Sunday, October 28, 2012

Learning the language of others

“We can’t be friends with them because they don’t speak our language,” an Afghan soldier told a reporter in discussing tense relations with US troops. I was struck by this remark because it could be applied to the breakdown of public conversation in America today. 

Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, one thing is certain: the victor will be faced with governing a country growing ever more divided around social and cultural issues and more unequal than any other society in the developed world. Both Republican and Democrat campaigns have played to our fears and insecurities; they have not called on our best instincts.    

The vast majority of Americans expose themselves only to media outlets that confirm their own biases and prejudices. Rich and poor live insulated lives. According to some surveys racial prejudice has actually increased since 2008. Most striking is the growing demographic evidence that Americans are choosing to live in regions where the population tends to reflect similar political views and moral priorities.    

I am very aware of how easily my own “hot buttons” get pushed by certain people. It’s as if they are speaking a foreign language. “How can they be so stupid?” I ask. “What planet are they living on, what century are they living in?” Yet I know that many of the people whose views I abhor often feel equally bewildered and threatened by the agendas of the other side.

It will take inspired and courageous political leadership to transcend this dangerous trend toward fragmentation. But each one of us can make a start by refusing to indulge in stereotyping and taking whatever steps we can to learn the language of others. We can remain true to our own beliefs while recognizing that none of us are keepers of the whole truth and that we can gain new insights even if they are difficult to hear.

In The World at the Turning, Charles Piguet and Michel Sentis write: “We have learned in thirty years of working with Buddhists, Hindus, North American Indians, Africans of all beliefs, militant communists, young revolutionaries, powerful capitalists, peasants, politicians, trade union leaders, that hope is not confined to any one temple…The intimate experiences of the heart and spirit are a reality which can be communicated and which every other human being can respond to…This reality has to be stripped of the intellectual and religious verbalizing we normally clothe it in: words, like grand garments on a wasted body, can hide internal poverty. We need to rediscover the one universal language – a life lived out.”

As hurricane Sandy bears down on the east coast we can be sure that Americans of all stripes will band together to protect their neighbors and their communities. Perhaps the storm will cool some of the emotions generated by the election. 

Everyone is needed to build a future of hope and possibility: liberals and conservatives, people of all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, and people of many faiths. Can we as Americans discover a new language of a life lived out?   

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Kosher Gospel in Richmond, Virginia

The Richmond Folk Festival gets better every year. On a crystal clear weekend, with the sun sparkling on the James River, about 200,000 people enjoyed an amazingly eclectic range of culture ranging from Ethiopian Azmari music and dance to Argentine tango and traditional New Orleans jazz, and from demonstrations of the Chinese jaw harp and the Iraqi oud, to Irish and Cape Breton fiddling.

We arrived at the festival on the first day as Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny Cash) rocked an enthusiastic crowd of mostly white baby boomers. (She has a red-hot band and her lead guitarist and husband, songwriter John Leventhal, is a terrific musician). As the day wore on the crowd became noticeably younger and more diverse. A colleague who recently arrived in Richmond remarked on the number of interracial couples – a surprise to her in a city known as the Confederate capital and proponent of segregation.

The festival stages and booths surround the American Civil War Center housed in the old Tredegar Iron Works, on the banks of the James River, that once produced cannon for the Southern army during the Civil War. Without the industrial muscle of Tredegar, the South could not have sustained the long, brutal struggle, a war instigated by slave states to maintain a system of perpetual bondage and to enable the growth of a slave nation as America expanded west. 

We took a Romanian friend to visit the Center. Diana Damsa is a dialogue facilitator and member of a group addressing the need to heal the wounds created by historical divisions in Eastern Europe. She is on an internship in Richmond to study this city’s efforts to deal with its past and to build trust and cooperation. The Tredegar museum is unique in telling the story of the bitter conflict from three perspectives – Union, Confederate and African American. It is a sobering experience to try to imagine the suffering caused by competing and deeply-held concepts of liberty and group identity.

Emerging from Tredegar into the happy, sometimes raucous celebration of our multicultural world, I was struck by how far we have come in overcoming old ideas about race and ethnicity. An unexpected and delightful discovery of the weekend was the music of Joshua Nelson, a black Jew known as the Prince of Kosher Gospel. Nelson takes traditional Jewish liturgical songs and infuses them with the energy of gospel music. 

Yes, there is still a long way to go. Yes, racism still lurks beneath the surface and makes its presence felt in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. As we walked to the festival we passed a table selling pictures of Obama. A man in front of me put his finger to the president’s head and said to his family, “I would like to put a bullet right there.” (He was joking – I think – but it still sends chills down your spine.)

But the fact that Richmond, Virginia, can host such a wonderful folk festival underscores that yesterday is not today. The ghosts of the past are fading. Richmond and America are far better places and will continue to get better.