LEE: I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. That's this country. If that’s not this country, where are we living?
That's Lee, one of the eleven people, diverse in age, ethnicity, and political leanings, who spent 2019 with us for what we hoped would be a year-long experiment in civil discourse.
In January, we got together for the first time, introduced ourselves, and settled in for an unpredictable year.
Jim retired in Wilmington, North Carolina. He’s from New Jersey, and he’s a glass artist.
JIM: I’m pretty opinionated on everything… So I'm hoping that this may help me to become a little bit more open-minded. Maybe. If that's possible.
Connette is an insurance broker for life, health, and long-term care policies. "What can we do to do right by people? Instead of having political debates...”
Kathryn, like Jim, is a northern transplant who’s lived in Southport for 20 years.
"...politically active only since I moved to North Carolina, which is interesting. Before that, I was never involved in politics. We’ll see."
Carl retired from the Army and a teaching career at Hoggard HS in Wilmington. He now sings and performs locally with his band.
“I still don’t understand why it’s not okay to disagree."
Joe is another transplanted New Yorker, a psychologist and hypnotherapist, and he likes to describe himself this way:
"I’m to the right of Attila the Hun.”
Looking back over the past 12 months, Joe is not sure anyone changed their mind. But he thinks maybe—just maybe—he's a bit more tolerant.
JOE: I learned a little bit. Did I have an impact on anybody? Yeaah, not in terms of political persuasion, but in terms of I can see this guy outside and not start throwing rocks at him or her.
Opinions aside – it seems clear that people naturally seek out others who are like them. Does this mean that we all now live in different realities? With our own information sources, our own social circles? And if we are living solely within our tribes, what are we losing?
These are some of the questions we hoped to answer in this experiment. Is it still possible for people from different backgrounds to learn from each other?
JIM: Learn? I learned something about myself. I'm pretty intolerant of people on the other side of the aisle.
That’s Jim, the glass artist. After 11 months in our group, he says he would probably never see any of these people again. And he’s fine with that.
JIM: I definitely do not want to associate on a regular basis with people that I perceive on the right, which would be, I mean, after this, I'll never see these -- I'll never see these guys again. I guarantee it. That's the reality. I mean, I hate to say it, but it's true.
Our year together was full of contradictions. This was one of them. After that November meeting, when the group learned there would be no planned group session for December, a few people protested. One of them was Jim. Most people in the group, including Connette, picked up on the paradox.
CONNETTE: Ironically Jim had said, I'll never see some of you again ever. And then he invited all of us to his open house. [laughter]
RLH: And you are not the first person to chuckle at that – a little bit.
CONNETTE: I gave him a hug right before we left – right before Thanksgiving.
It was also Jim who organized a separate social for the group in December. But he still insists that while he might miss the person, he won’t miss political views he disagrees with.
JIM: Coming here for a year and being presented with a person spouting those views, and not be able to run away or change the subject made me realize that I am really pretty intolerant of those views. And I realize I can't change people's opinions, but I really don't want to be associating with people when they are presenting those views.
It’s the views, says Jim, not the person. If a friend or a neighbor starts talking politics, well, he'll start talking gardening.
JIM: Did you get your peas in? You know, you have to plant your peas in February so let’s get the peas in.
Each month, we hosted a conversation on a controversial topic with members of the group. The goal: to find out if people who hold drastically different world views could enjoy time together.
The goal was not – a point we repeated again and again and again – and I will repeat here -- the goal was NOT to change anyone’s point of view.
The goal was also NOT to see who made the best case or scored the most points.
The goal was simply to find out if--despite different views—people could enjoy spending time together.
But it turns out people with different views feel the need to convince the other side that they're right. Whether conscious or not, people need to have their views validated.
Or maybe, they just want to be understood.
Joe, a conservative member of the group, you know, the guy who says he’s “right of Attila the Hun”, says the group never saw the person behind his politics.
JOE: The group didn't see me or get to know that I probably did more progressive activities in my lifetime than anybody sitting around that table in relating to my role as a professional community organizer and social worker and psychologist -- from setting up programs for battered and abused women, welfare rights organizations, group homes for kids, drug programs.
Over the course of our year together, we picked—every month—a controversial topic and asked people about their positions. We then used that as a jumping-off point to learn more about people's personal histories and lives. We wanted to put peoples’ views in the context of their “lived experience.”
