When Intimacy Meets Politics

I arrived at a friend’s house on the night of the 2003 State of
the Union address. We’ve known each other since we were five years
old. My first memory of her is the two of us standing on opposite
sides of an easel, drawing, giggling, and telling each other how
much we loved each other’s laugh. While as adults we’ve always
lived on opposite ends of the country, and often don’t talk for
months, we manage to see each other about once a year. With the
ease of lifelong friends, we pick up the threads of our last
conversation.

That’s why I was so surprised to discover during George W.
Bush’s speech that we were firmly planted on opposite ends of the
political spectrum. How had we never talked politics? Political
affiliation has become, after all, a kind of badge — not only of
community values, but also of individual identity. It felt like my
friend and I had been dropped into the middle of a cultural
minefield. Even the smallest statement suddenly entailed a risk.
The experience felt to me like vertigo.

I didn’t handle our initial conversations as gracefully as I
could have, especially as we discussed our widely divergent views
on the prospect of war in Iraq, homeland security, and the
environment. It certainly would have been easier to ignore our
differences, or attempt to laugh them off, but after a few days of
conversation that went in fits and starts, we made some
discoveries. Most significantly, we realized that liberal and
conservative stereotypes — no matter how easily they come out of
your mouth — don’t apply so easily to people you love.

On a more recent visit, we spent a beautiful late summer day
walking through the community gardens near my house, talking about
who and what we love. At the end of the day we took deep breaths
and decided to talk politics. I’m embarrassed to say that there
were moments when my disagreement with my friend’s political
opinions, and my defensiveness about my own, made me stop listening
closely. That’s where we ran into trouble. But if anything can
motivate people to find common ground, it’s love. My friend and I
are in luck, but facing a similar challenge on a wider scale, our
country needs help.

Many people have told me recently how difficult they find it to
talk about what is most important to them with family members and
loved ones of a different political bent. After we’re done with the
battle of this election season, we’re going to have to figure out
how to do just that. The first step will be healing the emotions
left raw by the election itself, but our need to communicate better
goes beyond that. An ability to see things from the other
perspective is crucial to confronting the volatile realities of the
world and our country’s troubling role in it.

In the spirit of acknowledging that both understanding and its
opposite begin close to home, we explore in this issue what is
right under all of our noses every day: the question of how to get
along with and be more intimate with each other. If politics is
about how to best live together within this nation, and with other
peoples around the globe, perhaps citizens and politicians alike
could take inspiration from the basic rules of engagement in our
most intimate relationships: Listen closely, show respect,
participate willingly in the difficult conversations, remember that
neither attacks nor defensiveness do much good when you’re aiming
for real communication, disagree lovingly, and celebrate each
other’s strengths and humanity.

WITH ADMIRATION and sadness I announce that senior editor Jon
Spayde is leaving Utne to write a book. Jon has been with
the magazine on and off over the past 12 years and we’re thankful
for the inspiring, quirky, and thoughtful fingerprints he’s left
all over the magazine. While around the office we’ll miss his
wide-ranging intellect, his heartfelt commitment to good stories,
and his general bonhomie, I’m pleased to let you know that Jon will
continue to shape the magazine as a contributing editor. Look for
his articles in future issues.

UTNE
UTNE
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