Last Thursday night, standing in a neighborhood bar with friends, I rode the once-in-a-generation highs elicited by Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. It was a moment that finally opened my eyes to what really makes this a great nation: the millions of life stories and experiences that, when woven together, create what we all collectively recognize as the American Dream.
Then earlier this week, as I tuned in to the Republican National Convention, I was struck by one theme that constantly hung on the high-tech monitors around the edges of the arena: Country First. There were speeches and gestures and ceremonies and rituals that all focused on the potent power of patriotism. Men cried as they said the Pledge of Allegiance. They prayed in earnest for God’s protection over the United States, all with a striking absence of people of color.
It was as if a chasm opened up before my mind.
On one side are people like me, those who believe that America’s diversity lies at the core of who and what we are as a nation. There is no America without the Americans who have come from every corner of the globe and every path of the human experience to forge a true land of opportunity. We strengthen America by strengthening its citizens; we grow by constantly adding to the melting pot, enriching ourselves while creating a more diverse country for our children. America is dynamic – it is special because it is unique.
On the other side are those who believe that the concept of America should be placed above the needs of everyone except the majority. They believe that a piece of cloth with stars and stripes is so sacred – so holy, perhaps – that it deserves more legal protection than some of the human beings who live beneath it. Anything that goes against the grain of the status quo is to be feared; outsiders are welcome to live here, provided they accept an institutionalized second-class status, so long as it doesn’t create inconvenience for those who rely on their services. It’s Country First, People Second, and anyone who falls outside of the norm – or who questions the norm – is marginalized, ostracized. You can even have your rights legally stripped away from you based on who you choose to love.
When presented in these terms, there is no middle ground in this chasm. There can be no purple in the sea of red and blue. But can that be?
Here’s where I struggle: being a God-fearing, traditional-values conservative in this country doesn’t automatically mean that you’re a Bible-thumping, hate-speech-spewing bigot. I cannot assume that people who believe in Country First are prone to dislike/hate/marginalize me simply because I am a gay American who doesn’t believe in Abraham’s God. Even so, the differences between left and right are so stark at this point in history that I feel as if I have been conditioned to react to scenes of Republicans gathered en masse, praying and waving flags and preaching about conservative social values.
More importantly, the people who take pride in praying the another hurricane would drown New Orleans earlier this week (because the city was hosting the same gay mega-event that Katrina halted), those crackpots are just as much a part of the American story as the crazy Lefties who would have the government legalize all drugs, eliminate the drinking age and outlaw the military.
I struggle to find the middle path, plain and simple. I rationalize the way I feel by asking myself about the following scenario: what if today’s Democrats were the polar opposite of today’s Republicans? How different would the Democratic Party’s convention have been last week? It’s hard to imagine – so hard, I think, because the majority of America’s liberals aren’t speaking from the far fringes. There is no mainstream discussion in liberal circles of a nationwide gun ban, or realistic talk of legalizing all drugs, or of the government forcibly nationalizing ExxonMobil, though you do hear conservatives openly talk of an amendment to the Constitution banning marriage equality while promoting Christianity as a quasi-sanctioned state religion and providing unfair tax benefits that keep the rich wealthy while the poor continue to slide backward.
See how easy that was to rationalize? Insanely easy, I think.