The adage about the more things change they more them remain the same is particularly apt this election cycle. I found this essay I wrote two rounds ago; after the 2004 Bush / Kerry election. It is as relevant, or even more so, in the partison sniping that characterizes our current election. I urge everyone to participate in the process yet remain respectful to each other’s opinion, for that is democracy at its most sublime.
_____November 5, 2004__________
The electoral collage map from November 2 displayed the country as cohesive blocks of Red and Blue, more cleanly drawn than in any recent election. Red claimed the center of the land, Blue held the edges. Blue triumphed in the cities; Red prevailed in the suburbs. Blue won the richest states while Red took the poorest. The most highly educated states went Blue, the less educated went Red. One can interpret this map of a country divided through reasoned analysis, or spin the division into shrill hyperbole. Was this brawn besting brains, as the hard scrapple workers of the Heartland trumped the Coastal intellectual elites? Did the fearful clinging to the land vanquish the urban hip? Have the God-inspired core of this great nation beaten back the evil heathen fringe?
I don’t have to understand the Bush/Kerry electoral map to understand the division. It thrives in my own family. My brother lives in Oklahoma, a state with a fully Republican Congressional delegation and a 66% voter share for George W. Bush. A state so Red, it has a river by that name. I live in Massachusetts, a state with a correspondingly Democratic Congressional delegation and a 63% plurality for John Kerry, an enduring legacy for the term Boston Blue-Blood. The colors of the electoral map are mere abstractions of the opposing realities we live every day, my brother and me.
More than 40% of Oklahomans are Evangelical Christians, and my brother is one. He left Catholicism some twenty years ago, found his true Jesus, and has lived by His Word ever since. The Word has moved him into and out of several Evangelical congregations, spoken to him in tongues, prompted him to visit Creationist sites that ‘prove’ the world was made just 6,000 years ago, and inspired him to hose down his house to ward off the fire of Lucifer. The Word has also given him a firm rudder from which to navigate his life. He is more stable, more productive, more complete since he found the Way. He spends his Sunday mornings in church praising this vital force in his life.
Less then three percent of people in Massachusetts are Evangelical Christians. When I left the Catholic church twenty-five years ago, I did not replace it with another institution to define my morals. My life is governed by personal conscience and the Golden Rule, a system that acknowledges the grayness of human behavior rather seeking absolute truths. I’m sure there is something out there bigger than us, but I don’t believe any religion knows what it is, or how it should be honored, any better than I can celebrate on a Sunday morning walk in the park.
Just over 20 % of Oklahomans have college degrees, below the national average. My brother didn’t need one to build a successful cable television business. He started with a pick-up truck and a ladder and a quick shimmy up poles. Now he has 20 contract installers. He travels the country in his pick-up supervising their work, gets a cut rate for extended stays at Doubletree Suites, and always finds a place that has good draft and fast burgers.
More than 35% of the people in Massachusetts have a college degree, the highest percent in the nation. I went even further, collecting a pair Master’s Degrees to become an architect. I travel to major medical centers to design hospitals, stay at boutique hotels and after a day of travel I usually skip dinner to go to the gym.
Despite living in the state with the third highest divorce rate, my brother is married to a devoted wife who stays home and lends a hand in running his business. When he’s on the road, they call each other five or six times a day. When he’s home, they are inseparable. They have five children and six grandchildren, none of whom graduated college, all of whom live in Oklahoma and are involved in the family business.
Even though I live in the state with the lowest divorce rate, my marriage failed. My former wife is a physician and our two children shuttle between our houses. We talk on the phone five or six times a month, coordinating our work, travel, and child care schedules. We see each other at school concerts and baseball games with the ease of old acquaintances that have long since moved past love or rancor. Our children plan to go to college, and it often seems the main criterion is that college be far from home.
Oklahoma spends $5,533 per student on public education. My brother bypasses the public schools and sends his children to a Christian Academy, where they learn how to live by the Bible. Even though Massachusetts spends a whooping $14,840 per student, the most important thing my children learn at their urban public high school, is how to live by their wits.
My brother lives the American dream in a sprawling ranch house with a pool on a golf course. But because Oklahoma has the lowest home appreciation in the country, he doesn’t have much of a nest egg. I live a much older American dream, one born of immigrant families piling into multiple unit houses to gain their foothold. My old house is on a tiny lot, but because Massachusetts has the highest real estate appreciation in the nation, I am swimming in paper wealth.
My brother has one son who has traveled abroad. He served our country with honor in Iraq. My children have been to Europe, to Canada, and to the Caribbean. Next summer we plan to go to Mexico. We don’t know anyone from our town serving in Iraq.
My brother drives a full-size pick-up to work, his wife takes the SUV to Wal-Mart, and he has a Corvette in the garage for tooling around on the weekends. I ride my bicycle to work, I’ve never been in a Wal-Mart, and do weekend errands in my Corolla.
My brother is a compelling storyteller and rock steady after a bottle of wine. I can never remember a punch line and have learned that it’s wise for me to stop after the first beer.
My brother donates his money to his Church. I donate mine to the Public Library and the ACLU.
My brother unwinds by playing golf and watching football, where screaming at the television is mandatory. I unwind by running five miles and attending the theater, where the best performances are met with captivated silence.
We share the same genes, my brother and me, so science informs me that we must have something in common. Our everyday habits reveal none. But deeper down, the similarities exist. We both love and support our families, even as he pulls his close and I set mine loose. We both work hard, putting more into our country’s resources than we withdraw. We are both patriotic, whether by offering our son to support our country’s policies, or offering our voice to question those policies. And we both love each other, thanks to the bond of family. Being brothers is more important than any shared viewpoints or interests.
When I go to Oklahoma to visit my brother and his clan, we talk and laugh and hug. When his family comes to Massachusetts we do the same. Sometimes we talk politics and values. We never change each other’s minds, but we listen politely and even if I don’t believe what he believes, I respect his positions because I know my brother to be a man worth respecting.
My brother saves me from being an erudite Eastern snob. Whenever I find myself in a circle of thin people in black clothes bemoaning how the East Coast should shrug off the rest of the country, I am the voice that argues we cannot dismiss the red center of our country. I get the occasional jeer and have been labeled a defender of redneck religious extremists. But none of these people have ever discussed the Book of Revelation with someone who truly believes, or stood hard against a red clay expanse so wide that it simultaneously humbles and empowers you, or savored the simple joy of a Sonic burger hanging off a tray from the driver’s side window.
I do not pretned to know how we might bridge the gap between the Red States and the Blue States. The differences between us are fundamental. One side believes it knows the truth and the rest of us only need to embrace it; the other side believes in no single truth and is wary of anyone with such simplistic notions. This doesn’t offer us much middle ground. So we must look for what we share more than what divides us. Our freedoms, our efforts, our heritage, our future. These make us family and form the bond that can transcend political sniping. I am less worried about the differences between the Red States and the Blue States than I am about the animosity each holds towards the other. I wish everyone in Massachusetts, or Vermont, or New York, or Connecticut could have a brother in Oklahoma, or Utah, or Idaho, or Nebraska. Then it would be harder for each color to denigrate the other, because each color would be a part of us all.