It’s harder to dismiss someone's views when you know a little bit about the person. But that’s easier said than done.
Two of our group—Kathryn and Joe—are married and agree on major political issues. But she got frustrated that our discussions were more focused on the individuals, and not their politics.
KATHRYN: I think we were pretty broad and the topics we touched on them, we didn't get any depth to that, but I don't know if this was the format to get depth.
And while our goal was to get to the personal—not the political--Kathryn felt we didn't succeed there either.
KATHRYN: We really didn't get at values and what our core values are, which I think is very important.
That was a tough challenge. How do you get an opinion on a potentially explosive topic and then use that opinion to explore someone’s upbringing or childhood?
And further, how do you get to know nearly a dozen people well in just an hour once a month?
We tried different approaches. For example, this is what happened when I asked Bruce what he thought made President Donald Trump a good leader.
BRUCE: The words that come to mind for me are bold, undaunted by conventional thinking, and visionary.
Bruce goes on to build support for those ideas – despite what he calls moral character issues. So we know where he stands on President Trump. But how did he arrive at these views?
BRUCE: I’ve seen some people who were that way.
RLH: As a teenager? As a child?
Bruce: Probably as a child. Probably as a child.
Cedric—another member of our group interrupts---mentioning someone he thinks of as bold and visionary. He names Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers. He and Bruce discuss him briefly – but do you see the challenge here? Ask people how they feel; they’ll more than likely tell you what they think. I try again with Bruce.
RLH: So this friend of yours – I want to hear about this friend. And that’s not where you want to go…
Bruce: No, but go ahead.
Bruce goes into a rational explanation of how it's possible to admire flawed leaders – but there we are again in the safety of the intellect. We are not getting to know Bruce and his background or the experiences that shaped his core values.
People say they want to talk about their lives, but do they? How vulnerable are they willing to be among strangers who disagree – not to mention thousands of unseen listeners?
Much earlier in the year, Bruce talked about his own resistance to being vulnerable.
BRUCE: First of all, we have layers of defense that we peel off some of them. And we don't always go very deep, speaking for myself. So you have a defense mechanism, you have armor, you have layers. You peel down, you peel the onion only so far that you're comfortable with. But I think it has to do with the dealing with vulnerabilities…
Lee, the actor in our group understands vulnerability well.
LEE: That is the key to acting, being vulnerable. You either can do that or you can’t, and when you're onstage, if you can't do that, audiences don't care about you. And if audiences don’t care about you, you won't be doing it very long.
And being vulnerable within the group was even harder given some of the topics we chose:
- Confederate statues and their role in public spaces
- Abortion rights support and opposition
- President Donald Trump as a leader
- The 50th anniversary of Stonewall and LGBTQ rights in America
In the first episode on Confederate statues, Connette talked about her upbringing in Ahoskie, North Carolina, a small town with a fairly balanced black and white population. But segregation was alive and well.
CONNETTE: We did have integrated schools as I grew up – in my elementary years. We did not have a town of conflict. There were separations, as everywhere. I remember the balcony was for, as they said, ‘the colored people’. And downstairs was for white people.
RLH: Are you talking about in a theater?
CONNETTE: In a movie theater, yes. And I understand how people can have hard feelings over that today, but, I didn’t create that.
RLH: How did you feel when you went to a movie and you looked at the balcony with all the people of color up there? Did you feel privileged? Like you were in a better class?
CONNETTE: I did not feel privileged. I just felt that people wanted to stay with their own race.
Connette's vulnerability was exactly what we'd hoped for -- a willingness to reflect on one's past and how that shapes us. But at what price?
After that episode, she became far less willing to share personal views when they might be controversial. The invisible audience had become real. She made it clear to me and the group she didn’t want to talk about race. In fact, it surprised Carl at the end that Connette was one of the people who insisted on a final goodbye gathering.
CARL: In her last email that she sent, I think there was a surprise in that for me because in our sessions she never really verbalized a lot of things. So seeing that she had enjoyed it or was enjoying it and didn't want it to stop surprised me a bit.
Connette wasn’t alone. About half the group says we talked about racial issues too often.
You’re listening to Beneath The Surface: The Final Dive. When we come back, a closer look at why, despite the group’s white majority, the issue of race continues to emerge.
I’m RLH for BTS.
