A Death in a Divided Country
On Election Day 2008, I stood with Anne on Fremont Avenue in Seattle, waving signs supporting then-candidate Barack Obama. It was a marathon of a day that began at 8:00 a.m., with last-minute canvassing and sign waving straight through until the evening. But Anne, a longtime friend, was up for it.
We had been friends for nearly a decade at that point, but gradually the spaces between our conversations, texts, and emails grew longer. She moved from Seattle to a town near the Canadian border. Then in January 2017, she posted to Facebook that she had voted for Donald Trump. Surprised, I arranged to meet with her to ask about her political evolution. At a bar in Marysville, I did my best to listen rather than argue. The conversation was friendly, and while I still struggled to grasp why her views had changed so significantly, we left on good terms.
Though I approached that initial meeting with the intention simply to understand her opinions, my anger grew as time went on and I thought about some of the arguments she’d made. For years afterward, especially after some major news event, I wrote emails to her in my head: perfect slam-dunk arguments, or withering insults, or masterful shaming. I knew sending them would be petty, but the catharsis was tempting. When the insurrection at the United States Capitol occurred, I decided I’d finally do it. I opened an email to her and began to type, but then slammed my laptop shut again.
A friend texted recently and told me that Anne had died. At 44 years old, she had succumbed to cancer a few days earlier, leaving behind a husband and a three-year-old daughter.
The battle with cancer had been long—two years. Anne had become such an avatar of the other side, a stand-in for everything I felt was wrong about the country, that instead of checking in about her life, I had only thought about the searing emails I could send her. I had no idea she had a new daughter. No idea she had cancer. More than a decade of shared experiences and personal conversations were forgotten. For me, Anne’s opinions had replaced Anne the person.
To be part of a democracy requires two profoundly hard and often conflicting tasks: to be passionate and knowledgeable about your country’s problems, yet still listen to, care for, and respect people whose opinions and actions you think are making your country worse. “Seeing each other’s humanity” can feel like a flowery proclamation, but on a personal level it’s vital for healthy relationships. On a political level, it can be the only thing standing between a functional society and profound suffering and violence.
We are in a period where these hard tasks are of particular importance—a period of turmoil, polarization, reckoning, and uncertainty. Public confidence in democracy is at the lowest point on record in the United States, according to a 2020 report from the University of Cambridge. It’s times like these that make us more likely to view other people as cartoonish avatars of things we don’t like.
Over this past summer, nearly all the articles we’ve posted to this blog (and that were published in our latest print issue of Spark magazine) were our attempt to understand some of the forces that led us here, and how we might move forward. They are part of a larger series called Re:building Democracy, consisting of livestreamed events and radio shows presented in partnership with Spokane Public Radio, Northwest Public Broadcasting, and KUOW Public Radio, produced with the support of the Mellon Foundation and the Federation of State Humanities Councils. You can read about voter suppression to the forces pushing against civics education, tips for having better conversations about important topics, the struggles of going against the political grain of your community, and much more. I was editing and compiling these pieces when I found out Anne passed away, and was struck by how many of the topics intersected with the story of our friendship.
Although I hadn’t seen her emails for four years, I remembered them as unhinged. They weren’t. I disagreed with their arguments, but their reasonableness surprised me. In the intervening years, I had made Anne into a cartoon.
After I’d sent one particularly long email rant, full of carefully sourced links and laboriously made points, Anne wrote back: “I don’t really have the heart to hash out politics today, but will respond when my feistiness comes back.”
It was the last thing she ever said to me. It didn’t have to be.
David Haldeman is the editor of Humanities Washington’s Spark magazine and blog.