An Essay by Wallace Kaufman –
From politicians, the media, and from many friends across the political spectrum I have heard the question, “How is it even possible to find common ground?” The question is rhetorical, asked by people who no longer believe Americans have common ground. We do.
History is clear that we have been more divided. No presidential campaign was more bitter than John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson, as Adams’ vice president, may have committed treason by conspiring to destroy Adams’ efforts for a peace treaty with France. Both campaigns hired vicious journalists to sling fake news at each other.
And when was America more divided than during the Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed? Our divisions during that war killed over 700,000 Americans.
Can we find common ground, that common question asked across the political spectrum, is itself common ground—everyone wants a way to recognize some unifying beliefs or character.
There is yet more common ground—the vast majority want peaceful expression of our differences. Only very small groups on right and left believe violence solves anything.
Is there a common American character? Consider the view of Rose Ingalls, Wilder Lane, who some might recognize as the prototype for Laura in the Little House series written by her mother. Lane attended the Russian Revolution in 1917 as an American communist. A few years later, however, she recognized that communism ran counter to human nature, and in her foreign experience she recognized a special American character. I think we can still recognize this common character in her words published in the depths of the Great Depression in 1936.
“Americans today are the most reckless and lawless of peoples. We are also the most imaginative, the most temperamental, the most infinitely varied people. We are the kindest people on earth; kind every day to one another, and sympathetically responsive to every rumor of distress. Only Americans ever made millions of small personal sacrifices in order to pour wealth over the world, relieving suffering in such distant places as Armenia and Japan. Everywhere, in shops, streets, factories, elevators, on highways and on farms, Americans are the most friendly and courteous people. There is more laughter and more song in America than anywhere else. Such are some of the human values that grew from individualism while individualism was creating America.”
In that same essay, “Credo,” she says that we will not think of ourselves in ideological terms, as opposing factions if only we “look at this vast, infinitely various, completely unstandardized, subtle, complex, passionate, strong, weak, beautiful, inorganic and intensely vital land. How could we be so bemused by books and by the desire of our own minds to make a pattern?”
When we recognize that we are individuals before we are members of a political faction, we have common ground and we can talk to each other.
As a professional mediator for over three decades, I have seen many people and groups find mutual understanding and then common ground after they swore they had none.
A Massachusetts mediator brought together woman passionately pro-life and passionately pro choice. They began talking and liked each other so much that they extended their discussions beyond mediation. In North Carolina I saw a Klan leader and a black community activist talk and recognize what poor whites and poor blacks had in common.
When we recognize that almost everyone wants clean air and water, healthy forests, beautiful landscapes, and the preservation of wildlife that becomes common ground.
Defenders of Wildlife made peace with ranchers by reimbursing them for livestock killed by wolves and rewarding ranchers who protected wolf dens. Hunting groups have donated millions to preserve natural habitat and viable wildlife populations. The Nature Conservancy has raised large amounts by carefully leasing some of its lands for oil and gas production.
Oddly enough our various community rights groups have a lot in common with radical ranchers like the Bundy brothers—both wanting to solve issues at the community level.
Here in Lincoln County the atheists of Newport Non-Believers has a booth at the county fair and has had friendly debates with evangelicals.
Oregonians need to talk to each other. Unfortunately some of the groups that try to bring people together to talk out differences are themselves too clearly identified by ideology. Unfortunately our members of Congress can’t send out a bulletin without bashing their opponents. (I note that our state representative David Gomberg is a welcome exception.)
Oregon does have, however, very skilled and successful mediators, some who call mediation their profession, others who are just excellent listeners and creative thinkers like Rep. Gomberg. Put them to work.
Jazz trumpeter and civil rights activist Wynton Marsalis is right, “Our form of democracy affords us the opportunity to mine a collective intelligence, a collective creativity, and a collective human heritage.” If we can mine gold and bitcoin, we can mine our own heritage. So far too many miners in schools and universities are looking for impurities – not the gold.
PO Box 756
Newport, OR 97365 USA
541 995 4785
cell 541 351 5205