It's a beautiful idea: you can't be manipulated into going to war against people you know. "Sister Cities" are two villages or towns or cities in two different countries paired together to make exchanges of all sorts - in technical expertise, in education, in the arts. But the heart of the program is the cultural understanding and friendships that come from the personal contact and sharing of experience. Such exchanges turn the scary, unknown "other" that is easy to hate into real people who happen to do things differently from you. The program started in Europe after WWII; you might notice that half the towns in France are "twins" with places in Germany.
I think it would be great to have a Red State/Blue State Sister City program here in the U.S. Let me explain:
I travel a lot, and when I am overseas I naturally assume that the cultures I encounter will be different from my own. The language and food, of course, but also the deeper things - the style of living, the expectations people have of one another, the "rules" of polite society. The challenge of figuring it all out is one of the reasons I like to travel, and "different" to me usually means interesting. Travel is a great way to find new perspectives, and I respect the differences I find.
I imagine a lot of you do the same. Even at home, I am still fascinated by different cultures. My neighborhood near D.C. is a fantastic mix of people; the school where I work resembles one of those Benetton ads, with a person of every color and continent. I try to understand the people I encounter, but in any case, it's not so hard - sharing a community gives us at least some basic things in common, a place from which to start.
But what happens when I look at the rest of America? Sometimes when I travel in the U.S. a place can feel so foreign to me that the first time I pay for something I sort of wonder if they take dollars. America is very diverse, and though we all share a popular culture, I often find the style of life in other regions to be very different from what I know here in the urban mid-Atlantic. Just like in a foreign country, people's assumptions and expectations are not always my own. But, especially when it comes to the red state world, I don't seem to have the same respect for those differences that I have for people from other countries. That kind of foreign doesn't seem to appeal to me at all.
Sometimes we go crazy here on Kos bashing the "wingnuts", and when it comes to the Bush administration or the Texas legislature or my own pathetic excuse for a governor, I am happy to bash along with the rest of you. But when it comes to ordinary people, I've sometimes been uncomfortable about what I read here. Making fun and put-downs are no big deal, and it's good to let off steam in this current political nightmare, but I worry that we are just contributing to the media-driven idea that there is big "other" in our country: weird people different from us whom we should fear. The result of this is we don't seek to understand them. It's funny - we would never disparage people by race, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation here, but we blithely go along disparaging people for their politics, and sometimes even for their religion. Those pesky fundamentalists.
Sure, what they believe politically has a huge effect on us. Sure, they make us into demons, too, perhaps worse than what we do to them. But why aren't we seeking to get past the boundaries that divide us? I don't think the hate comes from the ordinary people of America - it comes from politicians and the media who benefit from a country at war with itself. It comes from those who gain power from the hatred. So why can't we sidestep the ranting and raving and bring ourselves face-to-face with all the people across America who don't necessarily think the way we do? Wouldn't it be great to have an American Sister City program, a cultural exchange of towns and cities in red states with towns and cities in blue states, liberals and conservatives, urban and rural, people of all types, the whole mix-up that is America getting to know each other? I for one am tired of hearing about the faceless mass of conservatives who supposedly care a great deal about Sponge Bob's sexual orientation. I think if we knew each other we would find a lot more in common than we are led to believe. And the beautiful thing would be: you can't be manipulated into going to war against people you know.