Crossing Party Lines: Healing with the Other

October 15, 2005

St. John's Baptist Church
Santa Fe
Craig Barnes


We have had, in the last six years, a great deal of angry talk about what one half of America is doing to the other half. The election last year did not bring us closer together, nor has much since then narrowed the gap. We are, these days, hard into name calling and advocacy. Surely, we should be standing up for what is right and what will save the country. But there is a harshness about our discourse today which is more than advocacy, is angry and sometimes mean. When we listen to talk radio there is a kind of unforgiving, pointed attack on both sides so that it seems as if politics is like football, a game of winners and losers.

But politics is not like football. We either all win or we all lose and we cannot be separated when we all depend upon the same economy and all depend upon the same land and the air and some common vision of our future. So when Barbara called and asked if I would do this talk she also said she had heard about a Republican-Democrat dialogue that I was hosting, and how was that going? And would I talk about healing across party lines? We all have a yearning for healing, too. So I said I would talk about that, and I thank you for the invitation to come back to Renesan and think out loud about that today.

When I am out on my brother’s ranch in northwestern Arizona, we talk about grazing permits and wilderness areas and the number of cows the BLM will allow on what number of acres. He has a big spread, or so it seems to me, of about 40,000 acres but only a few cows because there is so little grass between the rocks and cactus. So we ride all day and he shows me the water holes and how to look for fresh prints and track up the sandy draws and some days we ride for three or four hours before we find a cow. He loves the open country and so do I and we don’t mind the hot sun. There is a rhythm to the slow trot of the horses across the stone and sand and he knows where the grass is better this year and where the burros have come down and destroyed the riparian edge on the Santa Maria River which flows through his place. He knows where the petroglyphs are and the pigs and when we finally find the cows it will take us all day to drive them down to the corrals for branding and sorting. It is a good life; close to the ground; the days are long and the work is constant, but a man can tell at the end of the day what he has done by just looking at it. In the city, you might work all day and never see a stack of hay or cow in the pen. But out there on the ranch, a man can see what he has done and know the day was not wasted.

We don’t talk politics much, my brother and I, because he does not agree with a thing I say, nor I with him. He reads my political commentaries because his son sends them along from time to time. He does not reply or comment and I know better than to ask. One time last year we sat down to talk about Iraq and we nearly tore each other’s hair out. It was pretty tough. Whether George Bush got elected honestly is not any longer the issue. A leader should be supported when he is in trouble because if we don’t support him the country will surely be in danger. He was convinced that Saddam Hussein had been harboring Al Qaeda and that therefore we had a good reason for going in there, and further, that now that we are in there, the right thing for a good American to do is to support his president. I said to him, one late night: “You BELIEVE that?”

He was stunned. My tone was so unforgiving. He looked at me with wide eyes and a hard look, the way I have seen him take aim with a rock at a rattle snake and said, very firmly, “Yes, I do. I sure do.”

Now I may be the only person here today who has a relative, or family member, or good friend with whom he or she disagrees politically, but I doubt it. We are a country divided, in some cases we are even families divided, and we have gotten to the place where it seems like we are all trying to crush rattle snakes. We have our rocks in hand and are ready for war.

When we meet up with the other side, which we only do when we cannot help it, we are not listening all that well, so much as trying to persuade, or to convince, or to overcome. And of course, we are like cowboys on the trail. I remember one time when I was out on the ranch and I heard that tchic-a-chic-chic underneath my horse and up I went, horse rearing about four feet in the air, me hanging on for dear life, and down there on the desert floor was a coiled rattler. That kind of moment is, more or less, pretty dangerous. And that is about the way we see the moment in America today. Both sides fighting for what each thinks is fundamental and essential for the survival of the country and both are willing to crush the rattler if need be.

That was about where we had gotten to when I said to my brother: “You BELIEVE that?”

If we had not been brothers we might not have spoken again, ever. We might even have become enemies. He believes in the possible good outcomes of a war which I believe is catastrophic for American democracy, a war which I believe is killing thousands of innocents and is sending young men and women home with PTSD which will last all their lives and is stirring the Muslim world to vilify the US and become our permanent enemies. Etc.. He is nuts, I think, short sighted, impractical, willing to violate international law and morality.

