One of the casualties of the suburbanization of America is the front porch. People build “decks” instead — and they hide them at the back of the house.
In the summer twilight, folks used to stroll down the street and pause to chat with other folks. If you sat on your porch at that time of day, you were sending an invitation – and it was invariably accepted. People would stop in and talk about how dry the weather had been and whose child had been down with chicken pox and who was running for president. Discussions of national policy and the state of the economy blended with scores from Little League games and Bridge competitions.
For the most part, scenes like this are now relegated to films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” or to books such as Dandelion Wine and To Kill a Mockingbird.
We could survive, possibly, without the good things people shared on front porches – fresh lemonade, extra tomatoes from the garden, a piece of pound cake warm from the oven – but we sorely miss the conversation. What has fled with the front porch is the exchange of ideas.
My parents had differing sports allegiances, political views, and church ties from many of their friends. They would never have argued with other people about their faith – that would have been rude – but they could disagree about who would win the Georgia-Georgia Tech football game or who should be elected president.
They could do this because of the trust and familiarity they shared with their neighbors.
Our society is much more polarized now. Alarmingly so. Listening is a lost art. People with opposing views are often demonized. Intelligent discourse and healthy competition of ideas have disappeared as people hunker behind ideological walls in hopes of protecting themselves and what they consider their “way of life.”
Americans used to relish a spirited debate. Now we’re afraid to talk to each other. There’s no such thing as real dialogue in a race for public office. This inbreeding of ideas has led to poor health in the body politic.
My father was a native of Atlanta, with roots in rural Georgia. During World War II, his training for the Army Air Corps took him to New York City, Nashville, Montgomery, and Boise before he shipped out to England. In Boise, he and my mother, just married, had an off-base love nest in the home of a middle-aged couple who became their friends for life.
Like other citizen soldiers, Dad was thrown together with all kinds of people, from far-flung states – unfamiliar places that today would be labeled “red” or “blue.” These young men learned to understand, and in many cases, to like each other.
OK, my father did slug a soldier from Brooklyn who said, hiya, Cliff, you old S.O.B. (He spelled out the acronym.) But I don’t think the fight was the result of regional hatred – it was a simple matter of language difference. The New Yorker was probably just greeting the Southerner. My dad mistook it for an insult to his mother.
I realize the world has changed. The small-town, tree-lined, sidewalked streets of 60-70 years ago were not racially diverse – and in not a few cases, oppressive laws had made them that way on purpose. A lot about today is different, and in many ways that’s a good thing.
But we’re in danger now of losing what my parents saw as the heart of America: the freedom to converse and to disagree. This most sacred right is protected not only by our national defense, but by the tolerance, courtesy, and respect we show each other.
This is what my dad fought for in World War II — not the chance to have a place at the lake and two cars in the garage. This is the “American way of life” he risked his to defend.
In the Land of the Free, our differences have always been present. They have erupted on occasion into violent confrontation. But the trauma of 911 raised our emotional temperature to a dangerous degree. Since then, the level of violence in the world has dramatically escalated. Now – as if global terrorism were not enough – we’re shooting each other here at home.
Yes, we Americans look at each other with suspicion and contempt, and with something that is potentially more destructive: Fear.
Though it’s never been perfectly fulfilled, I still believe in the idea of the melting pot. In one of his infamous epithets, Hitler said our diversity was our weakness. I believe it is our great strength. Knowing, respecting, and listening to our neighbors – whatever their color, their nationality, their religion, or their opinions – is something we are called to do. It’s our patriotic duty.
And a piece of warm pound cake is still a good idea.