Michael Cooper

Michael Cooper

Michael Cooper is a journalist and attorney from the foothills of North Carolina. He's working to bridge the rural-urban divide in American politics.

From North Carolina, Wishing You a Very Better Angels Christmas

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I’m writing this to avoid the last of my holiday shopping.

I still have more to get my niece and nephew, Maddie and Mason. They live in Philadelphia. I only get to see them a handful of times a year, so I’m convinced I can buy their love. After that, I’ll wonder through Best Buy figuring out what to get their parents, hoping not to settle on gift cards again this year. (In the end, though, I’ll end up in Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve just like I always do.)

I also shop for gifts for a former juvenile client, to supplement what he receives as the child of a single parent. He wants shoes this year, but he’s shy and noncommittal, and we’ll spend an hour picking the right ones before grabbing a milkshake and listening to his favorite music, which I don’t pretend to understand. After that, he’s going to hear the best Christmas music of all time: Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You. Which reminds me—I should mention I’m writing this piece as a Christmas gift to Luke Nathan Phillips this year. I met Luke at the #WeavethePeople gathering in Washington, D.C. Like Better Angels, Weave is another attempt to bring us back together as a country.

Luke is a Red, and I am a Blue. We met on the last night of the conference at a reception at the National Archives, a few feet from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—a fitting place to try to bridge our partisan divide.

Luke and I became friends on Facebook, which in today’s tech-saturated social sphere is almost like real life (he likes cats, has a Christmas sweater featuring the Star Wars character Boba Fett, and he looks enough like Pete Buttigieg to make money doing impressions if the mayor ever becomes president.) But he also seems like someone who really loves this country and wants to make it better.

Luke asked me to write a piece for The Conversation. I said, “Let’s do a holiday themed piece about gratitude and being thankful,” and here we are. I don’t know what the Better Angels policy is for talking about the holidays, and if there’s a more awkward subject than politics it’s religion. My personal preference is to be inclusive and rather than censor any words—let’s celebrate it all!

In the Christian faith, we observe the birth of our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. And I say that without a great deal of authority on the matter (or an impressive record of attendance on Sundays either… though recently, I’m trying.)

I was raised in a Southern Baptist church in the Bible Belt and I still remember appearing in the pageant and reciting verses of scripture: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

I remember that because I had to memorize it. After being an obnoxious atheist during college, I rekindled my faith on a couple of mission trips to Honduras. I still have unanswered questions, but I’m finding appreciation for the words: “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” And later on, on Christmas Eve, I’ll be in church, in the back pews. To me the Christmas story is about an enduring hope for mankind. From what I’ve gathered, that’s what Hanukkah is about too: the rededication of a temple and the restoration of faith.

Those themes – hope and renewal – feel universal, the reason for the season if you will. So, let’s try to spread that around.

I’m enjoying the season a bit more than usual this year—the Holiday Traditions channel on Sirius XM radio has been playing the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas and my favorite version of “White Christmas” which is sung by The Drifters. As an adult I’m appreciating that it truly is better to give than to receive (though I do enjoy getting socks now) and after years of buying clothes that my parents eventually return, I’m discovering that the best gifts are experiences – especially if you get to enjoy them together.

We live in North Carolina. North Carolina is Tobacco Road. It’s where college basketball allegiances (Duke, UNC, Wake Forest, N.C. State) run deep. I do not like Duke. You could say I hate Duke. But last week I took my mother to a Duke game as part of this year’s present. And, to make her happy, I even cheered for the Blue Devils. This will take me years of therapy to get over. But to me that’s Christmas: spending time with your friends and family and enjoying them for who they are.

That’s why I cringe when I see articles telling you how to argue with your relatives during the holidays.

I don’t want to debate my uncle about impeachment. I don’t want call out a cousin because of who they voted for, and I don’t want to worry about changing someone’s mind. I just want to see family and spend time with them. Life is far too short to waste it arguing with the people that you love.

