Do you hang with people ‘like yourself’? (column version)

    Yes, you’ve read this before, if you keep up with the blog. There are some editing changes, but it’s about as close as I’ll usually come to a direct copy-and-paste from the blog to the paper. I just post it here in keeping with the theory that some folks will come here looking for the blog version of my Sunday column, and I hate to disappoint.

    While this is an example of Dan Gillmors’ suggestion to  "Make the printed pages the
best-of" what’s been on the Web, it’s slightly more complicated than that. I was thinking "column" as I wrote this on Wednesday, and consciously made sure it had an ending that I thought would work in a column. Unconsciously, I also wrote it to precisely the length of a column, which is remarkable — particularly since, when I’m deliberately writing a column, I always initially write it 10-20 inches too long, and have to spend as much time trimming as I did on the initial writing.

    Obviously, this is a method I should employ more often — at least, I should do so when I don’t feel the duty to write something fresh, and something with added local value. I can let myself get away with musing and riffing off someone else’s column during the Dog Days, but once we pass Labor Day and start interviewing candidates and chugging toward the general election, I’ll feel obliged to do more with the columns.

FIRST, READ this from a column by The Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson, which ran on our op-ed page last week:

    People prefer to be with people like themselves. For all the celebration of “diversity,” it’s sameness that dominates. Most people favor friendships with those who share similar backgrounds, interests and values. It makes for more shared experiences, easier conversations and more comfortable silences. Despite many exceptions, the urge is nearly universal. It’s human nature.

    Then ask yourself this question: Is this true for you?
    What Mr. Samuelson is saying is accepted as gospel, as an “of course,” by so many people. And you can find all sorts of evidence to back it up, from whitebread suburbs to Jeremiah Wright’s church to the book that inspired the column, The Big Sort by Bill Bishop.
    Here’s my problem with that: I don’t know any people “like me,” in the sense under discussion here. I don’t have a group of people who look and act and think like me with whom to identify, with the possible exception of my own close family, and in some respects that’s a stretch — we may look alike and in some cases have similar temperaments, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to being alike in, say, political views.
    Oh, but you’re Catholic, you might say. Do you know what “catholic” means? It means “universal.” At the Mass I attend, we sometimes speak English, sometimes Spanish, and throw in bits of Greek and Latin here and there. The priest who often as not celebrates that Mass is from Africa. Parishioners live in something like 35 ZIP codes. There are black, white and brown people who either came from, or their parents came from, every continent and every major racial group on the planet. My impression, from casual conversations over time, is that you would find political views as varied as those in the general population. Sure, more of us are probably opposed to abortion than you generally find, but that’s not a predictor of what we think about, say, foreign policy.
    I may run into someone occasionally who shares my background as a military brat. But beyond a comparison of “were you ever stationed at …,” there’s not a lot to hang a sense of identity on.
I belong to the Rotary Club, which means I have lunch with 300 or so other people once a week. I can’t think of any attitude or opinion I have as a result of being a Rotarian; nor — to turn that around — did I join Rotary because of any attitude or opinion I held previously. Wait — there’s one thing that’s different: I started giving blood as a result of being in Rotary. But I don’t feel any particular identification with other people who give blood, or any particular alienation from others who don’t give blood, the selfish cowards (just kidding).
That’s not to say anything bad about Rotary, or anything good about it. It’s just not a predictor of my attitudes. I suppose people who have an objection to singing the National Anthem and “God Bless America” every week might stay away, but that still leaves a pretty broad spectrum. Rusty DePass, who worked hard for Rudy Giuliani last year, plays piano at Rotary. Jack Van Loan, longtime comrade and supporter of John McCain, is our immediate past president. Another prominent member is Jim Leventis, who is the godfather of Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, the filmmaker Alexandra. Not one of them is any more or less a Rotarian because of his political attitudes.
    Reaching for a generalization, I can point to superficial sameness at Rotary — a lot of members are among the 6 percent of American men who still wear a tie to work every day, although many are not. And the membership is notably whiter than South Carolina, but that seems to correlate demographically with the tie thing. In any case, this is a place where I spend one hour a week; it does not define me.
    Bottom line: I cannot think of five people not related to me, with whom I regularly congregate, who share my “backgrounds, interests and values” to any degree that would matter to me.
    This is a barrier for my understanding of people who do identify with large groups of people who look alike and/or think alike and/or have particular interests in common that bind them as a group and set them apart from others. I don’t see how they do it. If I tried to be a Democrat or a Republican, I’d quit the first day over at least a dozen policy positions that I couldn’t swallow. How do others manage this?
    Maybe I’m a misfit. But the ways in which I’m a misfit helped bring me to support John McCain (fellow Navy brat) and Barack Obama (who, like me, graduated from high school in the hyperdiverse ethnic climate of Hawaii) for their respective nominations. Sen. McCain is the Republican whom the doctrinaire Republicans love to hate. Sen. Obama is the Democrat who was uninterested in continuing the partisan warfare that was so viscerally important to the Clintonistas.
    Coming full circle, I guess I like these guys because they’re, well, like me. But not so most people would notice.
    It’s going to be interesting, and for me often distressing, to watch what happens as the media and party structures and political elites who do think in terms of groups that look, think and act alike sweep up these two misfit individuals in the tidal rush toward November. Will either of them have the strength of mind and will to remain the remarkably unique character that he is, or will both succumb to the irresistible force of Identity Politics? I’m rooting fervently for the former, but recent history and all the infrastructure of political expression are on the side of the latter.

