The United States are divided and the November election results attest to that. Eleven states amended their constitutions to ban gay marriages, including Ohio, for a total of 17 states with such legislation. George W. Bush received only 51 percent of the popular vote for president, and resentment from opposing voters still burns.
We experience these divisions in Cincinnati. The city voted to repeal Article 12 by 54 percent, fewer than 10,000 votes. The civil rights boycott from the April 2001 uprising remains in effect, while the city is still divided on police conduct. City tax breaks for local corporations means more business and jobs for some and funding cuts for others.
In his 2001 inauguration speech, Bush promised the nation he would be a "uniter, not a divider." The responsibility and blame doesn't completely fall on him, but it doesn't help when the president shuts out and avoid opposition to war, labels dissenters of policies "unpatriotic," pushes for a U.S. constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages before the issue is tested in the states, labels judges who overturn policies through judicial review "activist judges," drafts and signs legislation that defy basic rights and bypasses lower class neighborhoods to stake his podium.
Bush touts the promise to unite us today and might use it in his inauguration speech this month. But can speeches from a man or woman 500 miles away on Capitol Hill make you feel closer to your neighbor down the street? Does slapping bumper stickers on the backs of our cars saying "United we stand" mean we embrace our differences and recognize each other as equals under God/Allah/Jah/etc. and the law? Is being "proud to be an American" a result of freedom to be individuals or thoughtless conformity? What are we so proud of?
As human beings, we generally resent and fear what we don't understand or agree with. Some people conjure their truths in their minds and seek sources to back them, rather than research an issue to establish the truth.
If ignorance is the source of resentment and fear, the remedy must be knowledge and understanding. It's an elusive remedy that takes time and work and requires us to challenge our beliefs to see things in another light.
I've been fortunate to meet and become friends with people who provide that challenge to me.
Bill and I hardly agree on politics. We've been friends for seven years and from as far back as I can remember, a political argument between us erupts every time we hang out. He is a staunch Republican who advocates privatization of government services and deregulation of businesses, while I have more concern for workers' rights and more government regulation on necessities. We both grew up in political households: his father is a former state senator and current state representative, mine is an editor of a newspaper, so we developed the interest as adolescents.
In the heat of argument, we show blatant disregard for whatever atmosphere we're in. Our debates have peeked with shattered beer bottles, shaking clenched fists and even name-calling. We've killed parties and ruined dates together, ignoring our friends' warnings that politics sours such events. Even after a recent toast to his 24th birthday at Rooties, Bill and I jumped right into the reasons for the election results.
But if you ever see us out getting sassy over issues such as minimum wage or government health care and are intrigued to watch and wait for the first swing, get on with your Long Island cocktail. Bickering over politics is the foundation of our friendship. It works for us because we respect and contemplate each other's opinions and learn from testing our ideas on opposing views. We get high off our dramatic clashes, like live versions of CNN's Crossfire. Bitching about public policy with like minds turns stale.
I graduated from an all-male Catholic high school notorious for homophobia. I shrugged off the notion until after graduation and getting to know one of my former classmates, Jake, who suffered attacks from fellow students for being gay. Out of curiosity, I decided to pop the question a few years ago over lunch at Inn the Wood.
"Jake, what makes you attracted to men?"
"Well Jeremy, are you attracted to men or women because the Bible or your parents tell you to be?"
My parents never instructed me on whom I should be attracted to, and I doubt it would have any influence if they did. He said he just is, though he has tried not to be, and I expected no grander explanation.
You might think it's cliché to say, "Oh, I have a friend who's gay (or African American or holds different political views) and so I have a strong understanding of what it's like." But I cannot deny the value of such friendships and how they have shaped my outlook on different lifestyles and opinions.
Strong friendships aren't necessary to understand and accept our differences, but honest, open communication is. Labeling and attacking people to discredit their opinion burns bridges and undermines the democratic value of due regard for the minority.
Cincinnati is home to various groups and organizations that create forums -- take your pick from CityBeat's listings. I've joined a few sessions and love seeing people outspoken about community issues. Test a few, consider what's being said and say your peace. The First Amendment needs exercise to be healthy, and you might develop new friendships with people you never thought you would.
Empathy for others' situations will bring us closer together as a society. Then maybe we'll vote according to our communities' needs instead of just for lower taxes. Then maybe we'll see more smiles on people's faces that shout, "Life is good." That would make me proud to be an American.