Parenting: Our Political Common Ground

So much divides us.

Politics divides us. Religion divides us. Money divides us. Ethnicity divides us. Geography divides us. Social mores divide us. Ignorance divides us.

Fear divides us.

More than ever in my lifetime, it seems that we are defined by what we oppose, by our juxtaposition against – and unassailable, irrational anger at – the “other.”

We see it on our cable news networks. We read it on our bumper stickers. We hear it on our radios.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of reading the on-line reader comments attached to almost any story on almost any news website, you no doubt felt like your brain was dragged through a virtual pit of slime. Such vitriol is deeply disturbing. It leaves me feeling like we live in a banana republic, populated by hate-filled ignoramuses. So much of the language seems geared toward the denigration and dehumanization of the “other.”

It makes me angry. Then it makes me sad. Then … I’m a little afraid for my kids.

This is the world we live in. It’s a world that seems to mock my morning ritual reminder to our sons: Be good, be nice, be you, have fun.

Voices of reason are ignored. The appalling becomes commonplace. The outrageous, humdrum. Even many of those who once populated society’s fringes no longer are weird enough to attract attention. The only way to be heard is to lunge further away from the middle, then point accusingly back at the “other” as the cause of it all.

I’m not here to draw a moral equivalency among all of these emotionally charged fragments of society. Of course I come to the table with my own set of beliefs, shaped by my experience and my visceral response to life.

I lean toward empathy, but I’m not above outrage.

I’m surrounded by conservative thinkers. I live in one of the reddest zip codes in the state of Florida. My brother would love to see Sarah Palin on the ballot. My uncle ran for county commission in North Carolina on a Tea Party platform. My dad believes the Federal Reserve should never have come into being. I don’t claim to understand their political views, or how they were derived. I love my family and I love my neighborhood, though, and only occasionally have I ever gotten into so much as a heated conversation with any of them about politics.* I’ve certainly never been politically active (as a lifelong journalist, that’s not on the agenda), even though I do feel strongly about most issues.

*I did feel compelled to correct one truly nice and utterly misguided fellow, who swore that our suburban neighborhood of about 600 homes was dotted with potential terrorist sleeper cells and said, in a very matter-of-fact way, that “everyone knows Obama is a Muslim.” This gentleman, who that day tried unsuccessfully to convince me to watch a Fox News documentary about terrorist sleeper cells in America, no longer lives in the neighborhood. I believe he stopped paying his mortgage and was asked politely by the bank to vacate the premises.

I’m also not one of those who contributes to the irrationality of our discourse by claiming we are as divided as we’ve ever been as a nation. I mean, come on. Anyone who believes that it’s never been this bad need only read up on the ‘60s – the 1860s and the 1960s – to understand that it has been much, much worse in this country.

Yet, something’s not right. I can’t put my finger on it. I’ll leave it to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne in his new book, Our Divided Political Heart, to lay out the history of how we got to this point. Instead of conducting a detailed survey into the sociological reasons for our unease, I’d rather dream.

I dream of a day when our differences no longer define us. I’m not naive enough to even dream that our differences would evaporate in a sudden surge of national goodwill. But rather than let those differences dictate irreparable fragmentation, it would be nice if we could acknowledge those differences in a rational way and search for real solutions. To do that, though, we’ll have to set aside the anger and fear. We’ll have to identify, acknowledge and firmly assign to the back shelves of history those who would espouse the outrageous and appalling.

How? How do we do that?

We embrace what we have in common.

From my perspective as the father of two young boys, I can almost always find common ground with my fellow parents.

Mitt and Ann Romney have Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben and Craig.

Barack and Michelle Obama have Malia and Sasha.

MomScribe and I have our Bird and Mouse.

We all know what it was like to bring our children into the world. We all have experienced the awesome sense of responsibility that comes with parenthood. We all want what’s best for our kids. We all hope this nation, and this world, is a place where our kids can thrive and live the lives they choose to live with dignity and purpose.

Yes, politics, religion, money, geography, ethnicity, ignorance and social mores divide us. Parenthood doesn’t necessarily change that. What it does, though, is give us a palpable set of shared reference points. Parenthood crystallizes – or should crystallize – our priorities.

I’m absolutely aware that even the definition of parenthood is an emotionally charged political issue these days. I’m not saying an adoptive same-sex couple of dads in Massachusetts have experienced precisely what MomScribe and I have experienced, or that the evangelical Christian mother and father of 12 in Wyoming would, could or should bring up their kids the way we are bringing up ours. Nor am I saying that becoming a parent makes someone a good person capable of rational thought. There are outliers in every group. For example, I fear for the children who attend Westboro Baptist Church, whose elders clearly occupy what passes for the political and religious fringe at this stage in our history. Nor am I saying that politicians should use their children as a political poultice to artificially smooth over their differences. The world is cynical enough without some disingenuous candidate using his or her children as a political prop.

What I am saying is that there is so much that threatens to tear us apart as a society, but there are things we share, too, and it is important to remember that. I share the state of parenthood with millions, and I’d like to think the overwhelming majority of parents in this country want what’s right for their kids.

So, yeah. I think it would be much more difficult to dehumanize the “other” if parents everywhere, of every political persuasion, of every ethnicity, of every religion, of every tax bracket, really thought about what it means to love and raise a child or children – and remembered that even the “other,” at a deep, foundational level, shares that feeling.

I love my kids. Don’t you love yours? OK, then. Let’s talk.