Our group of 11 started meeting once a month in January 2019. They are men and women, retirees and working people, one young parent, several millennials, two people of color and nine white people. They are Democrats and Republicans and Independents. They are progressive and conservative and liberal and moderate.
At the beginning of this project, none of us knew that even though the Confederate statue discussion was just one topic for one episode, the group discussion would regularly turn toward race.
CONNETTE: I don't know if I had many surprises other than that people are very racially engaged. I'm not sure if that's how to say that, but it's like if we don't talk about race, we haven't hit on everything and I tend to not see color. I happen to see someone's heart because I like to get to know people, look in their eyes, look at their smile, listen to them and know who they are and where they're coming from.
Bruce agrees that, perhaps, race unfairly dominated the discussion.
BRUCE: We spent a lot of time on race, uh, may be too much. It was a little bit biased that way, but, the concept of white privilege and the fact that that I cannot truly understand some of those senses and feelings that Carl and Cedric have, because I don't think of it as white privilege. I mean, I, I grew up poor, but I didn't grow up with the burden of having to fight my way because of the color of my skin. And so it got me thinking more about the idea of white privilege and what the black man and woman face in our society. It leaves me with the overwhelming question of, you know, what is it that I can do, what is it that I should do in the face of this? But nevertheless, it brought me closer to understanding what biases I may have deeply against African Americans.
Kathryn, also white, saw the racial discussion as driven by a few personal agendas that derailed the larger group’s purpose.
KATHRYN: I think we just spent too much time on the black / white issue. Everything seemed to devolve to that issue. And so if we were trying to be broader, some people are very tunnel vision on that, you know, that's really all that they were here for.
Cedric is one of two people of color in the 11-member group.
CEDRIC: If we think that the black person bringing up the problem is the problem – that’s a problem.
Darrell, who is white, argues that constantly focusing on racial issues is looking backwards and unproductive for everyone – especially, he says, for people of color.
DARRELL: If you continue to, to look at the past, you're never going to solve for the future. And that's the biggest problem that we have in the country. Everybody goes back, but you know, there are other issues that are broader.
CEDRIC: It does miss the present day reality. That is a privilege for white people to say I don’t want you all to look back in the past. Well, how bout you go and tell your ancestors or your elders or what have you that still have these Confederate statues in the middle of the streets? If you don’t want us to think about them, then don’t remind us every day with your day-to-day systems and structures. Privilege makes you blind to certain things.
Cedric, also the youngest person in the room, is the Founder of the local nonprofit Support The Port.
So with only two people who are African-American and nine people who are white, why did the conversation often go from politics to race? Cedric says it's because race is part of a larger conversation.
CEDRIC: Politics is a privilege.
Carl, a retired Army veteran and public school teacher, explains.
CARL: At the end of the day, the stuff that's being argued in the House, that stuff that's been argued in Congress, in the Senate, it really – it doesn’t relate to us. It has nothing to do – it’s not relevant. I mean, it's not like it's gonna make some major difference in our life. I listen to all these people now who run for office, the stuff they say, it's irrelevant to me.
LEE: I think it's the great unanswered question of America. How do we face the horror of white supremacy and what it has wrought on this country? That was brought home to me very clearly. That was brought home to me very clearly in these discussions
Especially, for Lee, through the personal stories from Cedric and Carl...
LEE: Particularly Carl's – particularly in the November meeting when he talked about what happened to him and his sons. When you hear personal stories, it brings it home in a way nothing else will, no statistics, no secondhand story, nothing will bring it home like -- this happened to me this week.
CARL: Two weeks ago, two weeks ago, I was in my car with my sons in Hampstead riding down the street and the highway patrol pulled me over for no reason…he pulled me over because it was three African American people riding in my car… that didn't happen in 1890. That happened in 2019, but you say I should get over that.
Lydia also finds Carl and Cedric’s point of view eye-opening:
LYDIA: Carl, in particular, really approaches things from the point of view of someone who has a totally different social understanding of the United States’ history as someone, you know, who grew up in a time in America where African-Americans were systematically dehumanized – so to hear him interpret things, you know, on a very personal and emotional level was very meaningful and the way that he would take policy issues that we were debating, kind of intellectually and try to bring it down to what is it like for the everyday man in Wilmington and how incongruous justice can be doled out and served -- was a good experience for me to hear those points of view.
It was for Morgan, too.
MORGAN: You really do see everyone trying to move forward and the last episode made me realize we just don't have the same definition for moving forward. I think it's so important to dwell in particularly Wilmington's past.
