Today a friend of mine, an African-American woman and PhD candidate, writes: “I tested a subject today whose very existence is the opposite of mine. He is an older (near octogenarian), White Republican, and I am…not. But during the session, we spoke respectfully of our political differences. Though there were the inevitable moments of awkward silence, I listened as he recounted his experiences as a teacher in Missouri and in the Jim Crow South during his military years. He listened as I recounted some of my experiences growing up on Chicago’s West Side. I must say, this is a post-election conversation I will always remember.”
Just before last Tuesday’s election, Carrie Newcomer wrote: “I know that there is such an undercurrent of hope and anxiety with the pending election. Today let’s all take a deep breath, and remember that there are good people in this world. It’s important to remember whatever happens, that on Wednesday we’ll begin the next conversation. And this conversation will happen in diverse communities — and because we love our communities we’ll have to find ways to work together. In this ugly and divisive political season, the political parties and sensational media, self-interested PACs, even misguided religious groups have promoted the idea that there is no common ground. We know better – we’ve seen and know good people in our lives, people we work with and care about, people we know have good hearts – but their story has led them to different conclusions then our own on how to govern. Breathe in and breathe out, my friends – all is not lost – there are still the finest people in the world. And Wednesday we will roll up our sleeves and begin the important next step of working together for our communities, for our families, for the good earth and for this wounded world.”
These stories and words are so important, because stories and words can move us ahead, together. Political issues are so intractable, even among family and friends, because we don’t vote on ideas so much as on our experiences of the world. Who can “persuade” someone out of a lifetime of accumulated convictions that have silted up out of the ways of seeing and doing our jobs have trained us in, out of the texture of happenings and discoveries and hopes and fears and decisions that make up a personality, a character, maybe even a soul? We can talk, but the ultimate “changer” in any situation is experience itself, and the shifts it prompts — by some mysterious action of grace — in the individual soul, where we are alone with ourselves and whatever name we give God.
Maybe one reason why attitudes about gay marriage are changing, for instance, is that more and more straight people have real experiences with openly gay people. They have lived alongside them, heard their stories, talked to them, and experienced that “other” as an individual — friend, son, or daughter. At a dinner party years ago I sat next to two elderly gay men who had been together for more than thirty years. One was in a wheelchair, bent double with Parkinson’s disease and almost totally silent. His partner, in the middle of a remark about the string quartet we’d all be going to see that evening, leaned over to cut up the slice of beef on the silent man’s plate. The homely matter-of-factness of that gesture confirmed for me that love and loyalty and devotion are not the exclusive domain of straight couples, and that such a love is worth honoring, wherever and whenever it appears. I’ve seen other long-married heterosexual people battling Parkinson’s in a spouse. It tests a marriage. And in that moment I knew this was a marriage too.
Crucially, conversation, rooted in human voices and human language, also lets us ask directly what we are really using that language to say, and what we really mean. On the radio, a supporter of Minnesota’s defeated marriage-definition amendment mused, “It’s just that we are losing so many traditions in this country. So many things are changing.” Sadness and loss in her voice were poignant and unmistakable, the same sadness I’ve seen on the faces of loved ones as they confront a changing world. After President Obama’s re-election, I know many folks are feeling a similar grief, which is rooted in many emotions and experiences, not all of which are dismissable as mere prejudice. I know that. I honor that sadness. Ours is a world in which not every change is positive, not every new and innovative gadget is making us better people, and not every law passed even by candidates one supports is for the best.
And because of that I ask only one thing: let’s be very careful, as we move forward, to discuss and identify accurately our real reasons for grief and for hope about a society and world in deep transition, and the real actions we need to make positive, enduring, and healthy change for everyone. Let’s not let noble words like “tradition” become bywords for unexamined prejudice, or barriers behind which we can hunker down. Let’s examine what prejudices and ideas are really behind the words that come out of our mouths, and what principles underlie the life experiences we look to as compasses. Let’s keep working to sift what is life-sustaining from what threatens life — truly threatens life, and not just human life, or human lives that look just like ours. People on “both sides of the aisle” — a cliche that’s worse than useless — have valuable points to add. We’ll find our way if we can speak, and listen.
So many things are being lost. So many things are changing. Yes, they are. Anyone can look around and see – on TV, in movies, in the street, around our own tables. Depending on our own perspectives or moods, we may see those changes as anything from positive to irrelevant to stupid-but-irrelevant to signs of apocalypse.* But we’ve got to get clear about what “values” we are using to sift out the thin gold thread of the endangered things we believe are worth saving, and how healthy and applicable those values are. Are we defending lost, noble ideals that are in fact lost? That were in fact noble, for more than just ourselves or those like us, and sustain human flourishing for more than just ourselves or those like us? That are based in generally accepted versions of reality? That did or can in fact exist?
It was lost. It’s gone. It was beautiful. Yet history itself shows us how to correct mythologizing with human complexity and cold reality. Touring the Museum of the Confederacy and the Lincoln Presidential Museum last month, I saw uniform jackets with bullet holes, artificial limbs, photographs of the maimed, and pocket-sized New Testaments torn apart by bullet holes. I looked into the faces preserved in photographs: distant, unknowable, vulnerable, tough, or unreadably smooth. Real, vibrant people, no easier to figure out or write off with “Glorious Cause” cliches than human beings have ever been — asking us to look at them, really look, as our process of beginning to understand.