For his part, my brother thinks that if anybody is so soft headed as to wait for Arabs and Pakistanis and Saudis to just come in here and put bombs in buildings and while they are at it get driver’s licenses and collect welfare while they go to flight school then we probably deserve to get blown up.

So there we are. I think he is un-aware of American history, law, decency. He thinks I am unaware of the shadow in human nature. As my mother would have said to us when we were young: You two are a fine kettle of fish.

But he is my brother and if I told you only this, that we disagreed on Iraq, I would tell you only half the story. Which is what we are doing all across America today. We are telling stories about the Other as if we were crushing rattle snakes but we are not telling the whole story about those with whom we disagree, and we are stereotyping each other and have gotten to the point where we are willing to do each other in. So let’s look a little deeper at what makes a man who he is, and how conservatives and liberals can actually both be good people.

Out there on his ranch beyond any telephone, where a man can ride forever without seeing a shoe print of another man’s horse, the BLM has regulations. It regulates how many cows per acre and when a man should move his cows and even if you have a permit for 500 cows it may tell you that it is only good for 125. The BLM agent from the big city rides out every three or four months and drives through where there is a road, which is not much of anywhere, and then goes back and reports what shape the range is in as if he could see over mountains and down into canyons from the road. The BLM man will not ever know as much as will my brother about the grass in the hollows or on the high hills, or where the lions hang out or where the water is, or when the flowers bloom. But the BLM agent will lay down the rules or enforce old rules that are out of date, and will never sit down for a good give and take discussion but instead will evade detailed, reasonable negotiations, avoid the real evidence about the water and the grass. The agent acts like making concessions to a rancher would be like dancing with sin. So the number of cows my brother can run is limited by government decree, by an agent that does not know as much as he does about the cows or the land or the water or the grass and that process makes my brother pretty much a foe of the federal government. Which makes him pretty much in favor of any republican president who wants to cut taxes and social programs because he thinks that those programs are mostly for the people who don’t work very hard or take responsibility for their own lives.

As a rule, city people in Santa Fe don’t talk with people like my brother, and most good environmentalists know how beef takes more energy to grow than vegetables and that cows are destroying the ranges and polluting the waters of the west. So most of the time, since we think we know about each other, we don’t talk. And when we do talk, we don’t listen very well. Like I did not listen to my brother about Al Qaeda in Iraq. But we don’t just not listen on Iraq; we don’t listen on anything. We have shut each other out, we, the two sides of America.

If liberals were to stop and listen to my brother and his ilk they would learn something. They would learn that part of the reason the BLM agent will not negotiate with the ranchers is because the agent is getting pressure from the environmental lobby which is located in the city and can come see him every day and can afford legal briefs and to lobby the Congress. My brother and his rancher friends do not lobby Congress. They just ride out and fix the irrigation, or bring in sick calves. They have not got the tools to go to court or lobby the state legislature.

So today, all over the west, the public land is criss-crossed with regulations from the BLM and the Forest Service that hamper and delay and encumber the individual rancher. Some ranchers have depleted the land and nearly grazed it barren, that is true, and they need regulation, but many have taken care of it because it is what feeds them.

The net result of these cases where there are two good arguments on each side is that America is approaching a kind of Mandarin paralysis where bureaucracy squeezes down rural people, and business people, and factory owners, and real estate developers and tells them how to do business and those who are hemmed in don’t like it and they fight back, with slogans about big government and bureaucratic waste and oppression. And they vote for George Bush. On the other side, there is the pressure of an increasing awareness that time is running out for this consumptive society, that we are the brink of self destruction and these on this side would not vote for George Bush if their lives depended upon it, as they believe they do.

And, of course, both sides are right. But if you were to take the position that a rancher or a business person is a callous exploiter you would be oversimplifying. Or if, standing with the ranchers, you were to take the position that environmentalists are empty-headed ideologues who do not know a cow from a pig, you would be wrong too.

Still, the level of the debate in this country is pretty much fueled by slogans like these and filled with stereotypes. A little learning is a dangerous thing, as Alexander Pope said, and we know all about the positions of the other side but not much about the fears, or the frustrations, or the insecurities or the pain.

