Trip to Kansas teaches a lesson of unity despite differences

I wasn’t expecting a lot from my visit to Lawrence, Kan. The only reason I went was to visit my friend Laura. I’d lived in the Midwest for two years. I knew what was in store for me: long, flat expanses of fields, drawn-out vowel sounds and a culture devoid of tolerance and full of conservatism.

The latter, at least, turned out not to be the case. Laura took me to the campus radio station, where the DJ and I discussed the merits of classifying Kitty as being metal or not. We went to a Latin dance party, where I taught semi-sober boys how to salsa. But almost the first item on my Kansas itinerary was attending a peace march.

It wasn’t a big deal. There were less than 200 people, I’d guess, but what they lacked in numbers they made up for with enthusiasm. There was an incredible array of social and political organizations present, most of which had cause-appropriate signs in tow. There was an anarchist organization, the Womyn’s Empowerment Action Coalition, antiwar pacifists with roots dating back to the Vietnam War protests, students, professors and one UCSD Triton, looking on in hapless amazement. Everyone was in a good mood and eager to be there.

We marched up the street and then we marched back, chanting, singing, clapping, smiling and waving to people on the sidewalks and in cars. Sometimes people would wave back and smile, sometimes they’d glare and mutter something about being unpatriotic. Both responses elicited further peace signs and grins.

Then there was a rally, where whoever felt like it spoke to the crowd. First were peace organization members, and then some professors, followed by a political anarchist who kept his comments refreshingly reasonable, and finally a former member of the Navy speaking on anti-Arab propaganda that had been part of his training during Operation Desert Storm.

I was moved. I wanted to jump up, grab the mike and yell, “”Thank you!”” Here, in the middle of what I had always known to be a world dominated by zealous conservative values, a world completely devoid of liberal persuasions, were people who were backing the same pacifist stance that I was. It was simultaneously surprising and wonderful.

It’s not like everyone in Kansas was a huge proponent of the peace march. There were people who frowned as we passed by, people who refused to even look at us and people who yelled out accusations of supporting terrorism. One particularly relentless opponent to the rally had apparently decided to dedicate his day to protesting our protest. His comments ranged from “”Hug a tree you hippies!”” to “”Do I smell patchouli?”” to “”You worship Saddam!”” Retaliation took the form of correcting his pronunciation of Saddam, actually hugging a tree, offering to hug him and generally deriving amusement from his ardent antics.

Laura showed me a good time in Kansas, single-handedly shattering some of the longtime stereotypes that I’d had about the coastless portions of the country. But I’m particularly grateful to her for taking me to that march. Never have I been so hopeful about the possibility of national unity.

It’s easy to take sides on an issue like war. It’s easy to pick teams when it comes to feeling threatened. It’s also easy to let those divisions take over, and in the process we lose sight of the incredibly important idea of unity. This national crisis isn’t just happening to one city, one group of people, one party or one portion of society. It’s happening to all of us. Despite the fact that we are a collection of individuals, we are still a collection.

I know I forget that on occasion. I forget that this society is composed of people who are, overall, very similar. It was incredibly inspiring to see that people in Lawrence felt the same way I did. It was such a wonderful experience to feel connected to people who were living lives so completely different from mine.

My position isn’t that everyone should adopt the same point of view. I don’t think that there’s anything to be gained from conforming to the same perspective, even for the sake of protecting one’s country. We identify ourselves by our beliefs, our values, our ideas and the freedom to have a vast spectrum of perspectives — something to be protected, not forgotten. What I’m advocating is recognition of the idea that we are more connected than we think, that separations are not as prevalent as we may think.

This country will not be destroyed by terrorism, not directly. It will not be destroyed by biological weapons or nuclear bombs. The only real threat to this nation’s security is the division between its citizens. As long as we continue to separate ourselves from one another, conflict is inevitable. As long as we keep clinging to stereotypes about one group or another, we’re just eating away at whatever chance we have for cohesiveness.

If people can recognize similarities in one another, even if everything else seems completely foreign and odd, then there is always some semblance of unity. And as long as we have that, then there is always some semblance of hope.