Sunday, May 16, 2010

Perfect Strangers – Not Really

To be honest, I can’t think of many worse things than being seated at a party with a bunch of strangers. After all, we have little in common (aside from knowing one of our hosts), the small talk is forced, and the silence is awkward. Besides that, some people hog the bread and never pass the butter. But last night, something magical happened as we attended a wedding dinner hosted by the newly married couple. My wife and I sat at a table with three other couples, some knew the bride, some the groom, and no-one knew each other. Yet, somehow, we ended up being the last table to call it a night.

As a group we were Republicans, we were Democrats, we were conservative, we were liberal, we were Christian and we were Jewish. Basically, we broke every rule of engagement by discussing topics that are viewed as no-win scenarios. Yet, in the words of Rodney King, “we all got along.” Two of our table members were in the Oil & Gas industry, one works for British Petroleum. So, we talked about the disaster in the Gulf. We talked about finger pointing and refusal to share responsibility (note I didn’t say blame). I noted that hindsight, being 20/20 always asks the “why” questions after the fact. The fact is this is probably the first major disaster we’ve had from offshore drilling in decades and it corrupts the entire concept. We take technology for granted until something goes wrong. Want proof? Look at our Shuttle program. Until we had a disaster in space, no-one was paying any attention to our launches and returns. It didn’t dawn on us that astronauts risk their lives on every mission any more than we realize the inherent danger in offshore exploration. One of our conversationalists was inherently familiar with refining and reminisced there were fires at processing plants in Baytown on a daily basis for years, but now that it only happens once or twice a decade, it’s scandalous. It’s been more than thirty years since Three Mile Island, yet should there be another incident at a nuclear power facility the entire industry will be investigated. Accidents happen. That’s why they’re called accidents.

The oil discussion led us to the politics of blame. Again, we were surprised to agree more than disagree. One Republican activist admitted she’s voted for Republicans she can’t stand, but felt compelled because of her party affiliations. Another guest, a political strategist acknowledged what many of us feel, which is we’re sick of all of them. The building backlash for the incumbent is giving opportunity to new challengers. If you’re Republican vote for a different Republican, if you’re a Democrat, vote for a different Democrat. We talked about hypocrisy: how one gubernatorial candidate preached reduced federal spending, only to lose the primary, return to Washington and join the list of the highest pork barrel legislator in America. Good for Texas, not so good for America. Then we talked about how congress worked around the NASA’s Constellation cuts by adding to a war spending bill. Again, it’s good for Texas, but still, more federal spending. Who says we can’t have it both ways? So, our consensus was that we need to have a bill that says a bill can only deal with one subject. If it’s a bill for hearing, you can’t add sight to it. Period.

Part of the problem, we agreed, was the Internet. One person can post an absolutely false accusation, and in moments the message is spread worldwide and has instantly become a “fact.” And we agreed the media has become part of the problem as it seeks to create news rather than be content in reporting the news. Do you think your local I-Team on TV would have reported the JFK/Marilyn Monroe relationship? They would now, ask Bill Clinton. We’ve become lazy. We don’t need all the facts to form an opinion. We glean our information from Internet headlines. Every day I receive emails informing me of my Nigerian inheritance, or warn me of scams and viruses that will melt my computer. None of them true, but still, someone felt the need to forward the message and post it on Facebook to warn their friends. Many of whom they never met. It appears we base our opinion on the little we know about the subject, and usually our information comes from what someone else thinks. Honestly, if Congress doesn’t know what was in the health bill, do we really belief some blogger read the entire document?

Finally, our diverse group of strangers had unity on supporting our troops regardless of our feelings toward conflict. We had a former serviceman at the table, parents of servicemen at the table, people for the Iraqi occupation and those against. But in contrast to our Vietnam veterans, we agreed that supporting our troops was non-negotiable. We sat in awe of the patriotism our children possess for America; and we regretted we didn’t have that same patriotism during Vietnam. We are horrified at the way our Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned home; and we are thrilled at the way our troops are respected now. Truth be told, the moral of the story is that we shouldn’t let our political views cloud our pride in America. Those kids are fighting for our right to argue and protest. We CAN respectfully disagree. We can “all get along.” It’s time again for America to walk with a bit of a swagger and realize that as a melting pot of cultures, we have differences. But our diversity is really our common ground.

All it took was a dinner party with perfect strangers to see how well we knew each other. We were able to reach across the table and pass the bread and butter. So, why can’t our elected officials reach across the aisle?