Now, less than a year after an election campaign, if we look at the debate over abortion, or over Iraq, or over liberal judges or activist judges, the sides are dug in, buried in foxholes ringed by facts. We know what we think about Iraq and have the information to prove our side of the case. The people who favor the war have other information and can prove their positions as well. Across the board, on one issue after another, America is riven by these disputes and today is more divided than at any time in living memory.

So what are we to do?

I think I have already told you enough about my brother to give you a clue that he is not all bad. In fact, he is one of the most honest men I have ever known. He treats his children right. He is generous with them and with his friends. He will lend you a saddle and give you his spurs to take home for good and let you ride his best horse while he trots along on old Jughead, the re-converted mustang he brought in out of the desert. He says Jughead is a good horse, he sure is, but I know that he has given me the best mount for the day. That’s the kind of man he is. He has provided such a generous example for his children that they choose to work with him in summers, his grandchildren work with him, too; they are good kids; they study hard; they excel in school; they can become anything they want to. They are on the land because they love the land. They work harder in a normal day than I ever work; they don’t have to ask the government for any kind of money. They paid their social security in and they expect to get it out, but they don’t expect anything for nothing. These are good people.

So, how is it that we could become almost enemies because of Iraq and George W. Bush?

And how could half of America, most of which pays its taxes and tells the truth, be so divided from the other half of America most of which pays its taxes and tells the truth? And if we are so divided, who’s interest does that serve and why do we let it go on?

Last winter we started a little group here in Santa Fe of Republicans and Democrats, sitting together to try to learn from one another. It has been a hard road. But we have stuck to it. Every one of the Democrats is loaded for bear with facts. So are the Republicans. Somebody says something about morality in the presidency, (say a Republican, glad that Clinton is gone), and some one else says, “What about the immorality of killing thousands of Iraqis? How can Clinton and Monica compare to killing thousands of innocents?”

And a lot of the time, they are not really asking questions. They are trying to overcome one another. And if they are trying to overcome one another, they are not learning from one another. They are already thinking of an answer before they hear the end of the sentence.

So the question we have to ask is, are those people on the other side of the circle really so morally deprived that we can not even listen to them? The fact that we think that George W. Bush is demonic, on the one hand, or the savior of civilization on the other hand is a brutally dividing fact. But must we let that disagreement tempt us into thinking that people who hold the opposite view are stupid, or immoral, or dishonest, or don’t treat their children right? Can we find some way to listen down beneath the positions, to find the values upon which we do agree?

Let me say a word about finding the common ground. It is important to define a common ground which is important and not trivial. I am not suggesting that we all like pets and therefore can build a great nation based on our love for dogs and cats. Or that we all like peanut butter and we can build a political coalition on something trivial like lunch sandwiches. I am saying, rather, that there are some values more important to the survival of democracy and freedom than any program, or any war won or lost. If we can build alliances based on these values we would do more for the republic than we can do in any single election.

My own experience in the Former Soviet Union over a 15-year period has persuaded me that more important than any law, more important than any parliamentary form or police force to the success of the economy of those emerging countries is the tendency to tell the truth or not tell the truth in commercial and governmental transactions. I would say, even stronger, that truth telling between strangers—not just between friends—is the heart, the backbone, the sine qua non of free-flowing commerce and good government; that truth telling underlies tax collection and invoicing and all of the great engines of industry and commerce. Many, in my experience, in say, Central Asia, and to the contrary, consider truth telling to be naïve. There is a culture, in much of the world, of appropriate lying. It goes all the way to Homer's "crafty" Odysseus. By "crafty" Homer simply meant a skilful lier. We have been thinking about that ever since. I have spent whole week seminars in Azerbaijan on the issue of truth telling. And when a whole culture does not tell the truth, becomes "crafty", when bribes and corruption are the order of the day, an economy flounders, stalls, becomes inefficient and cannot keep up with the world. The fall of the Soviet Union had more to do with truth telling, or the absence of it, the widespread fraud and corruption throughout the whole of the Soviet political culture, than any thing Ronald Reagan did or any Star Wars or any lack of democracy.

