We humans

The real divide in the US isn’t red vs. blue

Aug 18, 2016 /

The following piece was written as a response to the TED talk by New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas, A letter to those who have lost in our era.

Whenever it comes up for the first time in a conversation, it is always met with either laughter or disbelief. People point to my clothes, my leftist politics, my lack of twang to argue that I could not, in fact, have been born and raised in Texas.

“Well, it’s a miracle you turned out this way,” I was once told by my editor in a newsroom in Washington, DC, as if either through the grace of God or dumb luck I have managed to escape the South and reach more enlightened, educated, liberal company.

I always joke my way out of these uncomfortable conversations — with my best drawl, of course — and make a George W. Bush reference, or say the real miracle is that I only own one pair of cowboy boots.

In doing so, though, I am shying away from a dialogue that desperately needs to occur. The fact that I’m from Fort Worth is not what’s important; Texas could be replaced with Kingston upon Hull or the working-class districts of Paris. And increasingly this conversation is not just between me and my boss; it’s coming from politicians, academics and columnists.

It goes something like this: White privilege is being threatened socially, politically and economically. Educated, liberal white people in major cities understand this. White people in other areas are afraid of this, and refuse to change. They are lashing out at immigrants and trying to close borders. They’re becoming dangerous.

The tension has been building, and after Brexit and the rise of Trump, it can no longer be dismissed with jokes about “rednecks” or “chavs.”

The tension has been building, and after Brexit and the rise of Trump, it can no longer be dismissed with jokes about “rednecks” or “chavs.” Now, we are all forced to address our fellow citizens.

I completely agree with these calls for dialogue. These conversations need to happen. Their absence will be filled with violence. But here’s the thing: If we say we want a conversation, are we actually prepared to have it? If we’re writing an open letter to the “other side,” do we have the courage to deliver it to them? I don’t mean to an angry mob (or a faceless media audience) — I mean one-on-one, over coffee or a beer, as a conversation.

How we approach a conversation shapes its outcome. If we approach it as a place to make unilateral statement, or with even a hint of arrogance or disdain, it will be seen as validation of resentment and fear. People can tell when they’re being talked at. But if we approach a new conversation as potential allies, it might take us all in different direction.

To be clear, I don’t think this is the kind of conversation everyone is ready to have. I’m not saying we could sit down and have a dialogue with people at US Republican political rallies who yell racist, misogynist, and homophobic slurs and provoke violence. I don’t think we can sway Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric with a properly constructed argument.

But most of us, on all sides, are ready for this dialogue. We see why it’s necessary. We know we are simply not in a place, politically or culturally, where we can continue to write off entire populations of people, or make generalizations about their ability to understand the world, based on the words of political opportunists who hope to capitalize on fear.

When it comes down to it, at the personal level, our values and concerns — whether left or right, New York City or Hull– are not that different from each other’s.

15 years ago, I began writing about how the War on Terrorism has eroded civil liberties, focusing on how political activists have been labeled as “terrorists.” It’s a controversial topic, to put it mildly, and you might expect my audience to be exclusively liberal. But over the years I have been reminded over and over again that we all could be reaching a much wider audience, if only we gave the “other side” more credit.

If we continue to ignore or talk down to our fellow citizens, others will hear it and be emboldened.

For instance, my recent TED talk, The secret US prisons you’ve never heard of before, exposed experimental prison units on US soil that overwhelmingly house Muslim prisoners. The talk prompted interview requests from progressive media outlets, as one might expect. But I was also invited by a slew of right-wing and conservative Christian talk radio programs to talk about the issue with their audiences. No matter the outlet, the response was the same: an overriding concern for civil liberties, human rights, and checks and balances on government power.

I’m convinced now, more than ever, that the real divide in the United States is not between red state and blue state. It’s not between those who shop at Walmart and those who shop at co-ops, or between those who drive pickup trucks and those who drive hybrids.

It’s between all of us and people in power.

If we truly want to move beyond the dominant political narrative of us versus them, we must begin by listening, identifying common ground, and speaking to shared values.

If we don’t, there are others who will fill that void and use it to fit their own desire for power. Donald Trump and pro-Brexit campaigns capitalized on fears about job security and placed the blame on immigrants and refugees, rather than CEOs and politicians. Rather than talk about the real threats to America’s freedom, such as the surveillance state or a War on Terrorism that never ends, we’re told it’s “radical Islam.” And instead of holding Wall Street accountable for the economic crisis, the solution, we’re told, is that we need to build a wall along the border.

Much has been made about Donald Trump’s political dog-whistling to condone attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters, encourage gun owners to target Hillary Clinton, or motivate anti-Semitic followers.

But the silent elitism of liberals is no dog whistle. It’s a bullhorn. If we continue to ignore or talk down to our fellow citizens, others will hear it and be emboldened.

Just a few weeks ago, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke announced he is running for political office in the US Senate. This is how fascism rises, how racists regroup: by selling their hateful world views to those who feel marginalized and are in search of answers.

Unless we speak with humility and conviction, and have the courage to step outside our comfort zones and to address people as individuals, rather than presumed ideologies, these are the voices that will be heard.