This year, I spent the holidays in the Midwest. That's a sentence I never thought I would write. And that's a huge part of the problem.
I actually did the same thing last year, as my fiancée's family and friends live mostly in Michigan and Ohio. Last year, the whole thing felt like a safari into unknown territory. A born-and-raised New Englander, everything was different and exciting. I took photos of Amish buggies we blew past on main roads and marveled at the herds of deer that lounged in front yards like dogs. I imitated the accents I heard, trying to get them right. I was clearly a fish out of water, but the newness of it all made the experience fun and stimulating.
Visiting the Midwest after this election cycle was different.
None of it had changed from the first time; the buggies, the deer, the accents were all still there. But being an outsider didn't feel like fun anymore. I was more cautious with my affection in public, scared of the intimidation that has become a badge of honor to some. I had up a shield of criticism, and watching a man in Panera make an employee say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays"--literally stood there and made him say it--didn't help. The Trump/Pence signs exasperated me in poor and farming communities.
Needless to say, those first few days were rough. I felt unwelcome, though no one had come close to insinuating as much. Yet the feeling persisted.
As the days passed, I spent more time talking with my future wife's family and friends. The more I did that, the more I relaxed and saw the Midwest as this expansive, nuanced swath of land. I heard about the overwhelming need for skilled laborers: a need for education different from the one that had been hammered into everyone I knew growing up. I laughed at truly funny jokes and stories told by people who may have voted for Trump or not voted at all. I did my best to hide my former-vegetarian horror when my soon-to-be nephew talked with pride and excitement about the bucks he'd seen while hunting, and watched people work animal skins with care and skill at a taxidermy demonstration.
As I let my mind fade from black and white to shades of gray, I realized what a disservice politics and our current news culture have done to this country: both sides. All of us.
I always thought it was only the "other side" that was getting the wrong idea about other parts of the country. They derided the coasts for their advanced traditional education and progressive world view. I thought "they" needed to be saved from themselves, brought out of the dark ages. "They" believed everything they were told to believe. Meanwhile, I hadn't noticed that those very assumptions I had made, about millions of people and over a dozen states, had been engineered by Democrats and liberal news outlets. Because divide and conquer is the oldest tactic in the book, isn't it?
We've been pitted against one another and turned into caricatures of ourselves, and this can't go on.
I'm turning over ideas in my head to create an exchange with the South and the Midwest. I first thought this would be an event to bring "culture" to "the others," but the longer I was in the Midwest, the more I recognized the rich traditions and culture that already exist and could be--that need to be--shared. It has to be something that will remind us not that we're all the same, because we aren't, but that our differences are what make us great.* No other country in the Western world has the kind of diversity that we do, and it should be something in which we all take pride.
It could be a new kind of World's Fair that showcases the best of us, to us: our foods, our technology and techniques, our crafts, our music and dance and leisure activities. People from rural areas could get to know Muslims and people of color through these universal human activities, without the stigma of pundits and politicians in their ear. People from the city could learn to milk a cow and get a little closer to their food, and the farmers who grow it.
I have no idea how this could come to be, or if this is even the proper format for the cultural exchange I seek; maybe it could be something simpler, but it needs to be face-to-face to be most effective. I do know we all need to see more gray if we hope to ever get anywhere as a country. Leave your ideas in the comments if you'd like to help get something started with me.
*This does not include the neo-Nazis or your garden-variety racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, Islamaphobes, or xenophobes. They're morons who need to go back in their holes. More on them next time.