A Dispatch from the Divide (Part 3 of 3)

Much airtime has been given over to the suggestion that if we, as a society, would just learn to argue more civilly, things would be better. Congress would compromise, we’d get through awkward Thanksgiving dinners, and the world would be a better place. My experience as a teacher and as a farmer suggest otherwise. Civil disagreement and compromise are not a function of command of language and rhetorical strategy, but they are reflections–good or bad– of our attitudes towards one another. Students do not learn civil disagreement because you give them good argumentative strategies. You teach them to disagree civilly by asking them to work together on common projects. When they come (or are forced) to rely on one another, they learn to respect each other as individuals. That mutual reliance breeds respect and allows for the possibility of civil engagement over difficult issues.

I wonder whether this diagnosis applies to our cultural and political divide. I have learned to respect and am learning to disagree civilly with my conservative neighbors because I first came to rely on them. I needed them, whether to unstick my much too small Toyota Tacoma from a muddy field, or to shelter me under threat of tornado, or to loan me assets even though I might break them. Likewise, I like to think they came to respect my socialist environmentalist pseudo bohemian farming style because they came to rely on me to check on a sick neighbor or offer the strength of my arms (such as it is) when needed. That reliance bred respect. That respect bred affection. I sincerely believe my life is enhanced when I engage with and am challenged by these folks that two years ago seemed quite foreign to me. I am hopeful that I have challenged them in ways similar.

I would not deign to suggest that all it takes to overcome our divisions is to go out and lend a hand to your neighbor once in a while. And, I am keenly aware that my analysis is also limited by my white, anglo-saxon, protestant maleness in this equation. But, the fact that we no longer view those we disagree with as necessary or valuable, does seem to me close to the heart of the issue (maybe the lungs?). That our default mode is to see those on the other side of the divide as unnecessary burdens to progress disturbs me greatly[1]. I am not only fearful of the social consequences, but our failure to recognize our interdependence is a true failure of imagination. That failure of imagination is reflected in the political leaders we elect. There haven’t been more than a handful of American political leaders that have explicitly recognized the interrelation of the problems of the city and the country, of “red and blue” America since Henry Wallace. As Secretary of Agriculture during the New Deal he noticed that there just might be a relationship between rural and urban poverty and crafted the Farm Bill to try to address both. His insistence that all men and women of all races were equal, that the fate of urban and rural peoples were inextricably linked, and that the health of our people and economy was linked to the health of the land was greeted as a threat by both sides of the political divide of that time. Among our current political leaders and in the news media, the dearth of such voices speaks for itself.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that the “truth” or the best set of policies comes from the “middle” of the political spectrum. This is not a call to moderation. But, I am suggesting that the fate of the city and the country are intertwined and that those political leaders that suggest otherwise are either shortsighted or have something to gain by keeping us divided. Finally, as I’ve tried to find some solid footing amidst our recent political turmoil and to come to terms with my own place amidst this division, it strikes me that those of us who find ourselves navigating both sides of the divide[2] have a special responsibility to accept the uncomfortable work of attempting to bridge it. Quite frankly, this sounds more exhausting than even the most backbreaking farm work. But, as any good farmer will tell you, you have to do the work that needs doing, not necessarily the work that you want or planned to do.


[1] Wendell Berry alludes to the consequences of this mentality much more eloquently in his essay “What are People For?”

[2] Especially those of us of privilege that are unlikely to find ourselves under threat over the next four years

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