign. I want to emulate that.

Now I realize I also need to emulate his perspective, so I do not feel the anxiety, irritability, and even fear that I felt among that obstreperous crowd.

On the good side, because so many antagonists were attending, those of us who wanted a minute to shake our Congressman’s hand, take a photo, and give him our appreciation were able to do that with hardly a line.

Next time I think I’ll aim for the meet-and-greet events and avoid the townhalls. But, if anyone can handle these in a way that could sway people’s opinions, I think Dan Crenshaw could do it.

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