I am convinced that if a South Korean promises to ship 1,000 Hyundais to San Francisco and only ships 975 and bills for 1,000, commerce will eventually come to a halt between these two buyers and sellers and there are not enough courts in the world to make the South Korean seller honest if he decides not to be so. But if he does not do what he says he will do, he will lose buyers and, in the long run, commerce cannot function.

America is not great therefore, primarily because of capitalism, or raw resources, or trains or roads or its laws. The Soviet Union possessed all of these. The difference between us was deeper and more important: American commerce had spread and had become successful because of the commonly shared ethic to tell the truth and hold to contract. It is not insignificant that we threw out President Nixon because he lied, or that Clinton was impeached because he was thought to have lied. Lying is rightly important to our culture. And lying about Iraq is already getting this administration into deep trouble.

What I am saying, further, and what we have discovered in our Republican-Democrat dialogues, is that there are a great many people, on both sides of the aisle, who share the value that truth telling is important. But if we become enemies over the environment, or over abortion, or over Iraq, we may not ever find one another.

If, therefore, we look at values which underlie the success of American law and commerce I believe that truth telling is far more important than any single social program or even any single civil right. If, further, we were to build an alliance across party lines which would connect those who share this value we would do more for democracy than to fight for or against John Roberts’ appointment to the Supreme Court.

There is a progression of steps that occurs in any struggle and which would divert us from reaching out to find these potential allies. I have seen this in ethnic cleansing disputes in the Caucuses, or in water disputes in Central Asia, or in nuclear negotiations in Moscow. The pattern is similar everywhere. Research tells us that it is pretty common all over the world. It goes like this:

1. I think you are honest and kind and decent like me and so I will just tell you the facts about the case and you will agree. You are like me and good. I am a generous person and do not doubt that you are, too.

2. You do not agree, however, so I repeat my facts. Surely you will see the light, because you are honest and kind like me.

3. You do not agree, yet, so I raise my voice, this time, and my intensity; you must not be listening.

4. You still do not agree, so I think there is something wrong with you. You are affected by self interest, or moral depravity, or maybe are making money on the side. You begin to slide off my charts of honorable people. I don’t want to talk to you, or have commerce with you. This is about where the two halves of America are today. They each doubt that the other is morally sound, or to be trusted.

5. Finally, we think of the Other as evil. If they are evil, they can be eliminated. We might have to send them to jail or take away their rights, or sometimes, even kill them.

This is the pattern we have followed in the last 20 years since the Reagan Administration, with increasing ferocity and intensity. We are on the brink of calling each other enemies. And yet, we found in our group of Republicans and Democrats that there was more to unite us than to divide us; that all around the circle honored truth telling and compassion and took care of their families. They all believed in education and law and caring for the elderly. And they all voted for opposite sides in the presidential election, in part because they did not know how much they agreed upon.

So here is a formula that I would suggest for learning to talk to America and especially that part of America with which we disagree.

1. Find some way to actually talk. Radio talk shows are not talk. Debates on television are not talk. Newspaper editorials are not talk. Candidate forums are not talk. Talk is civil. Talk is around food, or with drink and flowers, in a soft forgiving environment. Talk is not an adversarial sport. So find some way to actually talk, not debate.

2. Find some way not to talk so much as to listen. We none of us listen very well and we listen the least well when we know something. Either we know something about the subject that someone else is addressing or we don’t, but either way, we prefer conversations in which we are telling what we know, or what happened to us, or what we think about some experience we had that was like that. So as soon as someone says “I met this man from the Chamber of Commerce.” We say, “Oh, yeah, I met one of those one day, too. And man, let me tell you about what he said.” We don’t even listen very well to people who agree with us. We listen terribly to people with whom we disagree. So we have a lot to learn about listening. I suggest that if you want to heal America you want to find some place safe enough to sit down and listen. If you want to find people who are honest like you; who are kind and decent; who are aware of the dangers of power and empire, like you are aware, you will only do so if you create an environment which is safe and forgiving and nurturing. Again, food, and flowers and mixed men and women and ground rules for courtesy all help. And you have to want to heal more than you want to be right.

