Let's All Have a Beer

All last week, I bathed in the restorative waters of summer vacation, visiting family in New England, eating a lobster or two, catching a game at Fenway--even did a little work. As time and convenience allowed, I visited the odd brewery and pub, always finding a convivial space full of relaxed, happy people. In Boston I had a pint amid the long tables of Harpoon's beer hall, on Cape Cod I sat on the grassy lawn of Hog Island, and in Portland, Maine, I had a celebratory glass of Baby Genius at Bissell Brothers, having secured part of the daily allotment of canned beer. On Saturday, Sally and I made our way to Logan and flew home.

And then on Sunday I awoke to the news of the ugly events in Charlottesville.

The US has been on a slow slide into social dysfunction for the better part of two decades, but Charlottesville seemed somehow different, symbolic of something new and more baldly intractable. We're no longer dressing up our hate and divisions in the polite cloth of civic discourse; we're openly fighting in the streets. Americans once considered it necessary to nod to larger values that united us, even if we didn't believe them. Now we argue that some of us are flatly incompatible with the American experiment. The images and reports were livid and raw and they left me feeling less hopeful than I can remember. Americans are optimisitic, future-looking people, but for most of yesterday I could find little but despair. The vacation/Charlottesville dichotomy put me in a state of emotional whiplash.


This morning, I considered writing about my visit to Harpoon--and I will do that, soon. The Charlottesville hangover leaves a sour taste in my mouth, though, and seems to need at least one more moment of consideration. While trying to process things, I wrote a little bit about the legacy of shame that will always haunt the United States, how we have a deep trauma we need to deal with. While I think that's true, it doesn't explain exactly how a country goes about healing itself.

And that's when I started thinking about those convivial pubs again. Watering holes have always been a neutral place where people came together in community. I've talked about this before--perhaps too much--but permit me another post. There are fights and disruptions and sometimes boisterous talk becomes political and alienating to nearby pubgoers. A while back, self-identified Nazis even raised a ruckus in a Lucky Lab here in Portland. But just as often, two people will sit next to each other and try to find common ground. When they do that, something remarkable happens--the inverse of what we saw at Charlottesville.

Humans are a blend of lovable and contemptible qualities. Polarization develops when we focus on the contemptible in one another. We begin to burn with anger, looking for it. Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple hours reading reactions to Charlottesville on Twitter, and watched my own emotions get hotter and harder and meaner. I clicked on links that indicted my enemies, looking for dirt on them, trawling for evidence of contemptibility. This is almost certainly an evolutionary response; genes are passed along to populations that survive, and tribalism is a way of protecting the population. It is, of course, also incredibly unhealthy mentally, and following those two hours there was only one obvious loser--me. I put down my phone and looked for something more healing.

This process can work in reverse. We can focus on the positive in each other. We forgive character traits in our family members we would never forgive in our enemies; we do so because they are offset by all the good we see in them. When we meet someone for the first time in the right context, we are predisposed to look for the good. In a pub, a person may have politics with which we disagree (perhaps profoundly), but we're looking for those qualities we will admire--a good parent, a pleasant personality, a nice sense of humor. This may lead to deeper discussions about our backgrounds and lives. When you have learned something good about a person, it's an inoculation against the habit of looking for dirt on them.

I don't mean to be pollyanna-ish about this. We have real disagreements in this country, real pathologies that a beer isn't going to fix. But it's just as true that if all we do is feed our anger and outrage, there will be no way out of this seemingly-intractable schism. We have to find a way toward common ground. There are a few public spaces out there where this might happen, but honestly, there aren't many where you're going to come into meaningful contact with people with whom you disagree. In most bars in America, you'll find liberals and conservatives drinking amicably next to each other.

So maybe there are worse things you can do to heal the country than going to a pub tonight and striking up a conversation with a stranger. We need to develop the emotional muscles of finding the lovable in one another again. That pinko commie/rock-ribbed conservative at the end of the bar may be exactly the person we need to talk to most right now.

Be safe out there--