At the end of the year, Morgan shared a book list with the group.
MORGAN: We have to start having these conversations. We can't be afraid of saying the wrong thing. White Fragility is the book that I think has helped me the most with that particular moment -- not being afraid to have the hard conversations.
For Jim, the experience solidified his commitment to racial reconciliation.
JIM: The one thing that I think people in the group and listeners are going to realize is when we brought up these different topics and it came down to race and I had said earlier that it's always going to come down to race. And I think our last episode really drove that point home. I think I knew, I knew two years ago when I started doing the different racial justice stuff I'm doing now that like, my life is going to be doing this type of work.
While it was Carl and Cedric who often turned the conversation towards race, as moderator of the group, I could have insisted – some say should I have insisted – that we stay on topic and leave race out of it.
DARRELL: Well, as the moderator of the, of the conversation, if I were doing it, I would stop once we got to a broken record. Okay, I don't need to hear it over and over and over again. You make your point and this is what you feel.
Darrell attributes my failure on this front to my own bias.
DARRELL: You and your head was agreeing with, with things that certain people were saying and you were not agreeing with what other people were saying.
Darrell is right. My head probably was nodding. Even as moderator, I couldn't shield my views when it came to race. My views were visible. I was the one steering the conversation. Do I press this person on their view or do I move on? Because we only have an hour of airtime, each decision for one direction is a decision to give up something else. But Darrell isn’t done with his evaluation of my performance yet.
DARRELL: Your particular pet peeve is when someone says, I know how you feel. And you jump in, I think on three occasions with me, you said you don't know how they feel and I think that's a point well taken. But I do believe that we have to get to the rest of the story.
For Darrell, identifying as a member of a group takes power away from the individual. In Darrell’s eyes, it makes a person vulnerable to the group’s larger political agenda.
DARRELL: People are just about the same all around the world. They're warm, they're hospitable. And when you break it down to a one to one basis, people are really pretty nice, pretty good all around the world. And it's when we start wanting to seek our identity as a group that we get screwed up.
Carl says Darrell’s heart is in the right place.
CARL: I love him as a person and I want him to understand that life is more than he sees. It's easy to tell people you need to do this or you need to do that or you need -- but if you don't know where I'm coming from or where I've been or what I've done, then you shouldn't say that. You should just listen and ask me. I'd rather him ask me than say, well, you need to get over that. It's not that simple.
That was my hope...that as a group we could listen to each other, and ask each other questions. And maybe look inside ourselves.
Lydia, one of the younger members of the group, saw Darrell’s exhortation to Carl and Cedric to stop looking backwards as disrespectful.
LYDIA: Darrell is entitled to his point of view, but in no way does his point of view have any kind of primacy over others. That moment to me is a much larger issue of the degree to which men feel like they are the authority on things. And Darrell, we’ve heard, comes from a socio-economically depressed part of the country and rose out of that and that’s fantastic, but he’s never confronted the social dehumanization, the insults, the physical and social aggression that Carl and Cedric’s point of view come from. He does not come from a place of telling people how they should be moving forward in their lives or looking at the world.
That’s just something that stuck out at me as, you know, just a bigger issue of what we – using the parlance of our times would call mansplaining. This idea that some points of view have more primacy than others.
Connette, who – remember -- didn’t like the extensive discussion of race – agrees with Darrell that focusing on past trauma can cause harm in the present.
RLH: You, you have tears on your face. What's, what's going on there? I mean, there's a personal story there.
CONNETTE: I feel very fortunate that I listened to the right people.
RLH: Because you had, growing up, a plethora of influences and some were probably positive, like your grandmother and others were probably very negative.
CONNETTE: They were, they were. And my grandmother taught me, don't listen to what your dad says. And I did learn also that so often what people batter you about, it's really their own issue. You know, I don't, I don't like to point fingers cause they're always three pointing back at you.
She says she did a lot of work on herself to build her own self-esteem.
CONNETTE: Oh yes. I used to listen to motivational tapes driving back from visiting my parents just so I could get over being emotionally beat up.
The frequency of the race discussion was hardly the only surprise. The topic I thought would be the most explosive turned out to be one of the more memorable moments for finding deeper feelings of connection among members of the group.
Kathryn, who generally opposes abortion, found understanding with Lydia, who believes women should make the decision and have access to abortion, if they choose.
