Hello neighbor,” Sally says smilingly.
Neighbor looks with blank-eyed and wary stare and says, “Bitch, I don’t want anything to do with a Republican Mc’Palin supporter like you.”
Sally frowns at her McCain/Palin yard sign. Perhaps Mr. Neighbor was just stoned. (We all know how violent marijuana makes people.) He is after all one of those dangerous pinko-punk-rock-loving-hippie-liberals.
Sally is aghast. She knew never to trust communists, but her church-leaders have been encouraging prayers and tolerance towards neighbors like Mr. Marijuana.
What to do now?
Mr. Neighbor spits on Sally’s white, picketed fence and poodle named Penelope, and Sally clutches her rosary beads.
Too much? I don’t think so.
Granted, political demographics differ in every community. Some metropolitan areas have greater cultural diversity, greater economic diversity, greater religious diversity, and better-integrated populations than others, and this is reflected in a wide range of health in the social dialogues of communities across our nation and the globalized world.
And yet (presumably because of the volume of varied media forms and homogenized content we consume) we inevitably grow to narrow our social lenses of perception to national and global issues: to figures like Obama, to unhappy issues like nationalized banks, “corporate people” and their unlimited ability to influence our “democratic processes,” Wall Street, and a health care bill that has been beaten to death by the absurdities of special interests, partisan politics and our Congress.
As we’re captivated by the monstrous and incessant media drone on our smartphones, laptops, TVs, and Kindles we do one of several things:
a. choose to “not give a shit about any of it,” and become apathetic about all “politics” because politicians are corrupt, nothing we do can make any kind of difference ever, and the world is basically fucked anyway. (Folks who choose “a.” then have the supplemental choice of how to cope with apathy. Option 1. is reality TV, 2. is sex, 3. is drugs and alcohol, and 4. is abstinence. Have fun.)
b. become grumpy, complain a lot about the pop culture issues of the day, do nothing.
c. become the wired politico playing the Washington DC video game through the lens of Huffington Post, CSPAN, and WordPress.com.
Sure, there are other options, but I never claimed to be scientific. Here’s one more: regardless of your multiple choice selection, d. applies to all media consumers: As national and international issues dominate media, and are broken down into party-shaped, soundbyte-sized boxes, our notions of place, person, and community become suffocated in the disillusioning static of it all.
Can anyone reading this rightly define “community?” If you define it as the people around you, please answer my supplemental question of whether you actually know and like your neighbors. If you think community is where you’re from or where you live, do you still live in the town in which you were born? Will you be living where you are now in 50 years? Do people generally have much respect for people who spend all their lives living in one place? If you’re one of those folks who gets excited about “internet community,” you’re gonna have to buy me a shot of whiskey, and convince me that Second Life, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz (Chat, Wave, Talk, Mail, etc. etc.) actually lead to genuine discovery and meaningful human interaction, and don’t in fact increase human alienation, insecurity, vanity, and disconnection from our real lives and our ruddy, turbulent earth.
However you choose to define (or not define) community, I think we can at least conclude that a community is composed of people, and a healthy community consists of positive interactions between people. Oh-so-pervasive-partisanship, in my experience, contributes to negative and divisive interactions between people that are largely based on imposed, unreal differences in values, when in fact, humans generally have the same basic needs, values, and desires.
But what is partisanship? Merriam Webster defines partisanship as “1: a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially: one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance, 2 a: a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy, b: a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines.”
Factions, blind prejudice, unreasoning allegiance, and, um, war… that’s the stuff that our elections and our national and local political scenes are made of. What does that make of us and our communities once things like elections are over, and our yard signs come down?
We all wear the political and social labels that our mothers, fathers, Facebooks, Twitters, TVs, iphones, newspapers and magazines give us like tacky costume jewelry, all the while conveniently forgetting that our Republican (or Democrat, or Libertarian, or Tea Party, or Green, or Socialist or Anarchist or Communist or Independent or Apolitical or any other party-labeled) co-workers, schoolmates and neighbors are people not terribly unlike ourselves, despite differences in party. We forget that we each live in a place, in a unique, local community that is ripe with untapped possibilities for real, sustainable, beneficial progress and change that is far more believable and easy to achieve than the over-broadcast illusions of Democracy in Washington.
