(Appeared in The Christian Science Monitor November 26, 2004)
The other night – it seems now like years ago and not weeks – a political placard was ripped from my yard and strewn in the bushes. Defiantly replacing it on the crisp morning after, I recalled how, a decade earlier, I used to paint over the wall outside my garden apartment in Los Angeles each week. Living at the epicenter of the gang culture’s new emergence, someone was always scrawling a gang-tag on it.
According to clever analysts, political America is now “polarized.” It is divided into the heartland and the two coasts, fighting like the Bloods and the Crips. City and country. Various maps floating around the Internet show an America split into two nations, two tiny Blue islands, and a large Red one. The rhetoric remains harsh, and includes calls from the Blue side to secede, and from the Red side to “curb stomp” the Blues. The common thread is that the enemy is somewhere else.
But President Bush’s best improvement over his last outing came among urban voters. According to Gallup, his vote share among those city dwellers improved 9 percent over his 2000 performance. And those red, rural voters? Six percent fewer voted Red in 2004 than did in 2000. Every community, every state contains people who voted for both presidential candidates. Even mine.
Indeed, there is already an antipolarization backlash.
There are other maps circulating, purple ones that mix blue and red in proportion to how each region voted. Some people talk of a “purple nation.”
They make the point that we really aren’t so far apart, even on the so-called wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion. All we need do is realize that.
But what of me? I am not a tepid purple, 51 percent red and 48 percent blue. The views I hold, I hold strongly. But neither am I a Crip or a Blood.
During the gang heyday,young street warriors did not admire strength. Instead, it was being “crazy,” willing to do anything to pursue the glory of the do-rag color that gave you power.
Zealotry was the coin of the realm. In today’s political landscape, riddled by a kind of gang warfare, it’s the same way. Partisan zealots have taken over public life. Fancy talk of “working together” has been curb-stomped.
Walking my children to school, on the Thursday after the Tuesday, we passed handfuls of folks. We smiled at them, waved, and nodded. To some, those we know by face or name, we said, “Good morning.”
There are some whom I’m certain disagree with me, as I do them. They, too, got a smile, and gave one back. We didn’t stop to hash out gay marriage.
This silence is not the silence of the stifled. It’s a good thing. We live together. The needs of our community are closer to home than the vast questions about who voted for whom nationally. Here at home, there are safety problems as people speed through the neighborhood avoiding congestion on larger streets, there are homeless shelters that need my support, there is my school trying its best and fighting a losing battle to keep up with all the demands we’ve heaped upon it.
I live with these people. I talk with them. What will it take for us to be able to work together?
At Kennesaw State University recently, I attended a conference featuring Arun Gandhi – founder and president of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson.
“Turn to your neighbor,” he told us, “and make a fist. Pretend you are holding the world’s most valuable diamond.
“Now, neighbor: Try to get the diamond.”
There ensued amusing antics as a roomful of people arm-wrestled. My own neighbor good-naturedly stabbed my hand with a butter knife, to hoots of laughter at our table. I gave up the diamond.
After a decent interval, Mr. Gandhi raised his hand and waited. We stopped struggling and looked to the podium. “Tell me honestly: How many of you simply asked your neighbor if they would please give you the diamond?”
Silence. He nodded slowly, as if he rarely got much response to that question.
To my neighbor, I’d become the fist that needed prying open. An object. Too many go through their days surrounded by drivers, or shoppers, or walkers, or service providers. Objects, not people. Red- or Blue-staters to be defeated. Everyone a fist.
But I live with these people. What will it take for us to be able to work together? Few who control the national agenda offer much in the way of solutions. Their battle lines remain firm. Now, anger remains.
But on the quiet sidewalks of my community, it doesn’t come out as we talk to one another.
What it will take is the kind of thing that happens on the streets every day, if only we will see it. What it will take is for people to confront and address their differences in a way that allows for neither simple escape into stereotypes nor for escalation into shouting matches.
Sound naive? Impossible?
As I sat outside with neighbors one sunny afternoon last week and discussed our school, as our children played, no one was talking politics – at least not the kind of politics you read about in the daily papers. These are the same people I waved to on my walk. We were talking about grades, and homework, and why our kids have to work so hard at such a young age.
We didn’t agree on what should be done. People felt pretty strongly. But no one got up and stalked off. And we began to get somewhere. We all know we’ll still be here together tomorrow, so we stick with it.
Maybe that’s where it starts – with a walk through my neighborhood, and a wave or two.