How Did We Get Here? Part 5: Can You Hear Me?
After the 1992 riots, the slogan “Love sees no color” became popular. And it’s a nice sentiment. “I love you disregarding what color you may be.” But there’s a dark underside to this approach. It says, “I love you but I don’t recognize your differences.” Put another way, it says, “I love you, and I expect you to be the same as I am.” A better slogan might be, “Love celebrates all colors.”
It’s All About Me
The root of this fallacy is an American philosophy that teaches us that the purpose of life is “me.” Our lives revolve around the acquisition of wealth and comfort. As I pointed out previously, our economic policy depends on us spending more than we have. We’re taught to be selfish; our national wellbeing depends on it.
Ayn Rand, the patron saint of conservative capitalism, went so far as to argue that morality is defined by what is good for the self. And while many of us may reject the directness with which she states her position, the self has become the center of the American reality, if not always its morality. So, for example, while conservatives may ague that no one has a right to more than they have earned (and thus the poor must earn their way out of poverty), liberals might argue that everyone has the right to a helping hand to become part of the middle class.
That middle class image likely includes a home in the suburbs with two cars in the driveway in front of a garage. Sure, in our minds we may easily be able change the color of the kids playing in the yard without too much difficulty. Maybe we can even allow for a quaint variation on holiday themes to include Hanukkah or Kwanza. But in our image, aside from skin color, the family looks a lot like us. They dress like us, act like us, and want what we want.
If you visit the home or place of worship of someone from South or East Asia, you remove your shoes– and you don’t touch the food with your left hand. You don’t serve beef to a Hindu, or pork to a Muslim or a Jew. If you’ve had contact with these cultures and religions, you know this.
But do we stop and ask the person why they don’t eat beef? Do we listen to the stories of where they come from? And do we ask what their life goal is, and how that is the same or different from their parents’ life goal?
Most of us don’t. We accept surface differences. But we take it for granted that everyone wants what we want– because what we want has been programmed into us by years or even decades of brilliantly-evangelical marketing. By extension, we subconsciously assume that everyone’s story is similar to ours. But we never actually hear the other person’s story. We don’t have time. We live in a world in which we’re bombarded with 10-second sound bites and slogans. So whether it’s “Abortion stills a beating heart” or “My body, my choice,” whether it’s “My country right or wrong” or “Not in our name,” we assess the slogan by our own experience, never questioning what it might mean to the person promoting the slogan.
A Nationwide Problem
I’m not claiming that this is a liberal problem, nor is it a conservative problem. It affects us all. And we rarely see the impact personally because in general we tend to only really get to know those people with backgrounds somewhat similar to ours. This is partly because of geographic separation. You don’t meet many farmers when you live in the city, nor do you meet many stockbrokers in rural America.
But having lived in both kinds of places, I’ve developed an appreciation for the differences between us– and the different narratives– of people who live in urban and liberal locales. I knew a conservative farrier who grew up struggling to survive and became successful through hard work and skill– and no doubt a little bit of luck. If you don’t know what a farrier is, it’s someone who shoes horses. Yes, people still make a living at that. Part of his business is training people to be farriers! Not surprisingly, this man is a Trump supporter. He doesn’t understand urban problems, and doesn’t care to go to the city to learn about them. He also wants America safe, and supports both the police and a border wall. He sees low wages and a shortage of jobs in his community– where even law enforcement officers get paid so little, some of them are on food stamps. The idea of immigrants coming in and taking more jobs doesn’t sit well with him, to say the least.
Then there’s an urban accountant who spends her weekends helping to adopt out rescued dogs. She came to this country as a refugee and is grateful for the help she received after she got here. And she wants others to receive the same help. She’s horrified by our nation’s immigration policy, and by the police brutality she sees in her city.
You can see how a different narrative leads to different political opinions. But if we don’t listen to the narrative, all we can see are caricatures of a gun-toting redneck who just might be a racist, and a bleeding-heart liberal who wants to give to immigrants everything America has. The slogans “Keep America safe” and “Give me your tired, your poor…” become not points of concern in a single national vision, but incompatible opposites.
Keeping It Human
The more we think our opponents can’t be reasoned with, the more likely our nation will split– literally. Already I have heard both liberals and conservatives say that we’d be better off dividing the country. But think about what that would mean! Aside from the inevitable messiness (and violence) of such a separation, there are economic impossibilities. Remember, 82% of Americans live in just 2% of the nation’s land area. Urban areas would lose their food, energy, and natural resource production. Rural areas, which typically get more federal aid per capita, would lose the benefit of having an urban economy to support them– not to mention the advanced medical care and other important services available in urban areas to which rural residents need access.
There is a better way. We need to start seeing the “other” as human beings with their own narrative that differs from ours. We need to start asking people we disagree with not just to explain their position, but to tell us who they are and where they come from! Only then can we begin to understand why they believe as they do. Only then can we begin to find ground on which to compromise. And only then can we start to realize that on some issues there may not be a one-size-fits-all national solution. Some issues may need to be decided at a local level.
Where We Begin
How does this happen? It won’t be in the political arena. Our politicians get elected by stirring us to passionate fear about those people we disagree with. Vote for us because if “they” get elected, you’re going to lose. Whether it’s your guns or your right to choose, most politicians promise not what they’ll do for you, but who they’ll protect you from. And if you need protection, those other folks must be dangerous enemies!
And it won’t be the mainstream media. Conflict sells. Would you pay to see a movie where everyone got along well and nothing happened? Of course not! Media is motivated to ensure that we are in conflict with someone, otherwise you won’t care what they have to say.
And it won’t be social media. A conversation of memes cannot reach the depth we need to understand where someone else is coming from. And social media encourages us to hide who we really are.
Somehow we have got to start sitting down with those who are different from us and listening to their stories. Somehow, we have got to start humanizing them.
We can point fingers at who isn’t doing this, but that’s hardly constructive. Both sides are guilty. But this divide began when this country became a majority-urban nation. Liberal politicians no longer needed rural America to get elected. Liberal media outlets could make more money catering to urban America. They stopped the conversation. A new crop of conservative pundits stepped into the void unchallenged, steering their side of the conversation in a new direction unintelligible to liberals. Joe Bageant, a liberal himself, does an excellent job of documenting how this happened.
It may be that only a liberal transformation can save this nation. But I don’t see one on the horizon. At this writing, it looks like Biden will win the election. But Biden promises nothing new. There is little in his platform to generate interest from, much less reconciliation with, rural America.
Let me close this series this way. We need action on climate change. But we’re not going to get it until we seriously address the economic impact this will have on rural America.
We need national health care. But we’re not going to get it so long as the issue is tied to the rest of the liberal agenda– and until we admit that ACA has been a disaster for many in rural America, especially the self-employed.
We need help for the poor. But we’re not going to get it until we acknowledge publicly that the largest group living in poverty is white, and that many of our economic policies (supported by both parties) have made the problem worse.
We need a lot of things. But our nation cannot be healthy so long as a significant minority, which just happens to occupy the vast majority of the land, is barred from the table.
When that happens, we get Donald Trump as President. And if you think that’s the worst that can happen, you lack imagination.
We need to stop spouting slogans and invite someone we disagree with over to dinner. It just might save the nation.
The New York Times writes today, “The Democrats’ biggest problem in many states is the failure to develop a message that resonates not only with college graduates and in major metropolitan areas but also in blue-collar and rural areas.” It’s about time someone noticed!