KATHRYN: And that’s what I’m saying. I think if we got down to core values early on in the process, we’d be able to understand one another. Because it’s just – it’s the application of those values and how we live our life that changes along the way.
Lee had a similar experience listening to Joe – also, he thought, at the other end of the spectrum.
LEE: During that very difficult discussion about abortion and abortion rights, Joe talking about not taking a woman's choice to control her own body, that women should have the right to control their own bodies. And I thought, okay, common ground, there's a place where we can start. There. Right there is a place we can start. I go back to that when I’m thinking about this project.
There was another topic, the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, that revealed some strongly prejudicial views from members of our group about people who identify as LGBTQ. We heard from some listeners who said the discussion was hurtful. It was for Morgan, too – who talked with me via Skype after she moved to California.
MORGAN: It was such a blind spot on all of our behalves, I think, not to have more diversity in the room. And, and that conversation I think was one of the places where listeners could have been the most hurt. I was, I was certainly hurt thinking about... Honestly I just wished I could have been there as a young millennial voice. The conversation to me felt like something that was happening in the 1960s and I have family members who are gay. My dad came out three years ago and he remarried this summer and I have so many friends who had such different experiences than the sort of boomer conversation that was happening.
Not only was there was no one at the table that day who identified as LGBTQ, but neither was there anybody who happened to be close to anyone in that community. Despite what some group members said, it was pretty clear from their vernacular that they’d been out of that loop for some time.
Does that mean we couldn’t – or shouldn’t have had the discussion? Since the group was so out of touch with that community and its accompanying issues, the topic didn’t do much to help our group members get to know one another, and it hurt other people in the process. So, yes.
That one was a mistake.
One point the group generally agrees on: the news media has a huge influence on our views.
Jim says he sometimes had a hard time separating the person talking from their news source.
JIM: I'm hearing Fox news and I'm not hearing Joe as an individual person who is a person who lives in this town and does this for a living. I'm hearing the exact same talking points that I'd hear from anybody who is supporting the president. So there's no difference.
JIM: Now, see that might be interesting for us to sit down and for us to get together and watch a half hour of Fox and a half hour MSNBC.
Over the course of the year, Morgan decided to curtail her news consumption.
MORGAN: I still listen to WHQR. I still read The New Yorker and I will listen to candidate interviews and that kind of thing. I will very intentionally pick what news I engage with and do it in a healthy way. I was probably spending like 10 hours a day reading the news before that and just getting so angry all of the time and just feeling really hopeless about what was going on in our society.
Darrell, who describes himself as a rational, compassionate conservative, says it’s getting harder to find a reliable news source.
DARRELL: NPR has always been the voice of reason, I've felt, and I think that it should be, and I hate to see it being pushed for one reason or another, one way or the other.
Kathryn agrees, and believes all news organizations have a particular slant.
KATHRYN: The people who get the information from CNN, MSNBC have a different perspective than the people who get it from Fox.
And you want to be able to form your own opinion, not somebody else's, but that happens all the time. State of the Union – what happens? You listen to the State of the Union, you hear the whole address, and then for an hour afterwards, everybody’s telling you about what you heard!
But the view that people form their opinions based on their chosen news sources is fairly consistent in the group. Morgan puts it like this:
MORGAN: It's just so hard for all of us to become individuals versus just little amplifiers of the news that we consume.
Almost across the board, group members told me they didn’t change their views, and they didn’t see anyone else move on the political spectrum. Remember, this wasn’t the goal. But people still seemed to expect this.
Darrell says he’s surprised that peoples’ opinions are so entrenched.
DARRELL: We're just not very open to other people's ideas and other opinions. And, and what we found out was that the more we became comfortable with other people, the more we were willing to express our opinions.
What would the group do differently if they had another crack at it?
JIM: I wish that we had had the opportunity to kind of clarify and criticize our own positions. And I think we almost did that with Better Angels where we were asked to state what our policy positions were and how they were good for the country and what we were concerned about them. I think it would have been a good opportunity for the liberal side to take a look at a little bit deeper on some of our liberal positions and some of our liberal politicians.
JOE: We didn't get to know the individual in depth. We just related to – quote -- where they were coming from, not how they got there.
