The journey through the countryside and small towns of Minnesota and Wisconsin was beautiful. Kennon and I particularly enjoyed Bayfield and Ashland, two towns on Lake Superior. You can see the pictures here.
As a political junkie, I appreciated being in Wisconsin as the June 5 gubernatorial recall approached. It was the topic of conversation with almost everyone I met along the way, particularly in Madison where a union worker holding a Tom Barrett sign told me, “If we lose this election, America will have made the final step toward becoming a corporatocracy.”
We camped one night near Milwaukee, spent the morning driving along Lake Michigan, and had an outdoor brunch at a coffee house near the lake. This part of the journey was a wonderful addition but it put us nearly three days behind the projected schedule I prepared in planning the trip.
Fortunately, we do not have a deadline and are free to wander where our hearts lead us. So instead of pushing it on the toll highways toward Pennsylvania and New York we traveled the back roads of Pennsylvania farmland through the Amish villages of New Westminster and Volant.
In New York, we visited the Niagara Falls, and then drove on local roads along farm fields and wetlands to Pittsford and Fairport, small New York towns on the Erie Canal.
I continue to be amazed at the diversity of our nation and have a growing understanding of why it is so difficult for us to live into the motto “E Pluribus Unum.”
I have met farmers in the countryside, small business people in towns, white-collar corporate types in cities; people who are rich, working and non-working poor and an increasingly anxious middle class.
The style of living, the meaning of family and religion, the challenges of weather and landscapes, and day-to-day work and economic pressures are dramatically varied among Americans. It is no wonder that people in different parts of this nation look at the same issue and reach different conclusions.
I’m finding that one’s immediate context has the greatest influence on her or his interpretation of what needs the most attention. We are all biased by what we consider our urgent concerns.
We too often have conversations with people just like us (listening and reading the same or similar news’ sources) and thus become inured to what is happening in other places around the country. We are in fact divided into “many” and not united as “one.”
While economic, social and political divisions have always been present in America, it has not always been as viciously polarized as it is today. A small business owner I met in Tomahawk, Wisconsin agreed, and he set the time we began fracturing into win/lose competing interest groups at 1980.
My questions of the week: “Given our diversity in geography, financial status, educational levels, religion and political outlook, do you think it is possible for Americans to unite as one people around a common vision? If so, how do we do it? If not, why not?”
Thanks to those of you who have sent me comments. Leslie Boyd of Asheville, North Carolina offered the following response to my question about diversity:
“With each wave of immigrants came a new wave of xenophobia. Our ancestors were confined to tenement slums, to dangerous industrial jobs that paid subsistence wages only if everyone in the family worked.
“Citizens paid immigrant Irish to take their place in war. Immigrant life was cheap. Factory owners liked having children work for them because their small hands could reach into the machinery and untangle textiles. It didn’t matter that the machines occasionally maimed or killed the children. My grandparents, children of Irish immigrants, were eight when they started working in the textile mills of New England. My grandmother taught herself to read and write and later taught her husband.
“In Pennsylvania, Eastern Europeans worked in the coal mines. My father-in-law had the tip of his finger cut off in a mining accident and was sent back to work immediately by the company ‘doctor.’ Again, there was always someone to replace men who quit or die on the job.
“Company stores accepted company scrip; workers never saw cash. Pay was so low that people couldn’t buy what they needed so they were indebted to the company store and worked as indentured servants.
“This is what we have done historically with the diversity of immigrants, people so desperate for a better life for their children that they were willing to endure the danger and poverty. And their children did better because this country really did offer opportunity. Whether it will continue to do so remains to be seen.”
To my question about hope, Ann Johnson in Arizona wrote, “I am not sure that I feel hopeful. Unless we can shut down the news media and their twisting of every event, and those people that believe all the untruths out there, we are in trouble. The last time our son-in-law visited, he asked to watch Faux (Fox) News.
“I told him ‘Not in my house.’ When we visit them, I leave the room when he watches that swill. The Tea Party people scare me. What will happen to our country if they get control? I feel like echoing all the concerns that Parker Palmer raises in his book The Heart of Democracy. But then I balance that with Jesus Freak by Sara Miles. Here in Graham County people are very caring and supportive of those in need, even when they support the Tea Party.”