In my capacity as a magazine editor and correspondent, I had the intriguing experience of attending a town hall meeting hosted by Gettysburg College. The guest of honor was none other than the ever-eye-brow-raising Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (well, from New York really, but he represents “White Christmas” country so…yeah!). As it was quite the memorable excursion, with historical connotations, I shall give it a brief run-down with some of my spiritual take-aways to boot.
My first brush with Bernie came early on in the election cycle, when I heard his voice emanating from the radio in our kitchen during the first democratic primary debate. My ears immediately attuned to the Brooklyn accent so thick you could cut it with a knife, and a certain sense of familiarity swept over me. At first I thought it was simply because my parents and their extended families both came from Northern NJ/NYC. While my parents’ own accents have lessened greatly and I sound like a true native of Maryland (well, except for perhaps the odd word!), there is something about those guttural tones from “the old country” that continue to strike a deep chord.
However, during one of Bernie’s later speeches to his adherents, I came to the conclusion that the sense of subconscious connectivity also derived from the fact that he actually sounded a lot like Readily-Deedily, the dragon puppet character from a NYC-based kids’ show that helped teach me how to read as supplemental viewing! These zonky associations aside, I admit that something about his general demeanor made me feel that, policies aside, there was a certain sincerity and determination about him that was bound to win grudging respect from both sides. This was heightened all the more by the prospects of Clinton and Trump looming large as the front runners.
So as time passed, there was something of a *wink, wink* joke in my house whenever Bernie was heard. And funnily enough, the more we teased, the more he seemed to appear everywhere! On FB, “Feel the Bern” videos popped up aplenty, the most memorable being the famous incident involving a disoriented bird flapping around on stage and landing on Bernie’s podium while he was in mid-speech. The most hilarious part of this was the intimidated grin plastered on his face, as if the “wittle boid” (his words!) were some carnivorous canine preparing to nip of his nose unless he could successfully mollify it!
He proceeded to attach an off-the-cuff application to the event that identified said feathered guest as “the dove of peace”. My thoughts: “Dude, that ain’t a dove. Check out the Dictionary of North American Wildlife.” But still, I along with the rest of the online world had to admit it was kind of cute…even if it did sort of resemble William the Conqueror taking a tumble after disembarking from his ship, and then proceeding to convince observing troops that the ground of England was really trying to embrace its rightful king!
Nevertheless, the media exploded with references to “Feel the Bird” and “Vote for Birdie”, brandishing a whimsical warbler with spectacles! Some even went so far as to say it was “a sign from above” (some of the Pagans who back Bernie’s environmental policies insisted it was a cue from the Mother Earth Goddess), and a proof that animals are good judges of character…er, I guess because the bird *did not* bite off his nose?? Lastly, there was the inevitable Hunger Gamesconnection, saying that he had been selected to be America’s Mockingjay and was destined to challenge Capitol corruption. Win, lose, or draw, his gallant up-hill battle and victories in the face of the political machine make the connection all the more viable.
There were other Fandom reactions to the political goings-on as well. More than a few online communities of Trekkies, suitably dedicated to the Universalist ideals of the fictional Federation, seemed quite enamored with Bernie, and posted out plenteous posters on his behalf. One involved an image of Spock telling Kirk that this was the moment when one of the most powerful earth republics finally embraced the principles that would usher in the era of the Federation. Given that Bernie’s viewpoints do rather resemble those of both Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy, I can’t say this is totally out-of-turn. But in Middle Earth loving centers, I was rather surprised to see a photo-shopped image of Gandalf as Bernie, wielding a staff and bellowing “You shall not pass!” as a giant Balrog with Trump’s head on it lunged towards him! Can’t say how the traditionalist Tolkien would handle having his works hijacked for far left promotional purposes, but it did give me a good chuckle.
Lastly, who could ever forget the folk songster efforts of said candidate, whose tones bear such a strong resemblance to Leonard Nimoy’s flat-as-a-squirrel-run-over-by-a-truck vocal range which he exhibited when taking a hiatus from being Mr. Spock of the Enterprise? For Bernie, it was a matter of ancient flower child tradition, and he inevitably participated in a folk album in which he “sang” (more like orated, in flawless Brooklynese) “This Land Is My Land”, which turned into his unofficial campaign anthem. However, it’s worthy to note that at one of his televised rallies, the folk band on stage seemed hesitant to incorporate Bernie in their performance. Even when the eager-beaver senior meandered towards the main mic, mouthing the words, they seemed to have made a pact to ignore his efforts to join the fun altogether! Nevertheless, as one YouTube observer remarked, Bernie’s music videos were so un-cool, they bounced off the Richter scale, boomeranged back, and became ultra-cool!