LYDIA: I almost wish if could go back and do things a little differently that we would have shows that were rebuttals to previous shows. I can’t always digest everything til later and I feel like I have good rebuttals and retorts but it’s not til much later. I think addressing the same topics over and over – sometimes – I know some people got tired of addressing the race issue – but I don’t know. I feel like we get a little bit deeper every time we do it. I like discussing the same things over and over once people have had some time to really think about what was said and whether they agree, disagree or how they’re going to logically approach an argument about it.
And beyond who listens to Fox, MSNBC, NPR, Rush Limbaugh, or CNN, what did members of our group learn – if anything?
Lee says he’d like to think this isn’t a 180 for him, but he does hope he’s more considerate of people who might think differently.
LEE: I hope I'm more careful to listen more fully to people when they offer a position. And I hope I'm more accepting of people as people, whatever their position.
That is what I had hoped for. The totality of the consequences of staying within our tribes may not be entirely clear. We do know it creates division – in our larger culture, in our public dialogue, in our families.
You’re listening to Beneath The Surface: The Final Dive. When we come back from this break, we’ll find out who else found a willingness to replace anger with curiosity – and how it happened…
I’M RLH FOR BENEATH THE SURFACE.
SEGMENT 2 OUT
SEGMENT 3 IN
You’re listening to Beneath The Surface: The Final Dive. I’m RLH.
We’re taking a look at a year-long experiment in civil discourse with a group of 11 people unfolded -- and what we all learned in 2019.
As early as last May, Morgan attended a benefit for this station, WHQR. She noticed Connette was also there. They were listening to the speaker on different sides of a very large ballroom.
MORGAN: He was talking about not being able to connect with family members or people with different opinions about the president. I was seated across the ballroom from Connette and I just looked her way and thought, I hope you feel welcome here. I hope you aren't feeling left out by this conversation. And I really did want to go hug her. Connette really impresses me with, with how profoundly she speaks and how well versed she is. And I, I feel a warmth to everybody in that room because they've participated in this project and because they've shared themselves in a scary way -- just speaking publicly about your beliefs.
In one episode, Lee told us about a moment in his social life when an uber-liberal friend attacked ultra-conservative Joe. Lee not only defended Joe’s right to his conservative ideology; he defended Joe. It was in our final, one-on-one interview that Lee said this -- you’ll remember – it’s the quotation which opens this episode:
LEE: I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. That’s this country. If that’s not this country, where are we living?
He goes on.
LEE: So, it boils down to that. Now, if you want me to go on to talk about the fact that in the marketplace of ideas that we, uh, we become better when -- thesis, antithesis, synthesis -- that we become better and stronger when ideas collide and the sparks fly and the thing that emerges from them is always going to be better and stronger than what came before. Is that what you're saying? It is what I'm saying Rachel. It is. It is.
He’s teasing me. He’s reacting to my once-again visible agenda, but I think Lee is also genuine on this point.
Remember, Jim organized a final get-together. We said we’d provide the room and the lunch. We set up microphones because they were in our space- - and why not – but there was no formal program.
I had no agenda that day. I sat in the room – and mostly listened. It was their party.
A few minutes in, Connette stands up.
CONNETTE: I have some things to give out. I have a speech to make.
She hasn’t quite gotten their attention.
CONNETTE: As I said, I have more to say. I brought a pile.
She hands out plants to each person for the holiday season.
JIM: Is it a marijuana plant?
CONNETTE: Noooo! This one is called a Frosty Fern and I thought it was most appropriate for our leader…
RLH: It’s beautiful! Wow!
She talks about an idea for a nonprofit.
And then she hands out some healthcare-related material.
CONNETTE: The other thing is that when we talk about the government being corrupt, they really are trying to take over our healthcare and take our freedom away from us.
This is Connette’s signature issue, as a life, health, and long-term care insurance broker. She manages to launch a robust healthcare discussion. Most of the group is involved. And they seem more comfortable, more willing to engage. Could part of the reason be that this is their party – not meant for air -- and thousands of people won’t be picking apart their discussion?
CONNETTE: The government decided to reinvent the wheel and tell the insurance companies how they were going to run their business.
LEE: I do remember, though, Connette, 2007, 2008, when the articles being read, the news being written – all of it was about how healthcare was going to eat us alive – the unrestricted growth of the cost of healthcare. It was incredibly dangerous. It was incredibly frightening, terrifying, in fact, and the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – was a response to that – a way of solving it.
CONNETTE: It didn’t solve it.
LEE: Well, that’s one of the reasons…
They continue their debate. Carl, Lydia, Kathryn, Joe, Bruce, and others engage. Cedric excuses himself. Eventually Lydia has to leave.
I’m surprised at this discussion.
CONNETTE: Well, reality is a lady told me her father in Denmark had his surgery postponed so many times that he finally passed away. And that’s what happens…
JIM: And that’s okay! It’s okay that that happened.
CONNETTE: Well, it’s not if it’s your mother or your father – your 80-year-old mother in there…
JIM: But in the big scheme of things, people aren’t going to die for lack of healthcare.
Now, it gets personal for Lee.
LEE: Yeah, my mother died for lack of healthcare – way before the Obamacare law was passed. And it was because she could not get care because she had a pre-existing condition and was not allowed to sign up for healthcare. This was after she retired at 62 after working 25 years as a nurse. And she tried to go for three years to get to Medicare and didn’t make it and died on her 65th-plus-one birthday.
And so I’m really not at all a fan of going back to what we had in 2007. It SUCKED. IT SUCKED.
Connette: I don’t remember what year we…
Connette continues with some points about how free health care exists for people who can’t pay, there’s a high-risk pool available for people like Lee’s mother…
But what does this passionate discourse tell us about the group – without my rules or my interference?
It is heated, but no one is speaking with contempt or disrespect. The disagreements are not becoming personal attacks.
Is this what civil discourse sounds like?
Carl, who so often raised the issue of race because he relates policy discussions to his life experience, Carl connects health care to his core values.
CARL: But this total conversation that we’re having tells me that life dependency in this country is all built on capitalism. It’s all about making money or not making money. It’s all about if you can afford it or if you can not afford it. It’s not based on whether it’s our responsibility to be our brother’s keeper. It’s built on whether I can pay or not pay.
Kathryn brings up a book called The Battle For America’s Soul.
After more than hour, I thank the group for their time and contribution.
RLH: I think I’ve said this to each of you individually and in an email – but, I appreciate you so much. The perspective that you bring, the bravery that you’ve had to operate within, to bring those perspectives not just to this group but to our listeners… So thank you – for your time and your heart and your soul…
CONNETTE: Your experiment was successful because we didn’t want to part.
RLH: I am so glad. And thank you for doing this today.
CONNETTE: May I say…
RLH: Yes, go ahead!
CONNETTE: I was just going to say…
I expect her to thank people in her own way, maybe talk about how much she’ll miss people. Nope. That’s not where she’s headed.
CONNETTE: My fear is that there is a generation that’s going to say we just need something like Medicare for everybody and people on Medicare will tell you it is not free and it may cost as much as a thousand dollars a month…
And we’re off once again – back into the healthcare debate.
Some people stayed engaged in the conversation. One person tells me later he doesn’t appreciate getting lectured at an event planned as a goodbye party. Whether we continue in another form or not, he’s out, he says.
Cedric says he appreciates the opportunity to share what it’s like to be a young man of color in this country. He also says that white people who think they’re allies are often not actually helping.
CEDRIC: I even still don’t think that anybody at the table wears hoods or burns crosses, but I still don’t feel like they’re true allies either… White people that build programs and stuff like that and say, ‘we built this program for this nonprofit, for that situation,’ they really put band-aids on issues. They don’t really solve the root cause and issue.
The problem isn’t in the black community. The problem is in the white systematic structures that have been placed upon people to have them in these spaces: the decision to make slavery a business, the decision around red-lining, the decisions around the GI bill, the 1898 coup that just got acknowledged by the state. These are the things that we need to be building programs to reverse the effects of.
When I ask people who, if anyone in the group, they’ll miss, Carl tells me he’ll miss everybody. Yes, everybody.
CARL: I have appreciated what each person brought to the table because we all brought something different. Each time we all got together, we created an environment, a place where we had conversations, we talked to each other, we gave each other the ability to reach out and, and come out of our comfort zone and say things.
Carl is also the person who sends an email to the group in January 2020 wishing them a Happy New Year.
Connette says she feels like she made 10 or 11 new friends. But who will she miss?
CONNETTE: I love listening to Lydia, she has such an intellectual and a very easy way of explaining her feelings.
When I ask Joe if there’s anyone at the table – other than his wife, Kathy – he’d like to continue a relationship with – he says anyone, really, but Carl he feels he knows better.
