Prairie Lights: Rooting for chariots of the right color

By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The first time I can recall thinking overtly about politics would have been during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

I don’t remember any talk of politics in our house, but I somehow knew (or, more likely, connected the dots later) that my father, being a working-stiff union man, was a Democrat.

And we were Catholic, as was Kennedy, so it would have been strange if we had not been admirers of his. That’s the thing: there was another family just like ours a block away, also German-Catholics, and their kids went to the same Catholic school we did.

The Jungbauers, in fact, lived in what used to be the house where our parish priests lived until a new rectory was built. But somehow—and if my memory is faulty here I apologize to the Jungbauer family—they had become Republicans.

It may have been that they were just ornery and enjoyed being contrary. I distinctly recall that on St. Patrick’s Day, when everyone else wore green to school, the Jungbauer children showed up in bright blue, which they said signified their German heritage.

So I guess if you could defy St. Patrick, one of the most revered saints in the history of the church, what was the harm in defying a mere Irish politician from Boston?

I also remember hating the Jungbauers—though I can’t remember now whether I was more upset about their Republicanism or their hostility toward St. Patrick and the Irish. I don’t suppose it mattered. The intense feeling was what mattered, the joy of choosing sides and having someone on the other side to hate.

I would learn many years later that those same two colors—blue and green—nearly tore apart Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium and of Christianity after the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire in the sixth century.

Blue and green represented the two factions in the chariot races that captivated virtually every citizen, high and low, of Byzantium. Historians have long argued about the significance of the factions, one theory being that blue and green really represented two sides in a theological debate about the nature of Christ.

Other historians say that the chariot races themselves were quite contentious enough to bring people’s passions to the boiling point, which they often did, resulting in riots in which many thousands of people were slaughtered in the streets of Constantinople.

I think it hardly matters which historians are right. Whether people are slaughtering each other over sports, theology or politics, it all comes down to the rapturous joy of belonging to a faction, of feeling the closest possible kinship with people dressed in shirts of the proper color, and passionately hating those sporting a taboo hue.

I’m not suggesting that we all pull together and root for Donald Trump because he’s our president now and we have to give him a chance to grow into his new role, or at least to learn the first damned thing about it.

I still believe that we have a patriotic duty to resist everything Trump stands for, or thinks he stands for, or was told by somebody that standing for might look presidential. Let’s call our present-day factions red, white and blue vs. orange.

But let’s also, from time to time, stop and consider whether our passionate feelings about a particular aspect of the current presidency stem from a love of the Constitution and a concern for the well-being of our children and grandchildren—or from the thrill of being soldiers in the army of righteousness.

Let’s ask ourselves whether, in each particular case, we have done the research and come to a well-thought-out conclusion, or whether we wholeheartedly believe something because we heard it from a man in a blue shirt, or rabidly oppose something else because it was brought up by a woman wearing green.

It won’t be easy—I’ve been nursing a grudge against the Jungbauers for something like 50 years now—but I think we had better try.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.