We can’t look to go back to some halcyon era when everything was perfect — the Old South, or the 1950s “Leave it to Beaver” days, have been favorites — because there wasn’t such a time or place. There just wasn’t. If it looked “perfect,” then or now, this was likely because the people whose voices might have ruffled that apparently smooth surface were not, or could not, be heard, or because we still don’t want to hear them. Religion is no way to smooth over anything into an appearance of “perfection” either — lest we end up like the Taliban (women bother you? veil ‘em!)*, or become legalistic hunters-after-supportive-quotes rather than followers of a living and expansive spirit, or forget that the experience of belief is so often more about doubt, struggle, and the ongoing wrestle with the self as you try to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly than it is about everything being pretty, shiny, or peaceful.
What are enduring values, then? What endangers life and can save it?
For answers I look, as I’ve written before, to people investing in sustainable homes and communities: people doing and making and growing for themselves, and letting their hands-on practices lead them into questioning the hands-off methods of runaway global capitalism — fundamentally responsible to shareholders and balance sheets, not people or places. See Maurice Manning’s essay “My Old Kentucky Conservatism” in the New York Times, which can send you to New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future and then Wendell Berry’s 17 Rules for a Sustainable Community. (Berry’s rules 4, 5, and 6 are violated by everyone from coal profiteers like the one Manning describes to Wal-Mart, and our own consumer habits and “needs” help them do it.) It’s significant, I think, that among the labels practitioners of these hands-on lives put on themselves — like Joel Salatin,”Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer,” or Shannon Hayes, “farmer, radical homemaker, and writer” — you don’t often see “Republican” or “Democrat.” You see words that speak to principles that can cut across party lines, that these people are following where they lead: self-reliance, attention to the local and familial, education rooted in the community (not corporations), respect for the handmade, involvement in communities and caring for neighbors, responsibility to each other and to the earth that sustains us and to sources of intellectual and spiritual meaning beyond the reality we can see and touch every day. This is a path based in the concrete realities of doing and making as well as in the self-examination that keeps it from becoming drudgery or isolation. These “values” enfranchise and dignify individuals rather than corporations, encourage imagination and practicality rather than passive credulity and entertainment-seeking, and above all help people live in harmony with each other and with Earth. They enhance the lives of town-dwellers and non-farmers too, all over the world. They are profoundly “traditional,” in that they represent common grace notes of human cultures and systems of meaning over time.
We and only we can act together to save ourselves, here and now. Hurricane Sandy was the latest in a series of global-warming warning shots that our political system has failed to name accurately, and to act upon. Every human (and nonhuman) being needs clean air and water to live, no matter who you vote for or where you go to church. It’s going to be up to us to correct our heedless exploitation of our environment and avoid the penalties for our species success, if we can. This election, and the conversations leading up to it, made pretty clear that in this matter as in so many others, if the people lead, the leaders will follow. They sure aren’t showing that leadership on their own: during the debates, I waited in vain for even the Democrat to say “climate change.”
On the phone lists for our get-out-the-vote campaign, another volunteer had scribbled next to a couple of names, “Told me they weren’t voting, disillusioned with politics, all a bunch of phonies.” And these voters aren’t alone. But withdrawal only looks principled, especially if it leads to paranoid survivalism, or to inaction — which, in a world that needs our real principles, is worse than useless. A surefire way through disillusionment, anger, or disgust with any system, from politics to our culture’s multitentacled and so-often-idiotic entertainment-Internet-media colossus, is to make better choices about the things in our own lives we can control, from finances to entertainment, and let other people see us doing it, and talk to them about why these are the choices we make. When the washing-machine repairmen or the guys moving my old chest freezer out of my basement (for an energy rebate!) see my worm bin and ask me about it, I show them how it works, and they say, “that’s cool, I didn’t know about that, my wife loves gardening and I’ll tell her about it.” When students come to my house, they look at the clothesline and the cabinet full of preserves and the bike on the porch, and we talk about how they can replicate DIYness in their dorm rooms. I’m the first person who doesn’t have cable tv that most of them have ever met.
Community members: talking. Individuals, listening. Why do you do this? Why do you think this? This is the way forward, y’all. It has to be.
* I’m as susceptible to cultural paranoia as anyone, disgusted by everything from the “Saw” movies to the use of “impact” as a verb, and so I need to remind myself often to get a grip and look closer. For example, I think online gaming is an infantilizing distraction from reality, because of my reservations about virtual digital life and what it does to our brains and social abilities, and what I’ve seen it do to some students. On the other hand, it obviously didn’t stop a gamer (who’s also a social worker) from seeking office and running a successful campaign, and time will be the judge of how good at dealing with office she is. I’d challenge the global-warming deniers and “forcible rape” redefiners in her opponent’s party to prove that their hold on reality is any more secure.
* In the Nov. 12, 2012 New Yorker, Nehad Abou el Komsan, who cofounded the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, describes the disingenuous political uses of religion she’s seeing, where hot-button terms or issues substitute for real problems: “Women are an area where you can plant a visible flag. Making women wear the hijab, for example, is easier than dealing with health insurance. It’s a very quick change and it has a clear impact. In the longer term, they control society by controlling women.”