I learned that lesson the hard way. Eight years ago I got caught up in America’s drug epidemic and ended up in jail. I was lucky to receive a second chance in life, and the people who were there for me weren’t there because we shared an ideology. There were family and old friends–and they were there because they cared. That’s been my own story of redemption, and like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, I’ve realized what actually matters in life and I’m doing my best now to give back. That’s why I could care less about arguing about politics this time of year.

I grew up in a rural area where most of the people are conservative Republicans. In fact, going by our voting history, we’re one of the reddest counties in the entire country. And, as someone who protested the Iraq War, voted for Barack Obama twice and interned for the most progressive member of Congress in Washington, D.C., you’d think I’d hate going back or being caught dead in our Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve.

But I don’t. In fact, I love it, and I love them, because that’s the place and those are the people who made me. And, if politics comes up during the holidays, I will do my best to listen, and participate…  but I don’t care about winning an argument for my cause.

I’m honestly not sure why we’re supposed to be arguing? Americans are more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. But we’re not divided over an issue like slavery. We’re divided because we are divided.

We’re sorting ourselves based on culture and education level. That’s the problem. Not gerrymandering, not the Electoral College. We’ve moving apart, and therefore coming apart. And the dinner table seems like the best place to fix that, because it’s the one time when we’re actually all together.

Maybe then we’ll realize how important we are to one another. To quote Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

I think we’ve forgotten that.

We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided by social media and the internet. We find less time to speak to family and we don’t even know or talk to our neighbors. None of that sounds healthy for us or for society. That’s why our institutions are fading away (churches, unions, local media, etc.) And by losing community we’re turning instead to tribalism. We’re searching for meaning in politics for what we’re missing in relationships. And it seems to me that we have to repair broken social bonds first, before we’ll ever get on to addressing issues like climate change or immigration. So, my advice is to put the talking points away, and to forego talking about impeachment during this holiday season. Let’s keep this a time for giving gifts, returning gifts, making resolutions, and for watching Die Hard.

Let’s remember all we have to be thankful for, because we live in the greatest country on earth during a time of peace and prosperity. Surely that’s worth celebrating.

There are challenges today, and there will be challenges tomorrow. But we’ve been through worse before. And, it’s worth remembering just how far we’ve come, and who got us here (Founding Fathers, abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, soldiers on the beaches of Normandy, Massasoit and the Wampanoag who saved the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock) while pausing to rejoice in the fact that we are still here. This nation has had some close calls along the way (the winter of 1777, ratification of the Constitution, Gettysburg, the Cuban Missile Crisis) and we should take pride in what America has become and what we represent going forward… that we’re still the last, best hope for all mankind.

Ten years ago, I wrote a column for my hometown newspaper, “Christmas Without a Middle-Class.” A year before, Wall Street had collapsed. Jobs and incomes were disappearing. There were bankruptcies and foreclosures and overdose deaths in our town and in communities across the country — but we’ve come through the worst of that now. After all that, it makes sense to be anxious. The country is supposed to feel a little broken. That’s only natural. But this has happened before and we’ll get through this again.

And, we’d do well to remember how those who came before us found a renewed spirit during the holidays. On Christmas Eve in December 1941, weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in Washington D.C., and still found time to observe the lighting of a Christmas tree. As Churchill said:

“Here, in the midst of war … here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit … Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play.”

Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world. And so, in God’s mercy, a happy Christmas to you all.”

So let’s learn from that moment and put aside our difference to celebrate our favorite traditions. Let’s deck the halls with boughs of holly. Light the menorah. Sing yuletide carols. And hang stockings and mistletoe. Let’s remember that bonds of affection run deeper than ideology – and that those bonds are what we need now to heal this country – and let’s make this the happiest season of all. With that, thank you Luke, for allowing me to contribute this week, and to be part of the Better Angels community.

Now I’m off to finish my shopping.

 

Editor’s Note: I am very grateful for this wonderful Christmas gift from Michael, and I hope the Better Angels reader community can be too! -LNP

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