Sunday night at dinner, as I was poking and prodding at the final remnants of my butternut squash ravioli, my grandfather turned to me and — in that matter-of-fact tone that only a family patriarch can pull off — said, “Ami, here’s a story for you.”
He and my grandmother had flown from Los Angeles to Portland on Friday morning. When they took their seats on the plane, my grandfather became engaged in a conversation with — as he put it — “a little old white lady.” As their conversation progressed, the woman shared with him that she was on her way home from Tucson where she had traveled to listen to President Obama’s speech at AU.
My grandfather was taken aback. He wondered why she hadn’t just watched it on television like the rest of the world, why she’d cared so much about something so distant, why someone so frail would expend so much energy to fly to an unfamiliar place. The woman smiled at my grandfather. “Because,” she said — as though the answer were obvious — “he’s our President.”
Two years ago, Barack Obama was elected on camaraderie’s coattails. The “hope and change” mantra of his campaign was a point of cynical contention from the right, but the desire that it represented was very real and deeply rooted in the contemporary American psyche. The country had a profound thirst for something new and fresh.
But even in the wake of such an overwhelming mandate of optimism, polarization has triumphed over brotherhood, gridlock has transcended compromise — and history has repeated itself. We’re stuck again in that vicious cycle: as political vitriol morphs into physical brutality, the country takes a brief step back to self-assess. The shooting in Tucson has momentarily united us — but it’s only a matter of time until that harmony will wear off and we’ll be back to our usual, comfortable division.
How do we know that? Because nine years ago, when the towers fell, stars and stripes blanketed our nation and the American populace took on a patriotic, altruistic flair. But when the dust settled, what emerged was that pervasive with-us-or-against-us mindset (which consequently paved the way for a streak of impulsive choices and continual polarization). It wasn’t long before “kinship” and “unity” had been erased entirely from the American lexicon.
And forty-three years ago, a significant portion of our nation rallied around a preacher whose stated goal was to end the madness, end the division, end the segregation. But the recurring segmentalist nature of our country made sure that he didn’t make it to the promised land. Even then, malevolence overturned any sort of mutual allegiance we had to one another.
We need more little old ladies.
If we all did away with blind cynicism and acrimony and instead maintained a state of mind that promoted communal dependence and patriotic loyalty to one another, Washington’s gridlock would disappear in a heartbeat — and so would the nation’s. Hostility casts a shadow on our world. But in darkness, all it takes is one flicker of light to see our path.
In memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., I aspire to live in a country where civility outshines anger, where camaraderie outshines discrimination, and where little old ladies are the lights that guide us on our way to getting there.