Carolyn, our kids and I spent last weekend in Baton Rouge. Our oldest son, Seth, received his M.S. in Digital Media Art & Engineering from Louisiana State University. A conversation with Seth got me thinking about America’s political divide.
I’ve enjoyed many visits to Louisiana—New Orleans when Yosi lived and performed there (Aaron danced there) and Baton Rouge. Of course, Baton Rouge, area code 225, is quite different from San Francisco, area code 415.
Baton Rouge gets swampy hot. San Francisco stays foggy cool. Our Mediterranean climate delivers only 23 inches of rain a year. Baton Rouge, drenched by Gulf of Mexico storms, piles up 63 inches. Storms rerouted our Baton Rouge-bound flights to New Orleans.
There are people differences. Folks in Baton Rouge are publicly friendlier. I experienced this southern trait when I lived in not-southern Texas. I offer two reasons: Baton Rouge’s laid-back, small-town/suburban lifestyle contrasts with San Francisco’s urban hustle and bustle (which still falls far short of New York’s). Also, politeness is critical to a society where, historically, small affronts often garnered violent reactions based on a culture valuing honor and taking umbrage at insult. Oh yes, food and music preferences also vary a bit.
State histories certainly diverge. Louisiana was a slave state, part of the Confederacy. Californian, a free state, remained in the Union. Louisiana maintained Jim Crow segregation until federal legislation brought changes. California hid—though not always—much of its racism. And yes, racism remains in both states.
Politically, Louisiana is far more conservative. Donald Trump won 58 percent of Louisiana’s 2016 presidential vote. Hillary Clinton won California with almost 62 percent. For many San Franciscans, a wall exists between the City by the Bay and the Louisiana capital on the banks of Ol’ Man River. I imagine many people in Baton Rouge see the same wall—but from the other side.
Still, I’ve met lots of nice people in Baton Rouge. Some might be more distant in less-public situations but hardly all. The warmth—I’m not talking weather—is human. Last Saturday morning, almost a thousand families gathered for the Engineering College’s graduation at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center (named for the LSU basketball great). They came together as we did when Aaron received his B.A. from St. Mary’s College in Moraga across San Francisco Bay. Carolyn and the mom next to her discussed “Game of Thrones.”
Proud and excited, we cheered our graduates—and everyone else’s. These LSU grads represented a diverse student body coming from across the nation and 35 countries. Heavily white to be sure, they were also substantially African American, Latino, Asian and, particularly in petroleum engineering, Middle Eastern.
The tag to my commencement address: Cultural and political differences do exist in America. They always have. But we must never blind ourselves to our similarities. The bonds we share as Americans—as people—may be frayed, but they’re still valid and important. I suspect that among many people across regions, they’re still strong.
What to do? We can yield to the pessimists—posing as realists—on both the right and left, and build ever-higher walls. Self-righteousness can separate our 415s from our 225s. But we’ll have to shoulder the blame when those walls topple and bury the American Dream to which we only paid lip service.
You’re invited to my party launching Big Truth: New and Collected Stories—Sunday, June 9, 3:30–5 pm at Lokma Turkish restaurant, 1801 Clement Street at 19th Avenue, San Francisco. Yes, you can buy a copy, which I’ll autograph. RSVP with number in party: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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