Does Mr. Samuelson’s observation apply to you? Tell us all about it at

12 thoughts on “Do you hang with people ‘like yourself’? (column version)

  1. george32

    brad-i think your affinity group is defined more by your education, general income level and occupation. while you, warren, cindi, etc. certainly are different i am sure you share many values-not least a belief in the role of the press to inform and, in some instances, to guide. likewise most police officers tend to be “law and order” oriented irrespective of other differences they may have. i think self-segregation occurs all the time as a leftover from the need for protection. how many neighborhoods and churches are truly divrse?

  2. Susan

    I hang out with teachers on the rare occasion that I am social (or my family, of course). I find that teachers understand other teachers, so that’s part of the reason. We don’t have to explain as much.
    I do see my college friends but rarely because most are out of state, but they don’t see me as a teacher any more than I see my friend in NJ as a heart surgery PA at a large metropolitan hospital.
    And like you, I would have a big problem with aligning myself with one and only one political party.

  3. Herb Brasher

    Brad, this is well done, and would make a good basis for a needed sermon in many of our churches.
    As I was “dueling” with Lee down on another thread, it struck me how comparatively little I have lived out the legacy that my parents gave me. (I’ve written this before, but I’ll write it again, as a needed reminder to myself.) They had international students in their home for years. And in my childhood, I recall many a time sitting with my mother in the homes of Spanish-speaking people, with the stove (the only source of heat) going full blast, and the place smelling like natural gas. She never tired in her effort to help people, and she never asked if they were legal immigrants, or not. To my shame, I must admit I was embarrassed when she had a family of them over to our house. I didn’t want my white middle-class friends to come over and see these people that I thought were beneath me. I would have been personally enriched if I had taken the trouble to learn some Spanish and then to understand their “Texmex.”
    As hard as it is to remain both true and kind on commenting, it is harder still to leave words behind and be truthful and kind in practice.

  4. Lee Muller

    Too many people have only held one type of job in their lives. Their small circle of friends is very parochial, their conversations are an unchallenging echo chamber.

  5. slugger

    Do I hang out with people like me? Heck no. I want to talk with people that have a lot more intelligence. You only learn by listening. Not by talking.

  6. lila bendkowska

    I thought he had a more macroscopic view. Yours is a tad too microscopic.?
    (We all used to belong to tribes, or get eaten by rival neighbors….thats probably how tatoos were invented.)
    Do you, EG: “hang” with teenage minority transvetites? How about running a piercing parlor for Chinese immigrants?
    Are you a Vegan and active in PTA?
    OR…are your contacts mostly middle aged middle class educated caucasians of the married class?….IF so, you are indeed “hanging” with people like yourself….hmm?

  7. Reader

    I have wanted to say every time I see this blog headline:
    I’d rather not hang. I would prefer a nice, non-violent lethal injection. Preferences noted? Voice heard? Respected?
    This is just in case I commit a capital crime anytime soon.

  8. Reader

    P.S. And preferably that injection would be Xanax, Mexican Quaaludes, or Morphine. Morphine makes me itch. But it would be alright in this case.

  9. Herb Brasher

    Well, I guess I may as well admit that I read Brad’s column through, not once, but twice, without comprehending the point, and took off in a completely different direction. I’ve gotten in a bad habit lately of speed reading without enough comprehension, and one can’t do that with Brad. Still, I can identify more with Samuelson, but next time I’ll leave off the irrelevant part about my childhood. . . .
    Oh well, as Pope Benedict said in quoting German comedian Wilhelm Busch–who probably stole it from someone else:
    Ist der Ruf erst ruiniert, lebt es sich völlig ungeniert. Free translation something like: “Once your worldly reputation is in tatters, the opinion of others hardly matters.”

  10. Reader

    Here’s what I can comprehend, Herb:
    An editor’s job must be a tough one. Especially in a market like Columbia. One can’t be all things to all people or all zip codes. You can’t cater to the Squandering Establishment AND the Reform Group [aka Governor Sanford] at the same time. One has to choose. “The State” has made its choice.
    BTW, whose worldly reputation are you and the Pope referencing?

  11. Herb Brasher

    Our own. The difference is that I made a big goof. Pope Benedict was just criticized for holding the views he did. Sort of like Brad. Sort of.


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