An Open Mind, For Real This Time
I am a liberal Democrat who supported Howard Dean and Bill Clinton. I have supported gay marriage since birth, or at least that’s how I feel. My social vision for this country, as my conservative Republican roommate likes to point out, sometimes borders on Marxist.
The Washington Times is the paper of choice of a self-selecting group of Republicans on Capitol Hill and beyond. It was founded in 1982 by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and a cadre of journalists who wanted to put more “morality” into the Washington press. Before Bill O’Reilly’s “no spin zone,” they were hatching theories about the dominance of the liberal media—and plotting to topple, or at least challenge, it.
We are not a match made in heaven. But this was kind of my point in accepting the job. I enjoy, seek and maybe even thrive on these kinds of matches. Take the conservative Republican roommate I offhandedly mention above; like it ain’t no thing for a liberal Jewish girl born and raised by secular, intellectual parents—the kind who sent me to Sunday school so that I could find “community,” and not so much because of the whole God thing—to be shacking up with a deeply religious girl from Alabama who once called Bill Clinton the antichrist and was only half-joking.
I first met Barrett Beatrice Jackson ’06 because she lived across the hall from me in Straus C. We shook hands, exchanged names and then I avoided her for a month because of nothing more than her accent. Worse, she was a former beauty queen.
That alone seemed reason enough to keep my distance. Eventually, by some grace of God or Truth—I can’t say which—Barrett’s true colors were revealed to me. Being a beauty queen, it turned out, meant being a skilled ballerina. And it also meant winning scholarship money. I could understand these things. And I even started to like her accent. A beautiful friendship was born.
At first we were civil. I asked why she believed in God; she told me; I pondered. She asked what Jewish holidays were like; I brought her to my great aunt’s house for Passover; she got tipsy on Manichewitz and appreciated my culture. But then we got more comfortable. And, between debates that made us mad and sometimes even made me cry, we learned more. The most important lesson for both of us, I think, was that we weren’t so different after all. And the most important lesson for me individually was that I had accomplished great things. I was the open-minded liberal who walked her talk. I could conquer anything—even The Washington Times.
The truth was a little more disappointing. My first week at The Times happened to coincide with the death of a man I later learned had been critical in inspiring the paper’s creation: Ronald Reagan. As an intern, I got to cover Reagan’s state funeral at the Capitol. As a Washington Times intern, I got to hear what some of the funeral-goers might not have told me if it weren’t for my paper affiliation.
The first attendants I spotted were two middle-aged men wearing American flags on their hats and fanny packs around their waists. They had mustaches and hearty bellies. When I said hello, their accents told me they were from the Midwest. When I said, “Hello, I’m a reporter from The Washington Times” their smiles took me aback. It seemed like they were close to patting my back.
These were not the kind of smiles I am used to receiving upon telling someone where I’m working this summer. Usually I mumble, or lower my voice, or try hard to make my voice sound somehow ironic—anything to escape the inevitable bemused and condescending look that is often followed by an “Oh really?”
That’s because the circles I travel in aren’t kind to papers like the Times. The thing I’ve learned this summer, though, is that there exist people who don’t think that way. There exist, for instance, people who went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 the same way my friends listen to Rush Limbaugh: like it’s the craziest thing in the world, and isn’t that idiot so horrifyingly offensive it’s funny? There exist men who have dedicated their entire adult lives to perpetuating the legacy of Ronald Reagan, a man whose presidency I was brought up to feel ashamed I had been born under.
And the really crazy part is: these are people just like me, so human they wear fanny packs! This is the part you don’t get to hear when you don’t have the kind of insider’s pass my Washington Times intern badge (expiration date July 30) affords me. You don’t get past the rough statements of belief, because everybody assumes difference is difference, with no common ground on, or anywhere near, the horizon.
But the men in fanny packs not only told me about their admiration for Reagan. They told me about the important moments in their lives punctuated by important moments in his. They told me about their pasts, where they lived and where they moved, what their families thought about their political views and what they felt about that. In so many words, they told me—undercover liberal supreme—that the gulf between is mostly imagined and only partly real. Political differences aren’t everything, and what’s more, they aren’t even as deep as we make ourselves believe.
This lesson has become especially clear in talking with some of my fellow interns. Unlike me, they actually came to the Times because they admired its editorial page. But over lunch conversations, after getting past general statements of difference, similarities started to pour out. And not just similarities in music taste. Even in a discussion about a topic as sensitive as identity politics, we found common ground. Indeed, it seemed that both sides were clinging to party lines out of something more like fear than reason.
It turns out that behind rhetoric there is one common impulse: to make things better. And for that reason, I’m feeling optimistic—about our generation, our country and our future.
Elizabeth W. Green ’06, a social studies concentrator in Leverett House, is a an associate magazine editor of The Crimson. She will lose her optimism—and her tolerance for conservatives—when she returns to the Kremlin on the Charles this fall.