With all these amusing connotations fresh in my mind, I learned that Bernie would be making a visit to Gettysburg College a mere 20 minutes from home (on Earth Day, of all days). So, with nothing better to do, I decided I might as well get a piece of the historical action. Thus, brandishing a media pass, I headed off with my dad to see what could be seen at the campus, as a representative of the Catholic youth of the Harrisburg Diocese. There are a number of things that left an impression on me during the experience which I shall do my best to list. Firstly, I was pleased to discover that our local Bernie supporters, while certainly enthusiastic, were not the crazed revolutionaries marching through Red Square that some media sources made them out to be. Actually, by and large, they seemed quite friendly and welcoming, even though it was clear that were not endorsing their candidate.
Interestingly, in the top bleachers, a certain sense of camaraderie developed as everyone tried to save each other’s seats, and I ultimately wound up baby-sitting for the children of one of the Sanders Delegates. The three of them (two girls and a boy between the ages of 5 and 9) were really quite fun to “state out” with, as we held the seat for their mom out preparing for Bernie’s arrival. The little boy was actually celebrating his 5th birthday, with an appropriate sign declaring it to the world! This also resulted in a cupcake devouring fest, although the 11 year old was technically “cheating” as she had just had braces put on her teeth after a recent jaw operation, and her dad, who was one of security volunteers, had beckoned to her repeatedly to come down from the bleachers to take her medication (which she did, deftly navigating the tricky stairs that we warned her to go slowly on lest she take a tumble). But hey, you know, for special occasions and all…cupcakes go a long way!
Later on, some young guys from the college wound up sitting in front of us. In souvenir hunting mode, my dad and I had been trying to obtain a Bernie sign to prove we had been there, but they had all been handed out already to the real supporters. Leaning over to the dudes in front as they chatted about hanging their signs in their dorm, my dad teased, “Do you guys have a monopoly on those?” Without a second thought, a curly-haired, fresh-faced young man had given us his sign “for the memories.” Of course, it could have been because the kid was secretly smitten by me (*blush*), or dad managed to shame his socialist conscience into redistributing, but even after I inquired if he was sure about his decision (after all, he was a fan, and I didn’t want to deprive him!), he still insisted we keep it.
We had the same positive experience with the members of the Sanders Campaign. As opposed to scruffy looking radicals, we met several young men in suits and ties, brandishing Bernie buttons but not seeking to force their preference on us. They were courteous and respectful, and were invaluable in helping us obtain some more souvenirs such as a pen and a sticker, and helping us get our bearings in general. The Gettysburg College staff was also highly professional during the course of the event, making it clear that the college made no political endorsement, but rather was hosting this event for the education of anyone who wished to participate. However, one of glaring down-sides of the event however was the unexplained and extended tardiness of the guest of honor! Not only was he “a little late”…but a good 3 hours overdue! Indeed, the Bernie-loving natives and unbiased observers alike were getting quite restless. I can’t count how many times the cry of “Let’s go, Bernie, let’s go!” rose from the throng. Seriously, I’ve never seen such a fuss as when the guy with the water pitcher came out to the fill the glass set up for speakers!
When Bernie finally did show up, it was something of an anti-climax. Truth be told, those expecting to encounter a wild-eyed firebrand would be sorely let down as he hobbled around on stage reciting a segment of “The Gettys-boig Ad-wess.” Frankly, by all accounts, he seemed pretty dang normal and only as inspiring as a bowl of vanilla yogurt. Besides the sheer normality, he seemed to have little sense of crowd interaction and/or manipulation. He didn’t even seem particularly moved by the love-fest of the face-painted Bernie fan-girls cheering wildly as if the curmudgeonly senior citizen with messed up white hair and monotonous voice that could be called “the lullaby of Broadway” (as in, it would put anyone to sleep) was actually Elvis reincarnated!
Instead, he dutifully paced about on stage, looking and sounding pretty bushed (if I had one practical thing to give the man, it would have been Ricola cough drops), with as much enthusiasm as if he were speaking before an inanimate blackboard. But perhaps therein lies the charm: in sharp contrast to Trump’s proclamations about how everybody loves him, how they would vote for him even if he shot somebody, and he alone can save America, Bernie does not seem to have let the attention go to his head and inflate it beyond recognition. What you see is what you get. As my dad aptly summed it up, “He is who he is.” For good or ill, there is a certain amount of comfort in that.
He’s out doing what he sees as his job, getting across the message that he sincerely believes in, but still readily admits that no president, whether his name is Bernie Sanders or anything else, is capable of fixing all the problems in the country on his own. I thought that was refreshingly honest compared with Trump’s braggadocious stump speeches. Another thing that contrasted the two campaigns was that the Sanders campaign seems to really put out to accommodate the disabled, including such things as set up wheel chair ramps and sign language interpreters, whereas the Trump rallies/events are rather infamous for having minimal accommodations of this kind.
