A number of readers and friends have asked recently why I don’t take a break from writing about stray dogs and dilly beans and weigh in on what’s happening in the political world. The short answer is that, although this column invites me to write at a very personal level, I am first and foremost a journalist. I value my position at the Bangor Daily News and the opportunity it affords me to shine light on the issues that matter to us all, whether it’s civil rights, environmental protection or access to health care. I strive for credibility, and I keep my opinions to myself.
But, like many of you, I am deeply interested in what’s happening in Washington as the administration transitions. This past week has provided plenty of evidence that Americans of all stripes are paying attention and speaking their minds.
My Facebook feed has become a tsunami of political diatribe, personal despair, vicious satire, calls to action, smug told-ya-so’s, petitions to sign, causes to fund and occasional sharing of responsible reporting from trustworthy news sources. Several times, fires have flared up when one of my more outspoken friends takes issue with another; I see this as a sign of a healthy balance among my connections, although I try to intervene before things get bloody.
It doesn’t end at social media, of course. I was on the phone earlier this week with a customer service representative from my cellphone service carrier. He had a lovely deep voice, a soft, southern accent and a friendly manner. More to the point, he was doing a bang-up job of resolving my problem.
Then, during a silence while we waited for some information to process, he asked, “What did you think about all those protesters in Washington after the inauguration?”
“I thought it was … pretty amazing,” I answered cautiously, surprised that he would bring it up. “How about you?”
“I think they should get over it,” he said, inviting my agreement. “The election’s over. Get a life.”
Right, I thought, and what if, hypothetically, I disagreed? What if I took offense right now and told him so? Would he stop being so helpful? Would I switch providers to one whose workers shared my views?
Then, at the dentist’s office, I found myself in a slightly one-sided conversation with my friendly hygienist about the rapid-fire changes happening in public policy. We didn’t go into any depth — my mouth was full of sharp instruments and gauze, for one thing, and she was deft and professional enough to steer us into more neutral territory. Our talk switched over to the weather outside, which was indisputably nasty.
But it got me wondering about my dentist, who has been caring for my family’s teeth for decades and whom I like tremendously. I make some assumptions about his politics, but we’ve never really gotten into it. What if I didn’t agree with his choice for president or his political ideals? Would I switch dentists? How about my financial adviser, whom I trust to invest my money wisely and conscientiously for my eventual retirement, or my neighborhood mechanic, who is steadfast, honest and capable?
I’ve been known, rarely, to take my business elsewhere when a company has been very public about its politics, its religious perspectives or the way it treats its employees. What if I only did business with companies whose values aligned with my own? What if businesses only contracted with customers who supported their political agendas?
I’m no expert, but there are societies worldwide where differences in politics, religion, “race” and other aspects of our shared humanity create concrete divisions in day-to-day interactions. The ancient schism between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims plays out today in violent confrontations. More than 160 million people in India are considered “untouchable,” irredeemably tainted by their birth into a caste system that finds them less than human.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the main downtown avenue of Richmond, Virginia, was the very real dividing line between “white” Richmond and “black” Richmond. I’m not sure how much it has changed since I was a teenager, nervously crossing to the wrong side to shop for soul and Motown at the altogether more wonderful record stores there.
This moment in our national politics concerns me as it does many Americans. But my greatest fear is that the extreme polarization we’re experiencing right now will have the consequence of further dividing our communities, making us fearful of communicating openly with our neighbors, co-workers and business associations, and somehow codifying the differences between us rather than seeking the fertile middle ground that binds us together as a nation.
That’s all you’re getting from me. Tune in next week, when I’ll be writing about my vacuum cleaner.
Read more of Meg Haskell at livingitforward.bangordailynews.com.