CoastLine: Beneath The Surface IX

Sep 26, 2019

About a dozen people, diverse in age, ethnicity, and political leanings, are engaged in a year-long experiment in civil discourse.  Each month, we bring you a conversation with members of the group.  

We’re observing how the tone and quality of the conversation changes over the course of the year – and whether people with different views grow to value time with one another. 

This month, nothing went as planned. That’s not to say every month isn’t its own surprise and series of lessons, but this month took it to another level.    

We set out to talk about health care policy in America.   But instead, this happens:

DARRELL:  Hey, first we’ve got this black / white thing and Jim keeps talking about that – about the greatest problem that we have as the racial thing – and I don’t think it is.

CARL:  ‘cause you’re white.

DARRELL:  No

CARL:  Yes

DARRELL:  No

CARL:  Yes

Darrell is white, a retired engineer, Republican.  He grew up in a poor farming community.  Carl is black, retired from the U.S. Army and New Hanover County Public Schools and is now a musician.  What Carl’s politcal leanings are – well, the complication of that came out last month in episode eight…

It starts as a casual, after-lunch chat.  But our group members have been together for nine months.  They’re getting pretty comfortable with one another.  They’re less guarded. 

Lee, who is white, liberal, an actor and woodworker, explains what he considers to be some of the pivotal moments in extreme partisan history.   

LEE:  The beginnings of the partisan divide – well, actually the beginnings go back to the 1990s and the real problem is – for me – is that idiot from, uh, he’s not an idiot.  He was a history professor…uh…

DARRELL:   Newt Gingrich.

LEE:  Newt Gingrich.  I heard his speech when he said if a Democrat advances it, you must oppose it.  It does not matter what they propose.  You must oppose.  He’s the one who began the use of words like “criminal”, “traitor” to describe the Democratic Party, and he’s also the one who started leaving off the -IC. 

Darrell steps in with some advice that he might have lifted right from the Beneath The Surface textbook – if there was one.

DARRELL:  You should spend time talking to people that don’t agree with you.

LEE:  What?  What?

DARRELL:  You should spend more time talking to people that don’t agree with you.

LEE:  Okay.  Fair enough.  Er – what does that mean?

RLH:  Go ahead, Darrell.

DARRELL:  I like to talk to people who don’t agree with me because I like to know what they’re thinking and more importantly how they got to where they’re thinking. 

LEE:  Okay.

DARRELL:  That’s why just starting with assumptions that this – assumptions that are judgmental and then proceeding from that really does not do anybody any good.

Ooh.

LEE:  My judgmental assumptions that are--

DARRELL:  I’m not – I’m not -- I’m not talking about you – in general terms.  And I think that was what attracted me to what Rachel was trying to do – because there are so many of us that, as you pointed out last month, that are set in our ways and we’ve reached certain conclusions and are very hard to change.  What I heard last month – was -- this is what we think.  This is where we are.  And I felt last month you didn’t make any progress at all. I felt that you were just reiterating your positions.

Darrell is talking about two exercises in August with a facilitator from the national nonprofit Better Angels – which is seeking to de-polarize America. 

Jim comes to Lee’s defense.

JIM:  That was the exercise.

DARRELL:  To reiterate your position?

JIM:  No, the exercise was to get in a circle and state what we believed – our ideas that advanced the country – and we each had turns doing that  and we had to listen to each other, so – it was kind of like a re-hashing of where we were at the very beginning of this process. 

LEE:  There was also the other part of the exercise, and not everybody participated in this fully, I don’t think, but there was what dangers do you see in the positions that you hold?  Now, I tried to advance some dangers that I see in holding liberal and progressive positions.   And I think that was the only thing that advanced us at all. 

But I agree that last month didn’t advance us very much.  But Jim’s right.  That was the exercise.  That was what we were asked to do – not to say what do you find attractive or interesting or logical about your opponent’s position.

Bruce doesn’t jump in often without an invitation, but when he does, everyone listens.    

BRUCE:  But Lee, in the second part of the exercise we were asked, well, now, what did you learn?  What did you hear?  That’s an open door for you to explain what you heard that might be different from you believe.  And it’s a kind of a crawl towards enlightenment, perhaps. 