In Santa Fe, I can get by wearing my art-school-reject-clothes, and live a relatively comfortable life as a 23-year-old, occasionally pink-haired freak (although I do sometimes attract wary stares on my less conventionally fashionable days, when I run into suit-wearing Santa Feans on my bicycle). This place is generally more tolerant of creative weirdos like myself than other places in our nation, and yet we still suffer from the problem of static public discourse. The fact that 64% of registered voters in Santa Fe County are Democrats, while 17% are Republican, another 17% decline to state, and 2% are registered in other third parties says something about the diversity of our local political dialogue: it’s pretty one-sided. Experience living in this artsy, bumper-sticker-loving, Whole Foods-shopping town will back that up. The fact that only 27% of registered voters voted in Santa Fe’s recent municipal election, says something more: either most registered voters don’t know that local politics exist, or they don’t care.
The one-sidedness of Santa Fe can sure as hell be refreshing, until it isn’t. Ever sit and think about what being surrounded by people who mostly share the same political ideology will do to you? When you’re in the majority, and you have all of your beliefs constantly affirmed by the people around you, you cease to be challenged, and you may even start to believe that you’re right, and “the others” are wrong. You might start to think that the “others” are bad people too.
We unchallenged Democrats living in Santa Fe are at risk for becoming quite comfortable with the status quo, because the world doesn’t seem so bad when living in a sunny, mountainous adobe bubble laden with liberals, prayer flags and lithium water. When you do your yoga, drink your wheatgrass, and walk your dog in the dog park every temperate, beautiful day, it gets deceptively easy to forget or ignore things like the fact that Americans are still killing and being killed in the Middle East, and that we’ve been doing this for more than 8 years now. It gets easier and easier to feel like bumper stickers and Facebook causes are activism enough. It’s a cake walk, apparently, to forget or ignore municipal elections like 73% of Santa Fe’s registered voters did a few weeks ago, or think that you don’t need to ever cast a vote, or think that casting a vote for Obama more-than-fulfilled your lifetime’s civic duty, or think that you have no civic responsibility at all.
Yes, I know, I’m speaking in reprehensible generalities, and possibly pissing you off, dear reader, but that’s part of the point of this. You see, we’re globalized people, perpetually devouring national and global politics, labels, and ideas (intentionally or not), and we impose these divisive and disingenuous labels and ideas onto ourselves, others, our communities, and everything, to the detriment of all of the above. This helps us to forget that:
1. we’re all just people living in the world, and any or all of our neighbors (even the McCain/Palin-supporting ones) can become our allies and our friends
2. that we can make an impact in our local communities just by consciously participating in them, and that’s where the seedbed of all significant social change really is
3. that meaningful human interaction and challenging discourse are part of what makes us real, makes life enthralling, and makes our communities diverse, productive, and welcoming
4. that complaining about the world and doing nothing does nothing but make complainers and the people who hear them whine more unhappy
and once more: 5. we can make an impact in our local communities just by consciously participating in them, and we should intentionally participate, because we’re human, because we care, because we’re alive, and because we all have valuable opinions and thoughts and experiences that can and should contribute to positive social progress for all of us.
Imagine what the world would be like if everybody voted in their local elections, participated in their democratic processes, talked to their neighbors, respectfully dialogued, and productively walked their talk for every complaint and idea they ever uttered. I think we’d see profound, believable, grassroots change and evolution, action more real and positive than anything any President or Congress could ever achieve. The key to this is in throwing away divisive things like our partisan weapons and social stereotypes, opening ourselves and our minds to different ideas and people, and changing the way we engage with our neighbors, ourselves, and our communities. This is easier said than done, but every movement starts somewhere, with some simple, revolutionary act of consciousness and kindness.