Saturday, August 13, 2022
Aug. 13, 2022

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Jayne: Look beyond own backyard

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

It was like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, an idealized version of an America that might or might not still exist — if it ever did at all. And it can be found in Abilene, Kan.

Now, Abilene is known for many things, or at least as many as any other town of 6,200 people. It once marked the end of the Chisholm Trail, used by Texas cowboys to bring cattle to the railroad. And it once was marshaled by Tom “Bear River” Smith, but he was murdered and decapitated. And it once was home to United Telephone Company, which now is known as Sprint.

These days, however, Abilene is best known as the hometown of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who grew up to be the 34th president of the United States. That came after he graduated from West Point and led the D-Day invasion and served as president of Columbia University. In other words, he was pretty accomplished.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is in Abilene, on the grounds of Ike’s childhood home, which is still there. And if you didn’t know that, there are plenty of billboards along Interstate 70 to inform you.

So, while making a five-day drive from St. Louis to Vancouver with my daughter, we recently stopped to take a look. The buildings are closed because of the pandemic, but the grounds are bucolic and a 20-foot-tall statue of Eisenhower is still standing sentry.

But what was most striking was the town itself, with American flags hanging from every lamppost and an innocent zeitgeist that makes it feel stuck in time. That is not a criticism; it’s just a reflection on America and how it means different things to different people. On our divisions and our commonalities. On how we all need to get out more.

Seriously. As we drove over the straight, mostly monotonous, often flat highways of Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Oregon, frequently seeing parts of the country we had only read about, we were reminded of the incredible vastness of this country and how the landscape can influence your outlook. We also were reminded of the social and geographic diversity of this nation and its people — and, therefore, the political diversity.

Mind you, this was not a sightseeing trip; we wanted to get home. Most of what we witnessed was through the windows of our rental car, and a fact-finding mission would have required that we stop more frequently and engage more deeply with the local residents.

But the overriding lesson was that we all need to develop a better understanding of the America that resides beyond our personal silos. It is easy to see how the people of Abilene, Kan., or Limon, Colo., or Laramie, Wyo., regard urban unrest they see on cable news as a threat to the very nation. Because America’s political divisions are drawn as much along rural-vs.-urban lines as they are along race or gender or belief in the appropriate role of government.

Goodness knows, we’re doing a lousy job of understanding that separation. We too often are divided by a disdain for others and a dismissiveness of diversity. Half of America, it seems, is convinced that rural areas are populated by hayseeds; the other half is convinced that cities are overrun by lawlessness and conflict. Neither perception is true, and yet we buy into the lie if it matches our preconceived notions and reinforces our political beliefs.

There is no easy way around that. As an article in The New York Times detailed last year: “Urban-rural polarization has become particularly acute in America: particularly entrenched, particularly hostile, particularly lopsided in its consequences.” Those consequences continue to expand, driven by a lack of understanding on both sides. Common ground has been plowed under by resentment, fear and animosity, with a majority of both Republicans and Democrats saying the other side is “closed-minded.”

That seems to be a recipe for disaster, a sense of mistrust that is chipping away at this nation’s foundation. And it makes me think that we all need to get out more.

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