Water Festival Parade, last Saturday morning: My family and I are lounging in beach chairs under an oak tree along Bellamy Curve. Despite the early hour and mellow breeze, we are sweltering. Though I’m only blocks from my house, I don’t recognize anybody in this crowd, but everyone’s friendly. A young man is passing out Joe Wilson stickers. “No thanks,” I say. “I’m not doing politics today.” He politely moves on, but several folks turn to look at me. They’re all wearing Joe Wilson stickers.
Soon, Joe Wilson himself cruises by in a sleek car, followed by local officials and festival dignitaries. The Pirettes glide by on a big boat-float… then the Church of the Nazarene … and the Shag Club (God love ‘em, they hand out cardboard fans!), and the Shriners, playing “keystone cops.” (The make-believe gunshots scare my daughter, then delight her.) A woman sitting next to me makes a wisecrack about the “smart cars” that roll by next. She spots a bumper sticker on one that reads, “Impeach Obama.” “I like that car better, now,” she quips. A smattering of laughter and applause goes up. I wince, remembering Bush Derangement Syndrome. (It’s déjà vu all over again.) I feel my husband silently stewing beside me. His beach chair has broken, among other things.
Party at a friend’s house, later the same day: We’re on a bluff along the Beaufort River. It’s a lovely afternoon for hot July, with a strong, energizing wind off the water. I know almost everybody here, and like them all. Nobody’s wearing campaign paraphernalia of any kind. You don’t need to when your guys are in power. (Not in South Carolina, maybe, but most everywhere else…) At this party, there are no Shriners, no Nazarenes… though possibly a few shaggers. Several of my fellow journalists are here, and some artists, and a bunch of musicians. I enjoy some great conversation – about movies, mostly, and music and books. No politics, thank God. Other than Mayor Billy, I don’t run into a single person who saw the Water Festival parade. Though I’m only a couple of miles from the parade site, it occurs to me that I might as well be in a whole different world.
It’s starting to feel that way, isn’t it? Like we’re two different worlds? Two distinct cultures? And it’s not just a Beaufort thing. (In fact, Beaufort’s probably better than most places.) It’s an America thing. Odd bird that I am, I tend to flit between “worlds,” and am pretty comfortable in both. What I’m uncomfortable with is the increasing tension between them. It just feels like something’s brewing out there… something ominous and rumbling, like faraway thunder that’s creeping ever closer. Actually, it’s the sound of voices, I think. As a “dual citizen,” I am privy to the way each group talks about the other, and it’s not getting better… it’s getting worse. The mutual animosity is growing and the mutual understanding is shrinking. I read somewhere recently that American politics now resembles a “cold civil war.” The phrase sent shivers down my spine; however hyperbolic, it had the ring of truth about it.
In a cold civil war, what’s a dual citizen to do? Choose? Sorry. I can’t. I won’t.
So I try playing “double agent” – defending conservatives when I’m hanging out with liberals, and vice versa. To me, this kind of devil’s advocacy is borderline compulsive – I can’t not do it – and I’m continually (and genuinely!) surprised by my failure to make headway. Even the sanest, smartest people I know seem stubbornly blind to the merits of their political opponents – be they ideological or even personal – and just as blind to their own shortcomings. It’s disconcerting to see full-grown adults dig in their heels like children in a playground, clapping their hands over their ears, singing at the top of their lungs: “I can’t hear you! I’m not listening! There’s nothing you can say, so don’t even bother!” How are they all so certain about such a complicated thing as politics? How are they so firm in their convictions? I read and read and read – and read some more – and I only grow less firm in mine.
If you expose yourself to thoughtful, well-informed commentary from both sides of the political spectrum, it’s impossible to believe only one side has compelling arguments and ideas. (And it’s really impossible to believe that one side is “good” while the other side is “bad.”) Isn’t anybody doing this anymore?
My suspicion – my fear – is that few are. My fear is that we’ve let the entertainers and provocateurs take over our political discourse… that most people are getting all their tutoring from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck (on the right), or Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart (on the left). And even more dangerous, they’re buying into the exaggerated cultural stereotypes these commentators – and their comrades in the blogosphere – traffic in so shamelessly. If I thought most conservatives were like the straw men Olbermann sets up, I wouldn’t want to know any! And if I believed most liberals were as awful as Hannity says they are, I wouldn’t have so many of them for friends. But the fact is, I am friends with plenty of liberals and plenty of conservatives, so I know better. But I’m afraid I’m in the minority.
Here’s the thing: there really are some serious cultural divisions in America today. To pretend otherwise is to bury your head in the sand. But even worse than burying your head in the sand, I think, is letting a bunch of paid entertainers pander to your basest instincts by filling your head with hateful spin and half-truths about your fellow Americans. I understand that people will gravitate toward the cultural/political group with whom they feel most comfortable – that’s a natural human response. But fearing and even hating those outside our comfort zone is also a natural human response… and one we must guard against if we care about our country (and our souls, for that matter). These professional provocateurs aren’t helping us understand each other or heal our divisions; they’re doing just the opposite. And why not? Their very livelihoods depend on keeping us tuned in, logged on, and most of all… stirred up.
I say we boycott! In fact, I’ve been boycotting for a while, now, and I gotta tell ya… it feels great. I’ve been assiduously avoiding cable news channels and talk radio, along with any blog that’s rabidly, unreasonably partisan. I’ve made a concerted effort only to read commentators I trust and respect, and to explore both liberal and conservative points of view. I am determined to make up my own mind about politics, and to do so on an issue-by-issue basis. Most important, I’ve grown more committed than ever to my “dual citizenship.” I will continue to revel in the glory a small town parade – with its Nazarenes and its Shriners and its firemen on their big red trucks – even as I delight in the company of artists and writers and those of a more progressive ilk. I tell you, it’s not impossible! It’s not even difficult.
People are lovable. They just are. It’s so much easier to love them than to hate them. And if we all spent more time at parties and parades, and less time in front of the TV and the computer, I bet we wouldn’t even need reminding.