It’s that time of year: Families and friends are coming together for the holidays. Coming together from far-flung places, coming together from different points on the political spectrum, and sometimes not really coming together at all. It can be an adventure. I got back from a such a family gathering just a few weeks ago, and I can testify that it can be an adventure, but it can also be fun and even rewarding.
My significant other and I headed west to meet some of her family who live in Oklahoma. As the Oklahomans have pointed out, their state is a “flyover” state, everyone else flying over it on their way to what they perceive as bigger and more important places. Few ever land for an in-person visit.
It was my first visit and I learned a few things. First off Oklahoma is a lot greener than I thought it would be, with more hills and more lakes than I expected. Memories of the dustbowl die hard.
Also, while the Oklahoma side of the family is more conservative and more religious than the New Jersey side, there were more divisive topics in Oklahoma. Try football. For her extended family the side to be on was Oklahoma State. The wrong side was the University of Oklahoma. (The annual rivalry game is known as Bedlam.) As we strolled through a residential development on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, we saw curbs painted with stencils showing the homeowners’ allegiance to either OU (boo!) or OSU (yea!). One house had both sets of initials, one on either side of the driveway. “Mixed marriage,” said our hostess.
One afternoon we drove over to a place called Earl’s Barbecue, which served just that in a down-home atmosphere festooned with Elvis memorabilia and old license plates, probably at least one from every state. Several were from Texas — they were all upside down. Another rivalry.
The next day we visited the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. One show-stopper is the 18-foot-tall, monumental sculpture, “End of the Trail,” first modeled in 1894 by James Earle Fraser, who wrote that as a boy growing up in the Dakota Territory he remembered an old trapper saying “the Indians will someday be pushed into the Pacific Ocean.” Later, Fraser said “the idea occurred to me of making an Indian which represented his race reaching the end of the trail, at the edge of the Pacific.”
Mission accomplished? Or the sad end to a tragic part of the American legacy? The museum urges visitors to consider the range of possibilities. Two information plaques are present at the sculpture. One says that “This lone figure, slumped astride his weary horse with head bowed, is one of the most recognized symbols of the American West. By many it is viewed as a reverent memorial to a noble and valiant people. To some Native Americans, however, it is seen as an unpleasant reminder of defeat and subjugation more than a century ago.”
Another plaque presents a statement by a Cherokee Indian, R. David Edmunds Ph.D., a professor of history at the University of Texas. Noting the hardships native Americans have endured, including being denied citizenship until 1924, Edmunds wrote, “Unlike Fraser’s sculpture, ‘being Indian’ has never been cast in stone. Today Native Americans proudly ride forward onto a trail into the future.”
It’s a civil discussion, portrayed on the walls of the museum. And it reflects one of the questions raised by our hosts in Oklahoma: Why can’t we disagree civilly? Why can’t anyone compromise anymore? We didn’t talk politics but we did note some possible points of debate. The Oklahoma side:
Trust in our institutions has vanished. You can’t believe anyone anymore, certainly not James Comey and not even the FBI.
What has happened to that uranium, and why hasn’t Hillary been indicted? (If you haven’t been watching Fox News, you probably haven’t heard of this controversy. It’s worth noting that one of Fox’s own reporters, Shepard Smith, has debunked the story.)
Why do NFL players insist on disrespecting the military by kneelinng during national anthem? (I stayed in listening mode, even though I disagreed with the premise.)
And, of course, what do you think about Donald Trump? I have a feeling that on this one we from liberal New Jersey and the folks in Oklahoma might have been closer to agreement than on any of the other issues above. We heard only a few passing references to Trump — they were all negative. I remind you of the plea for civility above.
There was one other point of discussion. The family in Oklahoma includes a smart and motivated high school student beginning to consider his college choices. Oklahoma is out, obviously, but Oklahoma State, where his father and mother both studied engineering, is a strong possibility. But, we asked, what about considering a school here in New Jersey? “That’s a pretty liberal state,” they said. Yes, but even Princeton has a conservative professor.
They found that a little hard to believe, and we certainly didn’t want to argue the case. But we will quote a few sentences from a letter that Professor Robert George and some other Ivy League faculty members wrote to students heading off to college this year:
“Our advice can be distilled to three words: Think for yourself.
“Now, that might sound easy. But you will find — as you may have discovered already in high school — that thinking for yourself can be a challenge. It always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage. In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student — or faculty member — faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink. . .
“Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions — including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny. . .
“Don’t get trapped in an echo chamber. Whether you in the end reject or embrace a view, make sure you decide where you stand by critically assessing the arguments for the competing positions. Think for yourself.”
We returned from the “flyover” state glad that we had dropped in. Back in “liberal” New Jersey, I came back to work to discover a voice mail from a reader horrified that our sister paper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, had run a story about a gay Christian group that now meets at a church in town. The caller condemned the group and castigated us for our obvious lack of faith. I shouldn’t cast stones but the tone was not charitable.
Then, following U.S. 1’s cover story on deer over-populating our landscape, I received an angry call charging that our story was cruel and factually inaccurate. How so, I asked. No corrections were offered, just more vicious rhetoric.
As they say back in Oklahoma, why can’t people be more civil? Happy Thanksgiving.