A political lightning rod who knew politics didn’t come first

Jerry Klein and Keith Larson in 2014.
Jerry Klein and Keith Larson in 2014.

Jerry Klein has died, his death illuminating our current American condition as clearly as he often did in his colorful life.

Klein was a force in Charlotte media, music and culture for some 20 years, stretching from the 1980s through the 2010s, with breaks for unemployment, a radio stint in Washington, DC, and to battle the health issues that finally took his life. He wrote powerfully for Creative Loafing and the Charlotte Observer, wrestled with issues and callers on WBT radio, ran a popular record store, was a music promoter, and was director of programming at the Great Aunt Stella Center.

On the Facebook and newspaper pages that told of Klein’s final days and death, there were dozens of posts, most of them messages of unconditional caring and condolence. There were also several like these:

“The only liberal I really liked.”

“One of the last rational liberal-minded people that held respect for the opposing view.”

“All politics aside ... cancer sucks and wish there was a way to eliminate this monstrous disease.”

While there are compliments inside those comments, we can apparently agree cancer is a monster that should be eliminated only after putting a dead man’s politics aside. We can find a person likeable or respectful only after qualifying their humanity against their ideology.

It cuts across jerseys, this putting politics first in American life. I heard similar sentiments from the other direction after Ronald Reagan lost his long battle with Alzheimer’s. There just aren’t Facebook posts to pull from back then.

Today, politics is the starting point for many Americans, with all references in life and assessments of others emanating accordingly. Many choose a political self-identification as their most fundamental condition, it being that politics must be set aside before even the monstrousness of cancer can be established.

This “politics-first” world view was never more apparent to me than when I lived in its absence on my three-week, 14-state, 6,400-mile motorcycle trip this summer. I was almost entirely away from the news cycle and politicking. When all that swirl is stripped away, you find life. When personal attachments to “our guy” and “our side” are dropped, you find that lives aren’t all that different.

Save for one planned interview, not a single political conversation transpired during my trip, though I had interactions with hundreds of people from Charlotte to California and back. No one brought up politics with me. It was not the way we identified ourselves. Not knowing what side we were on, we had nothing to separate us.

Though he certainly had his own staunch political views, Jerry Klein understood. He posted this on his own Facebook page a few years ago:

“Humanity is at our best when we put aside what are, really, petty differences, and focus on what’s MOST important – those things we share IN COMMON. Because we are truly our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers, even if we sometimes need reminding of that fact.”

You were a keeper, Jerry.

Charlotte Observer contributor Keith Larson’s regular podcasts can be heard on TheLarsonPage.com