A recent email chided that I've been increasingly polarized in my recent columns. For example, I called some authors lefties because they argued against the buildup to the War in Iraq. The emailer reminded me that criticism against the war is coming from all quarters and we'll be better off if we don't alienate any of the critics.
Indeed, when an invitation came from a peace organization to host a "House Party for Peace," I agreed to invite neighbors from all perspectives and in my rural Missouri neighborhood, you're as likely to see a Bush bumper sticker as anything else. I thought it would be interesting to sit down with a facilitator and got our ideas out.
What a dreamer!
Nobody in the neighborhood wanted to spend an evening in my living room talking about peace. They were haying, going to family reunions or shopping for school. Can't blame them; most of them work a day job to support the farm, then come home to farm and house work. Free time is precious and most of us have had it with talk about the war -- up to here.
I finally rounded up nine people, who represented a wide array of opinions. A couple who spend much of the year driving a camper that gets about seven miles per gallon and listening to conservative talk radio. The husband told me he'd sign up for Bush's war tomorrow if the Army would take him and, boy, if you didn't want to go you're not much of an American.
Then there were three young women who work on an organic farm, a very liberal friend from town, a couple of curious noncommitals and one man who, hearing the guest list, decided to come just to see the fireworks.
There weren't any fireworks. Instead, we all sat in silence as the facilitators took us back in history to 1920 when Standard Oil and Mobil first participated in the division of the oil-rich Middle East. Twenty-some years later, in 1944, President Roosevelt was telling the British ambassador, "Persian oil is yours, we share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it's ours."
The "ours" made it very personal. Ours, as in, belonging to a nation ruled by we the people.
And so, a few years later, the creation of Israel. And then, in 1970, the US threatened to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union if it intervened in Palestine. And then, in August 1978, 10,000 Iranians were massacred as they revolted against the US-backed Shah.
Thinking about each watershed date, I couldn't help but remember where I was, what I was doing. High school, college, marriage, the births of a couple of kids. All along, we increasingly took transportation for granted. We chowed down on food from all corners of the globe, trucked into our store. One car per family, then two, then airplane, then jet rides when we wanted.
As our kids were growing and we were driving them to T-Ball and ballet lessons, the US was ramping up forces, supporting one dictator, then another, keeping our source of oil secure, supplying friendly regimes with weaponry that included, in the 1980s, anthrax. The US backed one side, then the other. We.
And then, about the time the last kid graduated from high school, we got seriously into Iraq: "In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve US and Western access to the region's oil," says the "Defense Planning Guidance" paper drafted by Clinton's Defense Department in March 1992.
After a half hour of history, our facilitator stopped for comments. The questions came slowly. "Why do you call the War on Terror an 'invasion?'" asked Camper Guy. The facilitator answered that "invasion" is the correct word for an event when one country stops negotiating and sends troops into another.
Camper Guy made a half-hearted attempt to argue some of the things he had heard on talk radio but he gave up quickly. Really, it turns out, the radio hosts don't make sense when applied against the context of history.
Other people asked questions but there was no fire. We had realized in the hour and a half or so that, as my emailer suggested, many folks are on the same side, all Americans, all looking for some kind of way out. Somebody asked if rearranging the intelligence departments would change things, but we all knew the answer. The country needs to change priorities, a cultural change, to make a difference. Alternative fuels, yes, and conservation. Lots of conservation.
One of the young women became very quiet and thoughtful. She said lately that she'd been hearing a lot about the draft coming back. Our facilitator gave a list of websites for her to look at. Camper Guy didn't say he envied the young bucks who might be inducted.
I won't say that any minds were changed or that our little group bonded or even that we liked each other better, but the experience was successful enough that some of us have planned a second "House Party for Peace," this one at a coffee shop in town.
We learned that, if we can turn off the radio and TV, sit down, learn the history, ask questions and listen, we all know what to do.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.