Of course, there are his controversial policies, which have been called everything from insane to disgusting. He is an unabashed Democratic Socialist, and given the state of Socialist countries such as Venezuela, it certainly has made many eyes roll. But I find it very hard to decry the concepts of universal health coverage (providing private practice is also allowed), tuition-free schools (this is not novel; there were “free schools” in existence as far back as the 18th century), higher wages for the working class (yes, it might cause an economic chain reaction…but is it not fair?), back pay for parents with newborns (also a very fine thought), veteran programs (but of course!), and putting more effort into cleaning out environmental waste (snicker about Earth Day if you must, but there truly is abuse of the environment in various sectors, and Pope Francis leads the way in heightening the Christian consciousness about responsible stewardship of Mother Earth).
Mind you, I said the concepts, in and of themselves, not necessarily the means of implementation. When it comes to numbers on paper, his plans often unravel as simply monetarily impractical. But the bare essentials of the ideas are certainly valid to raise from the perspective of Catholic social teachings, and he does us all a service by doing so. We are, after all, living a land where different ideas for the common good are free to be spoken openly and debated. Indeed, Sanders himself says he applauds the fact that his ideas are disagreed with so often, because it is good to hammer things out with others. Indeed, the emphasis on “hammering things out” inspired me to submit a question from the audience, inquiring as to how he would “hammer things out” with the Catholic community if he came into power. Since we had to leave early, I don’t know if he got around to answering it publically or not, but I should like very to found out someday if the question ever hit home, and how he might respond to it in his own words.
But after all this deep analysis, and holding my arm extended with a hand-held recorder to take notes for far too long (it hurt!!), my dad and I decided to try and get a quickie pic of the event to prove we had been there. It just so happened that my dad’s 1980’s camera decided to give up the ghost on the spot (maybe it was a Trump supporter!), upon which one of the Bernie supporter kindly offered to take pics of us with her digital camera and then promptly followed up and emailed them to us, showing me standing with Bernie on stage in the background. Afterwards, we decided to truly follow in his presumed footsteps prior to arrival (famous as a diner-hopper and fast food consumer as he is) and settled in for the odd-ish combo meal hamburger, a chicken salad, and a pistachio sundae. Hey, watching those kids devouring cupcakes proved mouth-watering…
So what did I take away from this whole experience…I mean, in the broad sweep, and in addition to the edibility factor? I suppose that one we should open to new experiences outside our comfort zones and be willing to hear someone out, even if rumors rail against him. Also, we should never be ruled by stereotypes, thinking that people on “the other side” of the spectrum are not orcs marching out of Mordor. I certainly cannot judge the Sanders followers in total, but the ones I met in my own local vicinity seemed like perfectly good citizens who displayed Christian civility towards us. Indeed, one man in the bleachers who saw my cross commented on how this “Socialist Jew” seemed to him to have the most Christian heart among the leading candidates. I cannot read hearts, but compared to what I have seen and heard from Clinton and Trump, I would have to agree to some extent.
I am still deeply dismayed at his advocacy of abortion, even up to partial birth, and that will always be a major stumbling block for Catholic voters considering candidates such as Sanders, whose democratic socialism, contrary to common belief, does not instantly blacklist him on the Catholic voter’s guide. But abortion is not a matter of economic or governmental systems, nor is it a “liberal” or “conservative” issue; it’s a human rights issue, and it can’t simply be overlooked as besides the point. In his advocacy of it, he contradicts all of his life-affirming ideals by supporting the killing of the most innocent. And yet in spite of this glaring incongruence, I still feel that his intentions are far more honorable than those of his competitors. Viewing him as a man of integrity in a swamp of corruption, I would be happy to shake his hand.
A final item that stands out in my memory is a comparison video between Sanders and Trump. I know these things are publicity gimmicks, and can be taken with a grain of salt. And yet, from my experience and with my sentiments, this one somehow rang true. While Trump’s inflammatory “us vs. them” language flies, a clip from Sanders speech is played: “Love trumps hatred.” Is this not similar to so many things that Pope Francis has been trying to tell the world? But this follows suit, for whatever else Sanders may be, he has shown an appreciation for at least some elements of traditional Catholic social teaching. Indeed, coming from a lower income background himself, and struggling to find his career niche for many years, I believe his sympathy for the underprivileged and his desire for them to have suitable dignity is a sincere one. That he is mocked for taking a long time to find his place in the world just reflects poorly on the mockers, not on his own hard-fought climb and discovery of his talent in the political sphere.
Sanders himself is ethnically Jewish, but also seems to be a spiritual searcher with a social conscience, akin to actor Leonard Nimoy in Universalist outlook. He believes in God, but just not “everyone else’s God”. But his Irish wife is Catholic, and it is clear from his speeches while in Rome that he has at least some handle on Catholic terminology, drawing from both the catechism and encyclical documents. He has made clear his admiration for Pope Francis, and told him so in their brief encounter in Italy. His emphasis on the “common good” and the fact that we are “all in this together” is something that joins them together, and I think we should all be able to find some commonality in that, whatever our individual beliefs on his wider policies may be. And if that makes Bernie Sanders a rarity in the American political system, then it is a blessed rarity at that.