Finding Ourselves In Cultural Geography

I’m heading off for vacation tomorrow wondering just how different we all are from each other. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, whom I love to read, did another piece yesterday on cultural geography, or what might be called, the “divided America.” Brooks wrote:

Forty-million Americans move every year, and they generally move in with people like themselves, so as the late James Chapin used to say, every place becomes more like itself. Crunchy places like Boulder attract crunchy types and become crunchier. Conservative places like suburban Georgia attract conservatives and become more so.

Not long ago, many people worked on farms or in factories, so they had similar lifestyles. But now the economy rewards specialization, so workplaces and lifestyles diverge. The military and civilian cultures diverge. In the political world, Democrats and Republicans seem to live on different planets.

It’s true that we all tend to move near people who are like us. But does that mean we really live on “different planets”? Does it mean that we’re necessarily that different from one another? Does it follow that our aspirations, say, for our children or our safety, are fundamentally different if we’re a Democrat or Republican, if we attend religious services or don’t, if we are white or African American or Hispanic or Asian?

I’ve said here many times before that we spend so much time in our society creating social narratives about how different we are from one another; these narratives have a way of shaping what leaders, the news media, and we citizens say and do; over time, they become self-fulfilling prophesies in our public arena.

And yet, when you see people from across the country, and talk with them, what you realize is that we share many more things in common than that which separate us. There are plenty of places where people hold common desires and hopes and concerns.

The fundamental problem facing our nation is not that we are from “different planets” but that we all have chosen to retreat from public life and live in close-knit circles of family and friends. Rather than being divided, we are shut off from each other – as if each of us has constructed our own personal wall. Addressing this requires a different approach than bridging division; it requires that we get back to the basics of our reality, and our common humanity.

Because of our narrative of a “divided America,” we end up dismissing the very basic tenets of human nature – that each us is innately good and holds the potential to do good; that people want to find ways to move ahead in public life; that most folks want to make a difference. Indeed, through this divided America narrative, we scare off our hopes that maybe progress is even possible.

Yes, we are in our society that is separating by various demographic and political traits; but that doesn’t mean we live on different planets. What it does mean is that we have to figure out how to inhabit the planet on which we all live, and take the first steps out of close knit circles. To take these steps we must change our focus. I’ll be talking much more about how we need to change our focus in the coming weeks as I prepare to release my book, Hope Unraveled, which lays out an alternate path of possibility and hope for public life.