We are stuck.
On one hand liberals, or progressives, or left-wing, or Democrats, or whatever you want to call them; are hell-bent on subdividing our nation into ever tightly defined ‘identities.’ According to them, I am a cis-gender gay white male occupying land once inhabited by the Massachusett people who uses ‘he’ series pronouns, recycles, doesn’t buy meat, and rides a bicycle.
On the other hand, conservatives, or traditionalists, or right-wing, or Republicans, or whatever you want to call them; are hell-bent on measuring liberty and justice for all according to a yardstick ticked off in the 1950’s. According to them I am a successful property owner who racked up a big bank balance without government handouts, who invests on Wall Street, listens to country music, watches Chicago P.D., and drinks PBR.
Both of these synopses of my personal life are accurate; neither is complete. Similarly, the world views ascribed by the two poles of our political arena each hold some truth, but they are selective truths. The Left’s constant parsing into ever-tighter identities pulls us further from a collective identity; while the Right’s vision of a unified America demeans most anyone who is not a heterosexual white Christian.
I believe in Martin Luther King Jr.’s adage, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” These days, that arc seems mighty long and shallow.
Political theories, and their power, run in cycles, often 40 to 50 years in duration. The excesses of the 1890’s Gilded Age led to the 1930’s Depression, which realigned our politics along the New Deal. The idea of government providing a base of social cohesion for all appealed to the majority of Americans, so long as that cohesion was predominately Christian and white. During the 1960’s and 70’s, Blacks and Browns and gays clamored for a slice of the Great Society until Nixon’s “silent majority” commandeered the conversation by electing Ronald Reagan in 1980. Ever since, our federal government parrots getting smaller (despite growing bigger), while it delivers fewer services, reduces individual protections, and increases corporate influence under the guise of free enterprise. Gilded Age 2.0.
There will be a shift in our political direction. Whether it occurs in response to outlawed abortions, or negligent climate response, increased economic inequality, or erosion of personal freedoms, I do not know. Whether we can vote ourselves back into a semblance of democracy or the US will actually suffer a full-blown authoritarian regime, I do not know. Whether our discord results in armed conflict or we can find stasis through peaceful resolution, I do not know. What I do know is, given the duration of the current rightward flow, a correction is due; and given the speed at which our government is moving contrary to the will of a majority of citizens, that reckoning may be soon.
Along with new politics will come a new narrative. The collective story of who we are and what we believe. I don’t subscribe to either of the current narratives because “diversity” is not a sufficient rallying call to bring people together; and “MAGA” is an illusion built upon fear.
I propose a new narrative, one that’s both aspirational and encompassing. Although its roots come from two experiences in an unlikely place: Haiti.
I travelled to Haiti often after the 2010 earthquake, designed and supervised construction of two buildings there, and lived in a mission run by evangelical Christians. Toward the end of my time, they asked me to preach at their Sunday service. I asked, “Why do you invite me, when you don’t agree with much about my life?” The response: “Because when we needed help, you came.”
A less-rosy corollary: I never met a Haitian who described himself as gay. People knew what the term meant. Men had sex with men. Men were nelly and everyone knew it. But no one applied the label ‘gay’ to themselves, nor tacked it on anyone else. People accepted, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But I witnessed how it hindered folks. The men on the DL. The women they married for cover.
The first vignette betrays the arrogance of affluence. People in Haiti know they cannot make it alone, while the United States is so wealthy we imagine that we don’t need others; so confident we actually believe our autonomy myth. The second story illustrates the corrosive power of secrets. When we do not allow people to be themselves, fully and open, everyone is harmed.
Today the United States is so puffed up in our affluence (more illusion than reality, but that’s another essay), we feel free to divide and divide and divide without realizing that every time we cordon off ourselves, we forfeit allies, we forfeit support, we forfeit each other.
The wealthier a nation is—in every measure—the better it can embrace a full array of opinion and choice; the less it need to dwell in want or fear. It is time for us to reframe our divisions as a sign of our strength. Embrace that our affluence liberates us to be open and inclusive. Flip the dueling narratives of fear and division on their head. Acknowledge that social change is not moral decline. Accept each person’s way of being as valid, deserving respect.
My new narrative: The United States is so bountiful, and so secure, that we welcome every person to be their true selves.
Quixotic? Perhaps. Idealistic? Sure. Achievable? I believe so.
The key to the new narrative’s success: mutual respect. So let’s step down from the lofty to the mundane and explore how mutual respect might actually work. Consider the pronoun conundrum that we encounter daily in left-leaning cities, a ‘problem’ that barely deserves to register on any list of the major challenges we face, yet is an everyday irritation—sometimes confrontation—that wears us down. Some people want to be referred to as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she.’ It’s a construction that’s never escaped my mouth with any grace. But I figure, if it’s important to this person to claim a unique identity, I can try. That is me showing respect. But when I fail to properly execute a change in language that’s existed for thousands of years, don’t get all militant: cut me some slack. Understand that you are asking others to make special accommodation for your preferences; asking us to make a conscious change to something which has been reflexive for centuries. Realize that my mistake is not personal, or even a microaggression. It’s simply human. Respect me in return.