Finding common ground
Now that the extreme left and extreme right are shooting each other in the streets, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at what we have in common rather than what divides us. I have been involved in non- violent social change movements for almost 40 years, have been arrested more times than I can remember, and have spent cumulatively over a year in jails and prisons for my actions. Some of you may already be bristling at that, but I hope you’ll read on. I want to share a story of how two people who would be assumed to be polar opposites came together for a moment of clarity and mutual respect.
I was driving a school bus that had been converted into a mobile peace center for a peace walk across southern Wisconsin. It was a huge, colorful billboard festooned with phrases and images that unmistakably labeled it as anti-war. I was parked along a highway waiting to take the walkers to a church where we were staying overnight. That’s when the captain showed up.
A truck swung in front of the bus and a clearly agitated driver got out to give me a piece of his mind. He was a captain in the Wisconsin Air National Guard, and he had taken great offense at our bus, the walkers, and me especially as the face of a message he was so incensed with. When he finished his tirade, I thanked him for taking the time to personally engage. He got in his truck and punched the accelerator, throwing gravel. Fortunately, this was not to be the end of our encounter.
About an hour later I was running down a bucolic road continuing my training for an upcoming marathon. I decided to turn around at the next driveway, which is when I saw the captain’s truck parked by his house and children playing in the yard. It was with a moment of trepidation that I decided to run up his rather lengthy driveway. It seemed to me that continuing our abruptly ended conversation on the roadside was the right thing to do.
The look on his face was stunned, and I started by saying that clearly this was an unexpected opportunity, as I couldn’t possibly know where he lived. He had the legal upper hand as I was trespassing on his property, children were present, and he couldn’t know what kind of person I was. Was he going to need to protect his family from me? He invited me to go on.
I told him about my mentors in nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Jesus, Dorothy Day, Phil Berrigan, Liz McAlister, and Kathy Kelly. I told him about actions I had taken that had resulted in spending time in jail. I told him about taking medicine to children in Iraq during the United Nations sanctions and being with parents of children dying in hospitals because of actions taken by my government, actions I didn’t agree with.
I told him of my understanding of the Geneva and Hague Conventions that direct soldiers how it is illegal to engage civilians in combat. I told him that I was willing to accept the consequences of my convictions, that I tried my best to seek out the truth and to act in good faith with my understanding of those truths.
When I was done I had apparently told him something that changed his mind. While our approaches to peacemaking were worlds apart, he needed to hear that I was not an armchair activist casting stones and derision from a safe distance at his colleagues who were willing to sacrifice their lives if that was required of them. Our mistaken assumptions about each other needed to be deconstructed. Stereotypes needed to be discarded.
We parted with a handshake and pleasantries that caught us completely off our guard. It was, to say the least, an astonishing encounter.
It is time we Americans take a step back before the present moment spins totally out of control. It is time to seek out other voices, other heroes, other hopes and dreams, to alter competing narratives that are stuck in pride and confusion. Extremism is not what we believe, it is how we believe what we believe. It is a good thing to be against totalitarianism. It is a good thing to be anti-fascist. It is a better thing to seek solutions that value our common humanity.
I am a member of Wisconsin Farmers Union. I have been participating in trainings called Deep Canvassing. This method of learning how to more deeply connect is rooted in a method that allows opponents to try to find common ground by sharing stories.
Why is this important to farmers? Our rural areas are as polarized as urban centers but there aren’t as many of us, so we are often overlooked. Because there are fewer of us, we are also more dependent on neighbors and family for day-to-day interaction. We aren’t anonymous apartment dwellers or living in intentional isolation in the exurbs.
Our rural places are missing the days of common purpose, working together during planting or harvest. They have become some of the worst food deserts, ironic considering the amount of food (or I should I say commodities) grown just outside our doors. Meanwhile, animosities are fed to us by media conglomerates based mostly in mega-populated areas. We need to walk away from our screens and back into our communities.
In the end we all, urban and rural dwellers alike, have everything to lose if we don’t find common ground in the simple necessities of life: adequate food, housing, health care, a clean environment, and the joy of sharing community with friends and neighbors. We are facing an unprecedented moment of circumstances seemingly beyond our control, stripping us of our common humanity.
We’ve seen it before and can’t pretend we don’t know where this could end. It boils down to which is the dominant human motivator, love or hate? My experience as one who has tried to be as engaged with the full breadth and depth of the human condition as I can, is that if love is not the answer then we’ve just asked the wrong question. My hope is that whatever breakthrough needs to happen comes quickly. We seem to be running out of time to do the right thing.
Mike Miles lives in Luck and is an active member of the Polk-Burnett Farmers Union. When he’s not out championing rural issues, he keeps busy farming at Anathoth Community Farm in Luck.