August 1, 2008 § 7 Comments
Two nights ago, a friend (and Iraq War veteran) was walking down the sidewalk wearing an Obama 2008 shirt when a man, eating dinner with his wife looked up and said, “So, you’re a communist?”
That same night, a person in the bar shared this story with my friend: “I was wearing an Obama shirt in here the other night and three guys surrounded me and started harassing me about the shirt. Realizing I was outnumbered, I asked them what they would like me to do. They made me turn my shirt inside-out.”
Another recent evening, I was driving my mom’s car, which has an Obama bumper sticker on it. As I was using a drive-thru ATM, a truck pulled up behind me and began chanting Obama’s name out his window, but not in a good way. More like a tone that invoked the ghosts of the KKK. I didn’t look back, I just pulled away and acted like I didn’t hear them.
And then there’s this zinger, brought to light by an acquaintance: “I hope every racist person in America comes out and votes against Obama.”
Indiana is an interesting place.
What strikes me as particularly interesting about all this isn’t how potentially and frighteningly racist it all might be, it’s how those who are on the verge of losing power are reacting to its potential loss and what that reaction implies. For many years, Republicans have complained about how Democrats have treated the Bush 43 presidency with anti-Bush bumper stickers, protests, the “Anybody But Bush” anti-movement, and of course, the constant jokes and derision. But now, with the tables turned ever so slightly, Republicans seem to be just as spiteful and hateful as the Democrats have been of Bush 43. If that double standard weren’t bad enough, this all smacks of me-first politics and a startling lack of patriotism.
My friends, something has to change.
In his new book, The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop discusses how Americans have been surrounding ourselves with the people, music, movies, talk radio, and TV shows that reinforce our beliefs. And between growing up in Indiana, living in San Francisco for 6 years, Pittsburgh for 2 years, and traveling around the United States this summer, I’ve seen how true this is. This constant self-reinforcement makes it seem normal to believe whatever it is that you believe. Then, when you say something to someone that you would normally be free to say in your community, you may find yourself shocked that others don’t feel the same. At all. In other words, what seems obvious to you does not seem obvious to them, sometimes aggressively and violently so.
What seems to be happening is that within these homogenous zones of like-minded people, social norms change. By that, I mean the prevailing thought patterns, fears, and paranoia begin to change conversations, and those conversations create an atmosphere which reinforces different fears, paranoia, and ultimately, the collective vision of the world and how it should run (and who should run it). And one could argue that those who are constantly surrounded by this atmosphere get sucked in to a different mindset devoid of check-and-balance thought created by healthy debate (See: Germany 1940).
Further, with how ideologically divided the country seems to be, entering into a discussion with someone who may be a non-like-minded individual has turned into an exercise of anxiety. Will this get hostile? Will they lash out at me? Will I lash out at them? Will this end our friendship? Do we have to agree to be friends? How can we disagree agreeably? How can I let myself be wrong when what I feel is so right? All of these anxieties creates a paralyzing fear of having any sort of discussion, debate, or dialogue about the issues — the type of discussions where ideas are unpacked, vocabulary is sorted through, and we form a greater ideal or plan of action. Instead, we become isolated and self-fulfilling, bitching about the “other side” and how they don’t get it.
Do we no longer have the desire to reach a higher road, a conversation about what we want, why we want it, and how we could get there? Can we, as a collective people, not begin to design a proposed path through dialogue? One that sees each of us open to ideas that we may not like, allows us to see how someone’s intent is often very different from their action, and sees us begin to create a new social awareness through conversation? Maybe even one that re-centers social norms? If not, I fear that the homogenization going on will eventually create such polarized pockets of misunderstanding, fear, and action that we will fracture as a people.
This year, I believe both McCain and Obama are both capable of considering the other side, openly. And that is cause for hope. But also fear.