KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ She was conversational and likable and from Ohio and we sat and talked about the culture wars in the Divided States of America.
She told me how hard it was to pull into her Ohio church parking lot and see all the bumper stickers for U.S. president Barack Obama. “And you just knew who these people are,” she told me before she said, I suspect for the sake of her own faith and peace of mind, that “You just have to leave it at the door.”
He was also a good conversationalist, also from Ohio and, like the woman I had previously listened to, he also had views. And although they were different from hers, he too had a certain exasperation and frustration in his voice.
The problem, or at least one of them, he told me, is our fragmented postmodern times. Americans are among those who can choose their church, or lack of, or favourite sports team or television show as easily as their favourite ice-cream, and then live in a bubble of like-minded people who simply reinforce what they believe to be right or wrong or of any value.
The result, he told me, is that a growing number of Americans simply can’t be bothered to listen to one another. “The view is that if your opinion isn’t set in stone, then there’s something wrong with you,” he said.
Of course there’s more to it, more nuance and complexity, and in recent times I’ve listened to several other American expatriates in Uganda reflect on what one called the new “concern and hysteria” in his homeland since its Nov. 6 election.
But it’s these two from Ohio, a state with a sort of poli-cultural Berlin Wall running through it, that spoke to something deeper in me, something deeper, maybe, in all of us, including Africans who have seen their own share of pain from the drawing of difficult boundaries.
No, choosing to live in seas of suspicion with your doors locked and curtains pulled is hardly an American phenomena. It’s just another form of tribalism, another symptom of fallen human nature.
So now we all watch these Divided States not just to see if the president will go coatless in the winter cold or say poetic words in his second inauguration. We wait for the days after all of that to see if Americans can look past the divisiveness of guns and taxes and immigration and health care and you name the blue or red anger, to see if they can recreate themselves in their historic values.
Because if America ever had greatness, if America ever was a modern republic to emulate, it’s largely because it’s been a nation united with rather different peoples and regions and perspectives.
It didn’t build that with today’s clichéd rhetoric and meaningless labels: black or white, right or left, religious or secular to name a few. It did it by recognizing something far more relevant, that any person has a need for both freedom and love, the kind that was divinely placed in us as far back as Eden.
Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator of a far bloodier American civil war, the one that got him martyred on Good Friday, would say something similar. Getting along is not only the great political challenge of this time. It’s the great personal challenge of any time.
No, Americans, like any of us, don’t have any high calling to agreement. Just to peace.