JOE: Going out to see him in a different setting and stuff like that.
Joe and Kathy actually went to see Carl and his band play in Carolina Beach early on. They all still talk about that day.
JOE: I think Lydia, and you know, our, our, our thespian.
Joe is talking about Lee, the actor.
I think we could have, we would have a lot of fun.
Kathryn agrees that the night they went to Carl play meant a lot.
KATHRYN: Well, I think having gotten to know Carl outside of the group by going to his music, I would like to go again and find out, you know, where he's playing, when there's an opportunity like that in public. I mean when we showed up for the concert, he, you know, came out and hugged us and you know, you felt a warmth there that he appreciated us being there and we really enjoyed being there. So that one piece I liked. I think Lydia has a lot to offer and she's a bright young lady and it probably would be nice to get more in depth on her, even though we're probably very opposite in a lot of our thinking, we're the same in many things
The two people Kathryn says she feels most connected to are people with whom she has huge differences: political differences with Lydia – and her view, of course, that Carl inappropriately brings racial issues into every policy conversation.
I ask Lee the same question. Anyone you’ll miss?
LEE: Besides you?
I kind of will miss Bruce because he is so quirky. He is bright, clearly, educated, clearly, has his heart in a great place, puts his body and his efforts where his heart is. And yet he'll do things like say, no, I absolutely oppose impeachment, but I think it's a great thing to do. That's hilarious. It's hilarious.
So what has happened since they held their goodbye party – slash – healthcare debate on December 12, 2019?
Well, Carl sends that Happy New Year email to the group.
Connette replies, asking if anyone would like to get together for lunch.
Bruce chimes in -- saying he misses the conversations and seeing each person.
But in that same email proposing lunch, Connette also says she would like to see BTS continue… and she writes, “I personally want people to know what is happening in the healthcare and health insurance industry. Our freedom is ultimately the most important thing we have. It's been said by wise men before my time, that if the government ever controls your healthcare, the government controls you.”
Lee replies – beginning with... “In 1961 a bill was introduced into the U.S. House to create Medicare…”
He goes on. Connette replies with a correction on the source of a quotation.
Lee responds again and ends with, “Perhaps even more important to me is the belief that though we may disagree (emphatically!) about how to do things, we agree on the goal of healthy, financially secure citizens. Am I wrong?”
Lee and Connette, two people who arguably have one of the larger gaps between them on the political spectrum, are still talking.
Four of our group members, Connette, Carl, Cedric, and Bruce, are meeting for lunch in a few days.
They’re still talking.
I take my own lessons from this year-long experiment.
I learned that it’s hard to get to know 11 people well in an hour a month.
I learned that some people do not care at all about hearing from people who embrace other political and philosophical ideologies and they’re glad this is over.
I learned that vulnerability requires courage. And that vulnerability is more than pulling back the curtain on one’s life; it is also required when entering someone else’s world.
I learned that leaning into curiosity about people is a bridge-builder and a useful replacement for vitriol or anger.
I learned that despite the number of times we said the goal is not to change minds – some people – both within the group and outside -- evaluated the success of the project on whether minds changed.
But at the end of the year, I come away convinced that engaging with people is far better than avoiding people who vote, speak, or think differently.
And I remain convinced that those differences in our thinking are assets and not liabilities.
There’s still a lot to explore. Whether and how we do that is an open question.
In our individual interviews at the end, Bruce tells me he’d like a focus on gender:
BRUCE: I'll be, uh, be a bit honest here. I don't know that I relate well with women and uh, I have to work to make sure I'm respecting women and respecting them in every way in, in the workplace, in the political arena and in listening to what they say and respecting their views. So I think I need to improve.
But regardless of any 2.0 edition, Lydia captures it well when she recalls this nugget from an October interview on CoastLine with Author and Sociologist Arthur Brooks:
LYDIA: The fabric of American society, I think, is knit together by kindness and familial ties – was sort of what I took away – which is that we shouldn’t let our difference in political opinions start to tear down the fabric of society.
Thanks to our group: Bruce, Carl, Cedric, Connette, Darrell, Jim, Joe, Kathryn, Lee, Lydia, and Morgan.
Thanks also to our dedicated production team: Ken Campbell, Rachel Keith, Katelyn Freund, Kaitlin Hanrahan, Doc Jarden, and George Scheibner.
I’m RLH for BTS… The Final Dive.