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When Joan Baez Listened


“Whither the left?” is a hardy perennial like a garden Peruvian lily.  I suspect that when the first Neanderthal crept out of his cave his first words, in Neanderthalese, were “whither the left?”

We’re going hear a lot more of this soul searching in time for November’s midterm elections and especially as 2016 rolls around when, as usual, “the left” (liberals, progs, etc) gets mired in a quandary best stated by America’s genial labor saint, Eugene Victor Debs,  “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.” 

Probably that’s why 14 years ago those crucial 527 Florida voters went for Ralph Nader with results burned in letters of fire on the hearts of good liberals more spooked than ever about breaking up the two-party party.

It’s already shaping up as: do you vote for an establishment conservative like Hillary Clinton or a cruel Republican clown…or…?   Limbo?

Well,  not entirely.  After all, New York’s Working Families Party pulled off electing a left-liberal Mayor de Blasio with his, surprisingly vote-catching former lesbian wife and half black kids.   But of course that’s New Yawk.  How about  Idaho Falls?

I have a bat in my belfry about reaching out to people who dislike us and with whom we disagree but without whom no serious “grass roots movement” is possible.  That is, by talking to anti-choice zealots, Obamacare haters, Tea Party crazies, racists etc.  The notion of our crossing over the ideological abyss seems odious to a lot of people I know who see The Other Side as a bunch of RedNeck Ignorant Morons.

That rigid mindset will get us far, yes?

On the other hand there’s the “Joan Baez tactic”.

A few nights ago (courtesy Daily Kos) four rightwing Vietnam veterans protested Joan’s concert in Idaho Falls with signs reading: “JOAN BAEZ – SOLDIERS DON’T KILL BABIES, LIBERALS DO” and “JOAN BAEZ GAVE COMFORT & AID TO OUR ENEMY IN VIETNAM & ENCOURAGED THEM TO KILL AMERICANS!”

How to react?  You can ignore the bastards or else go for the “Miller-Young” tactic of losing your temper.  Professor Mireille Miller-Young,  a pregnant teacher in the feminist studies department at UC Santa Barbara, was so enraged by two heckling young sisters holding up graphic anti-abortion placards that she verbally and, it’s alleged, physically assaulted the young women, taunting them and tearing up their sign.

On the other hand, our Joanie in Idaho Falls did not lose her cool.   I’m compressing what happened, but she didn’t go “Town Hall” like Miller-Young.  Instead, she walked out onto the street to talk personally one on one to the vets.   She listened closely as they spouted their resentment of antiwar protestors like Baez when they returned from combat and were accused of killing Vietnamese children

She listened.   And indicated that all war is lousy as the vets know better than her.

They were shocked that anyone on the “other side” recognized what they’d been through.  They were speechless for a moment.

Joan’s continuing acceptance of their stories and her willingness to hear them out began to melt their anger.  They even asked her to SIGN THEIR POSTERS! She ended up signing them, and also offering tickets to the show, which they did not accept.

During the concert  Joan dedicated a song to the protesters and said “You know, they just wanted to be heard.  Everyone wants to be heard.”

Baez understands you never give up on people.

We each of us have friends, family or neighbors with dumb views.   I speak from experience.  Engaging them personally, not on TV but straightforwardly, one on one, a la Baez, might seem too much trouble and pointless, especially if you try to “convert” them.  But what if you do as Baez did, LISTEN?

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives