Living with the American family

Sam Smith, 2005 – Since the election the tone of our Feedback section has become more vituperative that at anytime I can recall. The anger is mostly not coming from the right but from liberal Democrats and is not directed at wrong-headed policies but at – in the opinion of our correspondents – wrong-head people and wrong headed sections of the country, particularly the south.


The irony is that these messages followed a piece in which I suggested that the future of a better politics lay partly in the toleration of some differences in order to unite on other matters, that there was no progress in polarity but rather in unexpected alliances. The first reactions were highly favorable but then began to shift into a crueler rhetoric of a sort that if, say, directed against gays or women, would get one censored or banned on many campuses. I had always assumed that diversity included people who didn’t agree with me; many of our correspondents apparently do not share that view.


My thoughts on this matter stem in part from having lived in a part of the country that is a major target: the south. Washington is not really the south you may say, but I come from a time when it was very much so and my early reporting included covering the city’s struggle to break away from its segregated past and related heritage which dated back as far as the Civil War when over half of the officers in the DC militia resigned and joined the Confederacy.


My experiences, which have ranged from going to a segregated school to working in SNCC, have affected my view of how change is really brought about. For example:


– I have seen Washington break with its segregated past becoming one of the most progressive cities in the country but then turning its back on its hard-won new values to become a corrupt and contented place where ethnic discrimination has been replaced by socio-economic cleansing.


– I have seen people with various degrees of willingness and fairness give up their old ways for something better. I have watched former voices of fairness become corrupt and indifferent.


– I have seen once deep antagonists discover common ground and use it for useful purposes.


– I have seen hate wither and decency sprout, but I have also seen the once fair-minded start to use the sort of slyly invidious distinctions that supported segregation to justify other forms of discrimination.


– I have seen principles and tactics, such as those invoked by Saul Alinsky, bring people together who are theoretically not supposed to be together and form powerful new coalitions. Out of these coalitions, diversity stopped being just a theory and became a personal experience and habit.


I have, as a result, learned to concentrate on specific wrongs at specific times and to expect, indeed try to foster, the unexpected.


It is bad enough when the right engages in slapstick slander against others, but it is scary to see liberal Democrats picking up the habit as well. Are we on our way to a sort of American Bosnia or Middle East?


We do not have to accept insults but that does not mean we have to match them and raise them ten. It is certainly, for example, within the realm of reasonable politics to start a boycott against a city or state that has show rank prejudice against gays, but we must always concentrate our efforts on those in power and not the powerless who, through propaganda and maleducation, have come to believe them.


I once asked the black journalist Chuck Stone how to get along with other Americans. As columnist and senior editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, 75 homicide suspects had surrendered to him personally rather than take their chances with the Philadelphia police department. Stone also negotiated the end of five hostage crises, once at gun point.


He said that he had learned how to listen and to believe in building what he called the “the reciprocity of civility.” His advice for getting along with other Americans: treat them like a member of your family.


Which reminded me of something my father had told us from time to time: “You don’t have to like your relatives, you just have to be nice to them.” It might work with the greater American family as well.


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