Not too long ago I found myself in a red—a very deep red—state, for a research trip. It’s the sort of place where they feel compelled to post on the library and museum door, “Firearms Prohibited.”
I was staying at a friendly, small motel that didn’t have a shuttle, so the innkeeper’s husband volunteered to drive me the short distance to the airport for my flight back home.
His Jeep has a bumper sticker with a photo of Obama and the caption. “Communist: Look it Up.”
I don’t think he means it approvingly.
Doesn’t he realize that Communists are now about the least scary people in America? I laugh to myself that he’s bitter because Obama’s too much like a Communist, and I’m bitter because he doesn’t act like one at all—or even like a competent, reliable liberal.
“You travel light,” he says
“Always,” I say. This the last that I’ll see of small talk until the airport.
My driver is a very angry man, politically, and dislikes liberals a great deal. Government stinks, the administration bites, people are lazy, the country a gloomy, unfair declension from its past glory. He brings up Vince Foster, and it feels like the political equivalent of an old Smokey Robinson tune on the radio.
As the conversation progresses he keeps his left hand casually slung on the wheel and waves his right hand in front of my face, to make a point.
I begin to worry. Is he taking me to the airport or to the nearest Liberal Columnists’ Body Parts Landfill, or the Commie Organ Recycling Center? Is he doing this to me because he’s read something I’ve written? It’s not at all likely, let’s face it, but it could happen.
At what point is it prudent to try to escape, and would my stupid-phone get 911 reception out here, and do they even have 911 reception or is that some Blue State liberal thing?
This is a problem of everyday American life, as well as politics, the navigation of immovable political battlements, on the rare occasions when either Red Citizen or Blue Citizen finds himself outside of his usual habitat or comfortable feedback loop.
I don’t want to be disagreeable, especially with an extremely agitated man behind the wheel, driving across mountain paths, but I want to represent for my political people, too, and not be a total coward.
I’ve lost the ingenious skill that my 82-year old mother has always had, of making a facial gesture and an empathetic if not sympathetic murmur and nod, a gesture of acknowledgment but not endorsement.
My mother’s wordlessly elegant and perfect gesture, if it had to be written out, would go something like this: “I acknowledge by this blankly neutral smile and nod, and my noncommittal ‘hmmmm,’ that you are saying something to me, but it is something that I can neither endorse honestly by the dictates of conscience, nor contradict vehemently by the dictates of good manners. So I am going to do this gesture, instead, in hopes that you change the topic, and recognize that although we entirely disagree, and/or you are a crazy person, I see that you are human, and will give you this acknowledgment, and I hope that you do the same for me.”
We need that gesture back.
Having lost my mother’s knack, I rely on another tack. I pluck at the threads of agreement that I can find, to avoid slogging into trench warfare over what are by now almost intellectual clichés of rage.
And by the end of a short ride we’ve casually amassed some areas of agreement along the way. We agree that immigrants in the U.S. work very hard, that we deplore agribusiness and manure—manure, that is, that runs into lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, and destroys beautiful places. We agree enthusiastically that if we were in Congress we would be hanging our heads in shame at our inability to do or accomplish anything. I learn that back east, Vermont senators are under the sticky thumb of Big Ice Cream, which sounds eminently plausible to me.
We agree heartily that we wish we would get told the hard truth by politicians, since neither of us is dumb, after all, and we’re quite sure that we could handle it…Although for him the truth he yearned to hear was that Hillary Clinton had shot Vince Foster in the head in a state park, while my truth would be that government is in the tank for Wall Street.
It’s not bad, actually. We agree on more than I would have thought, and this is only a short ride. I don’t know if we really can live in the same country. I don’t know if in any meaningful way we are living in the same country now.
I’ve never been happier to see biplanes, puddle-jumpers, and a terminal. He’s driving in the right direction!
“Hey, when you’re in the plane, sit in the window seat,” he tells me in a milder, calmer tone as I walk off to the terminal. “You can look out and see the trails. I don’t have a horse yet, but I’m getting one. I hike the trails all the time.”
“I will. You should keep hiking. Forget about DC. It’s hopeless, and vile. And don’t have a heart attack.”
There is this small thing, at least, that isn’t stated but is clearly sensed, and conveyed: we don’t actually want to dislike each other. It’s a start. And the trails were indeed stunning, when viewed from above.