I grew up in the Tidewater area of Virginia and can remember a hand painted sign in the neighborhood where we went to church that read “Niggers get out by sundown.” I was confused, because everyone seemed so nice, so Christian, and it didn’t seem like something Jesus would say.
And then Bobby Kennedy and Martin King, Jr., were killed within months of each other. And to this 12 year old, it seemed like real hell was breaking loose, and that something very horrible had happened that would change what would become of me and the world I would live in. While it seemed like the whole country was burning or dying in Viet Nam, the worst of it happened in our dreams. A bitter and angry fog descended. We looked to authors like Kurt Vonnegut to make sense of the world.
While in I was in high school, two newspaper reporters exposed the President of the United States as a liar. Instead of becoming even more disillusioned, however, I felt vindicated. “Yeah, a little burglary wasn’t the only thing. He’s lying about the war, the Communist Menace, and the ….” The list went on and on. Finally, truth couldn’t be suppressed, manipulated, or denied, and I was the paperboy delivering it on my neighborhood’s doorsteps.
It’s not uncommon to hear journalists of my generation to be very clear as to when they heard the call to join the profession. The story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sinking their reporting teeth into the ankle of most powerful person on the planet inspired tens of thousands of us to take up truth-telling as a career. And in the political realm, there was Jimmy Carter on Inauguration Day, who got out of the bullet-proof limo and walked, walked! down Pennsylvania Ave waving like a grateful, humble public servant.
Eventually I would become a producer for a television station’s investigative team. We won numerous awards for our exposés of public corruption, defense contractor fraud and police wrong-doing. But in the late 1980’s, things began to change. New station managers wanted hidden camera investigations of air condition repair men and muffler shops, and what if we dropped a wallet on the street to see what kinds of people would return it? The story about a law allowing doctors to secretly own radiology labs so they could profit on unnecessary X-rays wasn’t sexy enough. And the car dealer who made a hundred grand by buying land four months before the city purchased it for a fire station? Forget that, he’s an advertiser.
So I quit. I now live in North Carolina, trying to launch a career as a filmmaker. Shortly after moving here I became active in local politics when our county commissioners allowed developers to run rampant over our little patch of paradise. For the first time in my life, I was writing checks, stuffing envelopes, canvassing door to door and standing in traffic on Election Day waving signs in support of progressive candidates. Although we live in a political estuary between a liberal college town and a conservative rural area, we won 12 of 13 races with liberal candidates. I think our success was due to the hard work of hundreds of people who first broke the taboo of not talking politics with their neighbors, and then once the dialogue started, really listened to what concerned people most. We found, in many cases, that we were the first ones to ever ask these people what they wanted their government to do for them. Before they were alienated and powerless, now they were energized. Once they believed we understood their issues, they were willing to listen to our solutions.
I found that the most challenging part in discussing politics with complete strangers is getting beyond the slogans, talking points and mini-lectures all of us have absorbed one way or another. Taking our cues from television news, in particular we’ve learned that political dialogue consists of eight second soundbites from opposite sides of an issue, ignoring the vast and complicated middle ground. By simply repeating campaign fear mongering, television news forces people to pick a side they want to be on.
And because of the taboo of talking about religion and politics with friends, family and co-workers, many people don’t know how to talk differently. Political speech has taken on characteristics of professional wrestling, with one person trying to vanquish their foe with an insult or talking point that slams them to the mat. And this, I believe, keeps us divisive and only serves the political establishment.
In the primaries I was a John Edwards supporter because I thought he would be forceful enough to push back the political pendulum that had been swung by George W. Bush to the far right. I wanted a fighter, not a healer. I didn’t have the faith that America would elect a black man, and didn’t want to chance 1968 all over again. I’m still crying for my country nearly 40 years later. “Barack Obama is too good to be true,” I thought then. I had given up hoping, in the words of Sam Cooke, that “a change is gonna come.”
I had to see it to believe it. Then, there were millions of people from all walks of life packing stadiums across the country to hear Mr. Obama; there were hundreds of thousands in Europe who cheered him – no, the hope of America; and then the reluctant admiration of conservative writers, and the comparisons to Abraham Lincoln – slowly I began to believe it could happen: that America would have another chance at becoming the place described in my childhood textbooks.
Now, six days before Election Day, I do not believe the election of Barack Obama will cure all that ails the U.S. It would be a start. The work is ours to do, and for me, it will begin with repairing my faith in America.