3. Set up the conversation so that it will go on for more than one time, so there is really time to find out about people. And then take the time to actually find out. Take a whole night to find out about people’s stories. What they have been through. You want to know more than just how many awards they have won, or successes. You want to know the heartaches and traumas; the hopes and the fears. So take a night to hear just stories. If someone is struggling with a teen-age child, or cancer, you may find yourself listening a lot more attentively. The heart is an opener.

4. Take a night to hear just about fears. One night in our group of Republicans and Democrats we asked the question, “What are you most afraid of? Down under all the talk about Iraq, beneath your position on the war, what are you afraid of?”

It was a simple question. And some people were distressed that we were going to take time on emotions. So it was a stretch to get people to do this. But they did. And we had to promise next time to talk about hard issues, tough stuff, stuff they could get revved up and righteous about. But that night we talked about fears. One Republican, a Jew, said that if we did not stop terrorism abroad it would come home and cause chaos and eventually lead to a persecution of minorities and especially the Jews. “I am afraid of a return to the holocaust,” he said. Around the circle the conversation went. Another woman, this time a Democrat, also a Jew, said: “I am afraid that George Bush will wipe out our civil liberties and we will have another holocaust.”

Now that was really interesting. Underneath all the rhetoric, beneath the posturing and facts and positions, these two people were afraid of exactly the same thing. They never would have known it had they met at the level of positions on Iraq. Which means that there never would have been a chance for finding each other as allies.

Now let me illustrate what is going on here: [Triangle graphic was used ]

1. Actions

2. Positions

3. Values, Emotions

We usually try to change someone’s actions or positions. We usually fail. We have to connect at the level of values before we and they will change, or even connect.

Finally, if we do not say to the rest of America, we hear your concern about cheap television; we hear your concern about cheap sex; we hear your concern about honesty in relationships and in contract, and in business, we will then forfeit the attention of many of those people who are concerned about these things. We will forfeit them to fundamentalist religion because fundamentalist religions, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, are concerned with those values. If we do not admit that we too, are worried about morality and decency on television, about drugs and alcohol abuse, about suffocating bureaucracy, we forfeit the people on the ranches and farms, who worked hard to get through the depression or to start new businesses which they could not maintain because of one rule or another. The compassionate caucus, the bloc of American votes who want to help the poor, provide rights for immigrants and medicines for the elderly must find compassion for those who are afraid, no matter what the fear, whether it is a fear of the same things we are afraid of or whether it is simply fear of chaos and instability or moral depravity. Compassion knows no boundaries.

Further, if we do not engage in conversation with people who are not like us, and do not listen, we will not be changed by them, or influenced by their sincerity or honesty. It will be a shame if we dismiss that part of America with whom we agree because we do not talk or do not listen.

The beginning step to healing might then just be listening as if we did not know what was right and what was wrong and hearing for the first time. We don’t have to give up all that we know, just because we listen. But we cannot learn anew if we do not listen.

Maybe instead of looking outward toward the villains on the other side of the fence, trying to persuade villains to become more like us, we ought to take charge of the one attitude that is possible to change, and that is our own.

We might consider then that the first step to healing America is to begin with our own selves and try to make a conversation somewhere, just one, somewhere unusual, with someone whose opinion we might otherwise dismiss, and listen as if we were in the presence of a great teacher.

The Irish used to say that we should listen for the heartbeat of God. I would say now that to listen for the heartbeat of God includes listening to the stranger, the other, the one you have given up on. See if you can hear the soft whisper of their fears, the deep moan of distress over their world in chaos. You might imagine that some person is dulled by greed and self satisfaction. See if you can find, instead, what is more than greed, what is finer and more elegant than self satisfaction. And if you let a person know, really know, like a school teacher really lets a child know, that what we are looking for is the goodness, the originality and creativity, it just might be that your looking for that quality will bring it to the surface. When we think a person cruel, he or she is apt to act cruel. When we think a person noble, he or she is more apt to act noble. Remember, Gandhi never humiliated the Viceroy. He never said, “You son-of-a-bitch, let my people go. He always said to him, “I know that you want to do what is right. I know that you are a good person. Now, this is how you can do the good that you want to do.” Maybe that is how empires are changed. Through people discovering the goodness in each other.

Try it. See what happens. Let me know.

Thank you.