November 8, 2012

Our President, Our America

Paducah, Kentucky meets Price Hill, Ohio

By Lee Cole–

My grandmother always called Franklin Delano Roosevelt “my president.”  Fancying myself a conservative, as a seven year old kid, I would criticize, in more of a teasing fashion than with any seriousness, FDR and Democrats in general.  I repeated my favorite Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly lines and stayed up late in middle school to make sure that George W. Bush, of all people, won the election.  At one point, in exchange for receiving some kind of gift from my grandmother, she had me admit that FDR was a good president.  “He was okay, I guess,” I said.  In general, we had a lot of fun bantering.

Luckily, I outgrew my fundamentalist conservative phase.  I can’t say the same for a lot of people.  In my hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, you still hear people quoting Rush, Sean and Bill, calling President Obama an un-American socialist, without really being able to say, with any certainty, what socialism entails.  Some of them are quite openly racist, despite insistence by Fox News and conservative pundits that racism isn’t a factor.  I’ve heard the n-word shouted at television screens there countless times when the president appears, for the brief few seconds before the channel is changed.  Some are more subtle with their hatred.  They will vehemently deny any charges of racism or xenophobia, while at the same time proclaiming with a straight face that President Obama is a secret Muslim, a Marxist, that he wasn’t born in America and even that he is a terrorist conspirator, working to overthrow America.  It really is a bad joke.  In some remote rural areas, there was even widespread belief that he was the anti-Christ in 2008 (I know, it’s crazy, but I heard it quite a bit).  He hasn’t sprouted horns yet, much to their chagrin.

One reason my views shifted and I became much more liberal was that the horizon of my worldview expanded greatly.  McCracken County is about 86 percent white.  The crime rate is very low, land is plentiful and people generally live quiet, economically comfortable lives.  I used to believe, when I was very young, that my hometown was all that existed of America.  I thought that the mansion, which serves as a rest area off I-24 in Paducah, called Whitehaven, ironically, was actually the White House, and that President Clinton lived there, right in the middle of Western Kentucky.  It seemed impossible to me that the world could be bigger, more complicated, than the sprawling farmlands, shopping malls and chemical plants that made up the already difficult to comprehend place that I called home.  The borders of my subjective world, of my America, were so very small, perhaps to make this bewildering life a little more manageable.  For so many people who live there, America does not extend beyond the Ohio River, which forms the northern border of our state.

Follow that mighty river northeast along Kentucky’s border, and you will find yourself, as I did on Election Day, in the neighborhood of Price Hill, in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Price Hill is about 52 percent white, 38 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic.  Cincinnati has the third highest childhood poverty rate in the nation, behind only Cleveland and Detroit, with 48 percent of the city’s children living below poverty line, due in large part to neighborhoods like East Price Hill.  In Lower Price Hill, where the population is mostly white, 56 percent of people in general live below the poverty line.  But these numbers can never tell the whole story.  They cannot illustrate the dilapidated buildings, the children who are hungry or those that are hurting for work and for the same opportunities as everybody else.  Neither can they reflect the defiant optimism and resilience of those who waited in line for hours to vote at St. Lawrence Parish, in the cold, while those in more affluent neighborhoods were in and out of their precincts in a few minutes.  These are the 47 percent, and they don’t consider themselves victims.  They consider themselves proud, hardworking Americans.  I saw so many people who were truly poor and truly need help, living in circumstances that many in my hometown would find unimaginable.  They have no two or three story homes, no country club memberships.  They have no one acre lawns to complain about mowing.  They don’t have the same healthcare opportunities and the schools are underfunded and have inadequate amenities.  And yet, despite all this, I saw in them a stubborn sense of striving and hopefulness that is uniquely American.  They’re doing their best to get along and make a place in this world, a task which is given to each of us to face alone in life.

There is a sense, however, in which we are not alone in our struggle.  We have common hopes and dreams that could be realized if only we made an attempt to understand one another.  Many in my hometown didn’t just believe Mitt Romney would win – they knew it.  They had become so convinced that Obama would lose because their worldview is so narrow, their America so small.  I wrote before the election that the republican party would lose in 2012 and in the future because they’ve ignored minorities and become the party of white America only, and even before Ohio was called, Bill O’Reilly had proclaimed that Obama would win because “The white establishment is now the minority.”  They can’t understand how Barack Obama won in the first place, and they feel the supremacy of their worldview slipping away from them.  They are bitter, confused and afraid.

I wish that the people of Paducah could meet the people of Price Hill.  I wish that the residents of Western Kentucky could walk those streets and see what I saw.  I think that they would be embarrassed, as I was, by my life of privilege and by how lucky I am.  I think that they would be moved to give more, to make an effort to understand.  I think they would acknowledge in them the same spirit of hard work, neighborly kindness and striving that all Americans possess.  I think that they would see that we are, after all, just human beings, and that we are all trying in our own way.

By the same token, I wish the people of Price Hill could see my home.  I wish they could walk with me beside fields of corn or pick blackberries with me along a fencerow.  I wish they could hear my grandfather’s stories about hopping trains, World War two and a life spent farming.  I wish they could see the vast woodlands, creek beds and teeming wildlife that my friends and I only began to explore as kids and never fully appreciated.  I think they would be won over by a plate of garden-grown squash and tomatoes.  I think they would see the dignity of working the land, of self-reliance and the bond of tradition and family and life lived simply.

I’ve heard the phrase “hardened heart” many times growing up, as Christians use the biblical phrase to indicate someone who stubbornly resists the grace of God, though it be available.  I didn’t get the meaning for many years, but I understand it now.  We’ve hardened our hearts, not just toward Barack Obama, but toward one another.  Our hope is in Christ, who said to give all that we have to the poor, that rich men could never enter the kingdom of heaven, that we cannot judge our neighbors lest we be judged and that we should love one another as he loved us. I’ve never met a biblical literalist or fundamentalist that takes those verses literally.  Conservative Christians have to change.  So much of their worldview depends on an us versus them mindset because they are afraid of change.  They need to feel like their worldview is right to give their life meaning – that they will see heaven while others will not.

Barack Obama is my president.  Like FDR, he has worked to make sure that we focus not on wealth or profit, but rather on people.  Like FDR, he will be called a Communist and a Socialist by some for many years, even though FDR was much more anti-Wall Street and much more in favor of big government.  But Barack Obama is not just my president – he is our president, and before we can go on, we must all take him as our own.  We don’t have to agree, and we should, by all means, argue and debate and make our cases.  I admit that I’ve been a partisan and I’ve said things that I shouldn’t have, things that were mean spirited, but I don’t hate Mitt Romney or George W. Bush, and before we can continue, we have to admit, rather than deny that racism and hatred exist, and we have to give up that bitterness.  If you disagree with Barack Obama’s policies, all I’m asking is that you accept him as a decent man – a good man, who loves this country.  All I’m asking is that we make the admission that was good enough for my grandmother when I was a little boy: that at the very least, “He’s ok, I guess.”  I’m asking that we try to see America not just as Paducah or Price Hill, not as city or rural, north or south, east or west, but as all of us, here together.  We have to soften our hearts and give ourselves up to compassion – the true message of Christ.  Another great liberal, Robert F. Kennedy, put it better than I ever could when, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and just a few months before he himself was killed, he said: “you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.  We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love…we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond or go beyond these rather difficult times.”

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