First, read this lead paragraph from Robert Samuelson’s column today:
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 share with us your answer to this question: Is this true for you?
I ask that because what 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.
The thing about this for me is this: I don’t know any people like me. 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, say, in our political views.
Oh, but you’re Catholic, you might say. Yeah, 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. We live in, I seem to recall my pastor telling me, 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, say, about foreign policy.
Yeah, I might run into someone occasionally who shares my background of having been a military brat. But beyond a comparison of whether you ever were stationed in the same places, there’s not a lot to hang a sense of identity on.
I belong to the Rotary Club, which means I go have lunch with 300 or so other people who also belong to that club 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. I joined Rotary because Jack Van Loan invited me to, and my boss — two publishers ago, now — said he wanted me to join. 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 of life here in the Columbia area. Rusty DePass, who worked hard for Rudy Giuliani last years, plays piano at Rotary. Jack, 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. No one of them is any more or less a Rotarian because of his political attitudes.
(I can think of one superficial way in which an outside observer might see sameness at Rotary — a lot of the men in the club are of the 6% of American men who still wear a suit to work every day, although plenty don’t. And it’s whiter than South Carolina, but that seems to go with the suit thing.)
I’m a South Carolinian, but I’m very much at home in Memphis, and have grown quite comfortable during frequent visits to central Pennsylvania, where the Civil War re-enactors wear blue uniforms.
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 worth noting.
Anyway, my point is that all of this is a barrier for me to understanding 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. 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. And I don’t see why others do.
Maybe I’m a misfit. But the ways in which I’m a misfit helped bring me to supporting John McCain (fellow Navy brat) and Barack Obama (who, like me, graduated from high school in the hyperdiverse ethnic climate of Hawaii). McCain is the "Republican" whom the doctrinaire Republicans love to hate. 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 identify themselves with 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 characters that they are, or will they 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.