A commenter on last week's column asked how I would feel if I found out some of my neighbors were Republicans. I thought to myself, "Are you kidding? I live in Alaska. What's the chance they're Democrats?" Then I went to an ACLU brunch on Saturday and found out, much to my surprise, that it was not three people standing around a hotdog stand in midtown. Who knew?
The thing is that labels are very limiting and ultimately ridiculous in that they mean so many different things to so many people. For instance, I know a lot of moderate Republicans who go all red in the face when you suggest that Sarah Palin represents their party. I know Democrats who own and love their guns. I know Republicans who are pro choice and Democrats who think that if waterboarding brought down Osama Bin Laden, then more power to water.
Growing up, I was taught that politics were private. You didn't judge people based on their party affiliation, should you accidentally find it out. On the other hand, I grew up at a time when you did judge people by their ethnicity and it was considered questionable to intermingle. When my uncle married a woman of Polish descent, eyebrows were raised. If she wasn't Italian, could we completely trust her?
As it turned out, we not only could trust Aunt Jean but she was a pretty wonderful lady. Maybe she didn't put out the same holiday meals we did, but what she put out was darn good. So it turned out that stretching a bit and accepting an "other" into our family was a growth experience - and I mean that in every sense of the word since you could easily pack on more than a few pounds eating her Christmas sweets.
Now I'm realizing that we might not have grown as much as I thought. In fact, it seems we have merely substituted politics for ethnicity as a way to define those who stand apart from us and are therefore the subject of our suspicion. We are all at our core human beings with strikingly similar goals in life, even if the paths we choose to get there are very different. You'd think we'd be able to figure out a way to have respectful discussions of our differences without having to demonize the "otherness" of people who believe in different choices. And yes, I even include Glen Beck in that statement assuming he can come up with a legitimate birth certificate that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is, in fact, from the planet earth.
I always assumed that one of the greatest things about being an American was that I was free to choose my path within the parameters of what was necessary to maintain a civil society. I always believed that America was great because we resolved our differences with discussions, not guns, and made laws based on (sometimes) painful compromises and not military coups.
But now it seems as though all civility has been tossed aside and all compromise has become suspect. If I write that my friends and neighbors have become my second family, there is immediate suspicion that I have limited that group to only a certain segment of society while eliminating any who do not believe in everything I believe in, exactly the way I believe it.
What a small, claustrophobic and circumscribed world we would all inhabit if that were how we lived our lives. We might as well be the Taliban if that's what we do. They admit to no compromise, they associate with only like minds and they have no respect for anyone outside of their unholy little circle. Maybe that's why they always look so mad.
I have a friends who have assault rifles under their beds and regularly carry concealed weapons. I have friends who would probably shoot their foot off if they tried to handle a gun. I have friends who firmly believe in god and friends who find the concept amusing. The important thing is that they are friends who weren't chosen based on any given set of beliefs. Hanging around with people who don't think as you do is a tremendous way to grow.
We should all probably try it more often than we do.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow.