As the lone (moderate) liberal, I regularly argue politics with my family. My brother and father, both die-hard Republicans, subscribe to the "Everything is going just fine" philosophy, which is maddening, at best. Dad and I used to hold an annual Marijuana Debate until the year I creamed him with stats from the U.S. Department of Health comparing annual deaths from alcohol (500,000,) cigarettes (200,000) and weed (0.) However, last weekend, I had my annual knock-down, drag-out yelling match with my step-brother-in-law, Chris, and I can't stop thinking about it.
Upfront: Chris is a good guy and he always welcomes me back into his home, year after year, despite our blood-curdling yelling matches. Every year, I tell myself I will practice some restraint and poise and every year, we both engage in verbal warfare that usually ends in both of us shaking our heads in bewilderment: "I can't BELIEVE now naive you are!" It usually ends with one of us storming off the scene - this year it was me.
The 2005 match began with the innocent viewing of Ken Burns' documentary on Lewis & Clarke - a topic we are both ravenous about. All it took was one comment from Chris that 'Indians have is so good these days. I can't believe they don't pay taxes . . . ' and we were off and running. We were both sloppy and could not help yelling over one another, which caused, Julie, the woman that connects us, fleeing the scene with her ears covered.
Bottom line, the silliness of the verbage ("Oh yeah? Well, where were the Indians after the hurricane?!? Why didn't they help?!?") did not bother me nearly as much as the idea that we are a country divided and all the "UNITED WE STAND" posters stood as mockeries to our house in turmoil. That evening, Chris and I were a perfect example of how lots of yelling and finger pointing happens but nothing really changes and, in the end, neither side conceeds anything and nothing ever changes. We've lost the art of healthy dialogue at a time when we need it more than ever.
Before I headed to the airport the next morning, Chris and I mugged for a photo to document our battle. Fists up and trying not to laugh, I had to wonder if things could be so easily fixed in the House, the Senate or other, less tangible chasms, like the economic divide, racial groups and the myriad of religions in this country.
Seems we have to start with our own families. Though I've been reading that brilliant book, 'Don't Think of an Elephant', that helps liberals talk successfully to conservatives without wanting to strangle them. It makes heaps of sense, though, evidently, I have yet to put it into practice. Instead, I wonder how I am going to have a conversation with my brother, Robert, who once said that he didn't believe global warming was really happening. His source? Michael Crichton, a man who writes fiction for a living.
Mind you, my brother lives on a Mississippi bayou and sells real estate along the Gulfport/Biloxi coast so certain realities are hard to swallow. Last I heard, he was reveling in the 'urban survival' world he now lived in and had purchased bulldozers for a new land-clearing business he'd created post-Katrina. He's a red-blooded Republican captitalist opportunist, that one, and I couldn't possibly love him more. I just wish there weren't such high political walls between us.
I'm thinking next year, I'll invite Chris to a formal debate where we each talk for two minutes while the other one shuts up. Julie can sit there with a timer (if she's willing) and perhaps a whip. Feisty, know-it-alls like Chris and I need perimeters, clearly. Still, at the end of the day, I have to admire those I argue with because we have something in common: We both love our country ferociously (hence the anger) and know deep, deep down (some, less deep than others) that our country is very divided, which saps our strength. The whole world saw it last week and now everyone knows.
Don't know how it's going to get well again but talking isn't enough. We need to start listening.