By Rodney Ferguson
Winter in America
And ain't nobody fighting
'Cause nobody knows what to save
- Gil Scott-Heron
The lyrics to the 1974 song seem very appropriate to most of my progressive and liberal leaning friends. The absolutely dismal results of this election point to an electorate disdainful of the choices left to it, the political parties lack the wherewithal to help their constituencies, and a country torn apart by mistrust, miscommunication, and misanthropy.
Re-enter Living Room Conversations (LRC), an organization founded by progressives and conservatives hoping that dialogue can heal some of the rifts that this election has made blatantly obvious. Actually, LRC has been around for quite a while, but this most recent event, where there are more than a 100 folks talking politics at the same time over coffee and munchies, was something new.
Given that this event happened in Berkeley where the gnashing of teeth over Trump's election could be heard on some exoplanet, the conversations at each of the tables was lively if not as politically diverse as the normal LRC events. However, there were token representatives from the red end of the political spectrum sprinkled throughout the room.
We were gathered at tables of about six and set to follow the LRC rules for engagement (rules that sum up to be respectful). My table was populated with young and older liberals, comfortably chatting away about ourselves, what brought us to the event, and how we were so devastated about the election. Then one of the facilitators of the event, a conservative, asks if he can join our group. Now we're excited. Let's get this party started...
Now this dude says that he's fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Booo...! We wanted a climate change denying, immigrant hating, Islamophobiac, misogynic, racist, who wants to bomb babies, and bring on the Apocalypse just to prove that the Bible was right all along. Instead, this guy is affable, reasonable, and get this, intelligent. Once again, foiled by LRC!!
Okay, the conversation, predictably centered around Mr. Nice Guy (officially libertarian). The big question was why did folks vote for Trump. Translated in to Berkeley speak: How the f#$k could any person with half a brain vote for that fascist a-hole. But of course we knew better than to ask it that way. We were polite, like the rules say. The answers were predictable, but coming from a real human being who is sipping coffee with us, we nodded our heads in our California "I hear you, man" way. But when he said that reasonable Trump voters just discounted Trump's most outlandish positions, quotes, and behavior as mere theater, a line had been crossed. We were genuinely surprised that "Make America Great Again" was seen as a mere rallying cry by the Right, much akin to Obama's "Yes We Can" or "Change" or "Hope" is seen by the Left. Oh no, we said. "Make America Great Again" rings of return of the good of old days of Jim Crow, internment camps, women re-relegated to second-class citizenship, or even worse, to the Holocaust or slavery. His recent appointments only confirm our suspicions. Mr. Libertarian, alone, out-manned and out-gunned, had to admit that he was a little worried too. You see our conservative friend, in his self-appointed role as Republican-whisperer, had to help us understand where Trump voters were coming from. He did an admirable job, but the problem is, no one really likes Trump, and not many more like Hillary. Democracy writ large let both sides down. Lack of choice on one side coupled with machine politics on the other lead to this sad state of affairs.
Living Room Conversations to the rescue?! Who knows. If there were millions of conversations in living rooms, cafes, amphitheaters, and/or online, like Joan, the LRC co-founder hopes, will America come together, will we find good candidates, will we have honest, open discussions, will we find common ground, will we save American from corruption and civic decay? Once again, who knows!! All I can say is, even in the bluest city in America, a few well-meaning conservatives can break bread with us and help us come to grips with an America that we barely knew existed, and if we did, ran from in hopes of finding utopia. Now, it looks like utopia may have to include understanding the beleaguered white underclass, the angry overtaxed middleclass, and the alt-right hate class.
But understanding doesn't mean that this state of affairs has to become the new normal. Understanding means knowing your enemies. Our enemies, for the Right or Left, are not people. Our enemies are what they have always been: poverty, unfairness, inequality, war, bad actors, ecological disaster, insecurity and ignorance. In order to solve these problems, we have to understand each other's frames of reference. Fake news won't help us, memes won't inform us, New Yorker cartoons won't enlighten us, even books won't save us. No technology will help us understand each other better than old-fashioned conversation, regardless of the medium. Maybe with an honest conversation or two, or maybe, two million, we will not have to move to Paris for springtime.
Formerly with the U.S. Department of Education, Rodney Ferguson works for Literacy for Every Adult Project at the Richmond (California) public library. He recently published a book, Being and Happiness and enjoys blogging and teaching GED students on his Youtube channel.