Let that land for a moment… We do…

In reality, each one of our group members brings something extraordinary to the table.  When one is gone, we miss them.  We miss their perspective.  This month, three of our members – Joe and Kathryn – our married conservative Republicans from Brunswick County and Morgan, our progressive writer with a recent Master’s Degree, are traveling.  They’ll be back for October’s conversation.

But back to the discussion that we didn’t anticipate:

Carl comes back with what a reminder of the biggest takeaway for our group from the August discussion:

CARL:  But I do hope that you did learn something from that conversation.  What I do hope you learned, as it relates to me, is the irrelevance of both of your conversations – liberal and conservative.  To me, it’s irrelevant because it has no true bearing on me.  That conversation that you all carry on is a conversation that travels up here – on a wavelength.

CEDRIC:  It’s a privileged conversation.

That’s Cedric.

CARL:  It’s a conversation that the effect or ineffect of it – seriously is irrelevant to both of you because it’s not going to affect your wallet.  It’s not going to affect your life.  It’s not going to change anything about how you live day to day.  For me that conversation means a lot because I have children.  I have grandchildren.  I have kids who go to college on a fake ideology that if they leave college with a degree that they’re going to come out in the world and achieve something really great. 

CEDRIC:  …the yellow brick road…

CARL:   Everybody’s getting happy taking the money and saying all kinds of things.  I have people who want me to vote for them because they’re Democrats, but I can go look around in my city and see that nothing as far as black people has changed.  Period.  On either side.  For Republican or Democrat.  Everybody has a story to tell.  Everybody has a good song or a trumpet to blow and a good story to tell, but the relevance of your story – the relevance of it all -- means absolutely nothing.  That’s why – you know what – I’ve completely turned off my television.  I was caught up listening to CNN and Fox News – trying to keep up with both sides to see – but then I realized those conversations have nothing to do with me.  And if I stand up today and say, “Hey, this is how I feel about this,” everybody will say, “oh, you know, that’s touching.  And that’s a very good story.”  But they keep right on flying with, “I’m a liberal.  I’m a conservative and I’m going to tell my story and you’re going to tell your story and it’ll go into the Congress, into the Senate.  And everybody’s crooked.  Everybody’s having affairs and all kinds of stuff.  Nobody’s going to hold anybody accountable for anything. 

So, you have these conversations.  It’s sad for me, though, to sit here and listen to them.

Carl tells the group that he wants to make sure when this is over, we know exactly how he feels about the part he plays as a person of color in this country.  He reminds of his 20 years in the U.S. Army – and after that – of his 25 years in the school system – where, he says, he tried to save kids’ lives.

Cedric, who’s sitting next to me, is muttering support, phrases, ideas under his breath, as he pointedly writes on a notepad.  To me, he appears as if he’s trying to avoid piling on, jumping in… he intends to leave this to Carl to handle.  But of the eight group members today, they are the only two people of color. 

Darrell has been listening carefully.  He tells Carl he understands his cynicism.  He tells Carl about the progress on his Strawberry Fields project, his nonprofit effort focused on helping the people of Chadbourn, a socio-economically depressed community made up mostly of African-American people.

DARRELL:  I’m going to make a difference.  And it is where the rubber meets the road that you make the difference.  I just turned down two school buildings that were given to me by Roger Bacon Academy, and I turned them down.  And instead I’ve asked the county commissioners to give me the old middle school – 17 acres – and I’m going to combine that with the 24 acres that I have there.  And we’re going to do some things. 

CARL:  In Chadbourn. 

DARRELL:  In Chadbourn, North Carolina.  And Chadbourn is a very, very poor place.

CARl:  Yes.

DARRELL:  But the thing of it is we spend a lot of time talking and that’s the biggest thing that I have found so far – is that people -- politicians talk but they don’t do anything.  They don’t act.  And I would rather have a politician that acts and makes mistakes.  My attitude is

13:50 talking in Sunday school class – fellow said he started building houses for habitat for humanity.  Enjoying that hoping to work side by side with black construction workers.  Partnered with ame zion church – I expected to be working alongside black members of church.  Got to work site and they had subcontracted stuff out. 

And this is where it catches fire: 

DARRELL:  Hey, first we’ve got this black / white thing and Jim keeps talking about that – about the greatest problem that we have as the racial thing – and I don’t think it is.

CARL:  ‘cause you’re white.

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