by David Greene
July 9, 2019
The Better Angels of Our Nature
The odd couple sat on the stage next to the nervous moderator. Ray Warrick, a stocky, white, tough linebacker type from Cincinnati sat on the left. Hawk Newsome, a 6’5 black, tough defensive end type from the Bronx sat in the middle. Neither looked the Kumbaya type.
Ray Warrick, once an ordinary guy who raged against the machine of politicians he could no longer trust, now finds himself the head of the Tea Party in Cincinnati.
Hawk Newsome, who as a youth, dropped out of high school yet pushed forward and earned a GED, Bachelor of Science, and law degree, now is the President of the NYC chapter of Black Lives Matters.
But this was not what you might predict, an “Ebony and Ivory” yellathon. They are both activists unhappy with the status quo. They are quite angry with government officials and police who forget their responsibility to us, the citizens. While they both rage against the machine as they each see fit, they do not rage at each other. They are Better Angels.
How many times did you hear, when you were younger and dragged to some holiday gathering, never to discuss money, religion and politics with other people, then sit at the holiday meal table like a good little boy or girl and watch the adults in the room start to raise their voices, yell, curse, and threaten violence until “Drunk Uncle” said something so outlandish that everyone just stopped and stared at him….and laughed.
Imagine if you will…Twilight Zone theme here… what it’s like for kids today. Their adult “role models” go off the rails reading a newspaper, a screen, a text, an email, or watching TV, then yell at the walls or the nearest target with even a slightly opposite opinion. Stupid !@#$% chair, how could you think that?
Aren’t we all tired of going on Facebook, for example, and feeling our blood boil, not only at the inflammatory third-party posts by so called FB friends, but also by real friends who put up inflammatory memes or posts or articles attacking either side?
Today’s political climate has ramped up this climate so much that people start with vitriol and never back down from there. What do we do not only about the polarization, but about the anger filled tweets, FB comments, and arguments at the dinner table? Often, we too just fume, wondering what the hell is going on. These used to be reasonable people.
As luck would have it, I discovered Better Angels, an organization started after the 2016 elections designed to solve this problem. The name Better Angels comes from the phrase used by Abraham Lincoln in his first inauguration speech, when he referred to the “better angels of our nature” to try to prevent our divided house from falling.
Today “Reds and Blues” are both unhappy with government and media and rage against them. Unfortunately, social media, cable news, lobbyists, and politicians have all found ways to get us to rage at each other, tearing our house apart. Thus, Better Angels was formed.
I signed up for a “Red/Blue” workshop, a highly structured ½ day vehicle that brings Red Trumpsters, AOC loving Sanderites and everybody in between on the political spectrum together to rid ourselves of our assumptions and stereotypes of those “others”. By the end of the session, we went from glares and stares to miles of smiles. I was hooked.
Six months later I was in St Louis for their 2nd annual convention. We came from all over the country: rich, middle class, and poor; urban, suburban and rural; teenagers, octogenarians, boomers and millenials; coastal dwellers and Midwesterners; northerners and southerners; with innumerable occupations. We came to learn about each other, to practice listening to and reasoning with each other, to stop the polarization, yelling, tension, stress and screaming. We came to figure out a way to share our national values as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution and use them to move us past this time of hostile stagnation.
Saturday afternoon I randomly sat next to Carol. We volunteered to do a “1:1” workshop where a Red and a Blue member of BA spent an hour going through a structured conversation to better understand each other. The questions asked why we are participating, about ourselves and our background, where we are politically and how we got there, what’s good about “our” side, and what our reservations are about our side. Then we were to discuss two topics of important to us. The structure provided equal time and stressed listening and not interrupting.
We were quite the pair. Although I have lived in middle class suburban Westchester NY towns for 35 years and was born in LA, I am truly a Bronx tale. I am 6’4 and talk like a “Newyawka”, although I try not to. Carol was more than a foot shorter than me, thin, and looked either my age or a bit older and, according to her name tag, was from a place called Urbandale Iowa, a small midwestern town just outside Des Moines. What do I know about Iowa? Corn, Primaries, and “Field of Dreams”. She assumed correctly, “You must be a Yankee fan.” So, at first, we talked baseball.
It didn’t take very long for us both to gasp, “We are so alike.” We discovered we were both raised by struggling single moms and had dads who left us while quite young. We grew up day to day, with our tv’s broken more days than working. As young kids we learned to love our neighbors and friends and cared a great deal for them. She became an English teacher and gave back to her rural white kids that way, while I became a Social Studies teacher and gave back to my urban Bronx kids of color. She complained about being a “flyover” that the coastal elites ignored or looked down on, and I explained that my Bronx was a “commute through” place where commuters, driving or riding the rails, scurried through, afraid to be accidentally moored there as in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. To them, the Bronx was still burning. We both got it.
We shared the same basic values taught us by our moms, with her church having a great deal more to do with that than my synagogues. We were both there to do our share to heal the wounds of polarization. On the way we discovered her conservative reasoning and my liberal reasoning had the same values as their basis.
When we got to the question about what reservations we had about our sides, she couldn’t hold it in and went first. “TRUMP, she screamed in a loud stage whisper, and all those who have made my party a shambles. They have destroyed the values “for which I stand.” She hated how the extreme version of her party dictated how we saw her and her conservative friends. My response was virtually the same. Whether I agreed with them or not wasn’t the issue, but I had a big beef with how the more radical squeaky wheels in my party dictated how others saw me and my fellow liberals.
That, in fact became the first topic we discussed. The second came out of that. We were both just as angry at social media, cable news, lobbyists, politicians and their campaigners. We realized, together, that what we are really both pissed at is how they manipulate us through the use of psychometric algorithms that trigger either our fight, flight, or tribal biochemical mechanisms. They know exactly how to press our “battle” button, our “I want no part of this button”, or our “us vs them” button. We looked at each other and then almost said the same thing at the same time. Trump is PT Barnum and naturally does it. I called him an idiot savant. She didn’t disagree.
So here we were, the Bronxite and the Midwesterner, the liberal and conservative, the Jew and the Christian, just like Ray and Hawk the evening before, getting along, talking with each other, agreeing to disagree, marveling at how much we agreed and how much we were alike.
That is the hope of Better Angels. I am sure some will call it naïve, or impossible, but until they have witnessed it, they should avoid passing judgement.
As for you, why not try it? Or do you prefer waiting for Drunk Uncle to say something really stupid?
David Greene is a former 38 year Social Studies teacher and coach. He has authored 2 books and appeared in newspapers, radio and tv.
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