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Polarization and the Red State, Blue State two-step

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Wednesday, February 23rd, 2005 — Awhile ago, folks in Palo Alto got appropriately shook up when "career day" at JLS Middle School included discussion of exotic dancing and stripping as career alternatives.

All concerned (other than the speaker) agreed this was offensive material for young teens.

The same day the San Francisco Chronicle carried this story it also reported on a storm brewing in high schools near Atlanta, Ga. Instead of exotic dancing and stripping, the offending subject in Cobb County was evolution -- school officials had placed stickers in high school biology textbooks warning that evolution is "a theory, not a fact."

Parents and the school board disagreed on the constitutionality of the disclaimer and the case went to court. The stickers were removed.

What do these two scenarios have to do with polarization and the recent-election's division of our country into Red and Blue states?

Clearly, the stories suggest that there are cultural geographic differences. But more importantly they show that we are not so polarized after all.

In Palo Alto, where, for the most part, we wear Blue on our sleeves, we are not so morally irresponsible as to give a smug wink and turn our backs on bad judgment, especially when it affects our kids. In the Red state of Georgia, Blue values are alive and well, going all the way to the courthouse to protect the role of science and freedom of thought.

Red and Blue mania, if we swallow it whole, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, where we all become more polarized and closed-minded. The designations are the worst kind of media-generated stereotypes.

Reds are stouthearted, hardworking folks. Red reflects images of blood spilled on battlefields of freedom -- and of Big Brother. Blues, as in: "Blue skies smilin' on me, nothing but blue skies do I see," are said to wear happy-go-lucky, hippie grins and/or sit in intellectual ivory towers. Blues tend to resemble the "effete snobs" of Spiro Agnew fame.

There is nothing wrong with ideological differences. The United States is the product of our two-party system. The competing ideologies engage in a tug-of-war that should refine and delineate the interests of both. Historically, the pendulum is stops short of swinging all the way to one side and eventually swings back again.

Closed-mindedness, however, is ignorance, for which there is no excuse. I once read: "Ignorance is not bliss; it is a painful, dulling blindness." Neither hard-line Reds nor Blues can go happily into the night believing that inquiry stops at their self-imposed boundaries.

It is nonsense to think that as a nation, a state, or as individuals, we are simply Blue or Red. Who does not believe in family values? Who thinks abortion is an easy choice? We would not censor all new ideas, or censor nothing at all.

Nowhere is the ridiculousness of this media oversimplification more illustrated than when the "We Are Family Foundation" (Blue) faced off with the "Focus on Family" (Red) organization over children's television programming.

SpongeBob and Buster Baxter the rabbit are cartoon characters. SpongeBob appeared in a show created to teach children about diversity. Some say SpongeBob had been "outed" as a member of the Gay community.

The Buster Baxter PBS program was doing series on families. The episode in question included children with lesbian mothers.

"Foul," cried Focus on Family Director, James Dobson. "No way," responded the We Are Family Foundation.

Family values are in the eye of the beholder. Hunkering down and circling the wagons won't open the way to potential common ground. Someone needs to stick out a sacrificial neck and look for the purple that stretches between the Red and the Blue.

Purple is not sitting on the fence without opinions. To the contrary, it means having opinions of one's own. The color purple, in this case, can be the bridge between two opposing ideologies.

"When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple," is a poem by Jenny Joseph that was popular long before all the fuss about Red and Blue states. For her, wearing purple is a way to, "Make up for the sobriety of my youth." It's a good reminder for us to stay light on our feet, dance to our own tune and maybe even stick our necks out every now and then - to stand up firmly for the Moderate Middle of good-sense America.

Without a healthy spontaneity, we could become entrenched in an ideological debate that pushes us further and ever further apart until even the pendulum can't find its way back.