Finding the Center of a Nation

I kept a NYT newspaper clipping from several years ago, a short article by Dan Barry called “In the Middle of Nowhere, a Nation Finds Its Center,” and found it the other day in an old file. I vaguely remember cutting this out and stuffing it inside a notebook but couldn’t remember what it was about or why I wanted to keep it. Perhaps it encapsulated an unexpected but poignant idea that I wanted to remember. I reread it the other night, reading and waiting for something to hit me. Why had I kept this?

The article was about Butte County, South Dakota, where the geographical center of the United States is located. Mr. Barry describes his own venture out to see the spot, finding a handwritten sign and a bumpy, unpaved road to get to the official center of the nation. He reported that there was a wind-tattered flag on a pole and that was about it. The center of America, uncelebrated and unsung, but sure and certain in its South Dakota plain. In 1959, people had gathered to appoint this spot the new center of the U.S. once Hawaii had become a state. Little Butte County had new significance. Ah yes, I loved this small-town story and I started to remember why this little story had struck me.

However, shortly after the 1959 gathering where the Star-Spangled Banner was played and tourists and dignitaries had gathered to honor this little spot, the little marked spot was forgotten. The state decided to build a new highway, which bypassed the true center of the nation by 7.8 miles to the north. To find the original true center, you’d have to spot a small sign saying “Center of the U.S. this way.” Most missed it. Twenty-one miles away and an easy exit off the highway’s path at Belle Fourche, someone saw an opportunity. “How about we set up a little monument here and label it ‘center of the nation’?” they thought. “People can stop here, take a picture, it’ll be good for tourism. It’s close enough to real center, no one will know the difference.” So, while this town is actually 21 miles from the real geographical spot, it’s got a big granite marker claiming it’s the center of the nation, complete with a flagpole. A star-spangled spot perfect for snapshots or selfies. And people leave thinking they’d visited the center. No one is going to fact check it.

But, as Mr. Barry explains, the real center is “through the barbed wire . . . past dandelions and wildflowers . . . with nothing before you but sky, pasture and a solitary flag . . . and a disc-shaped marker left in 1962 by the government’s geodetic surveyors. In the center of the disc it says: CENTER.” Mr. Barry ends the essay on a hopeful note: amidst the strains of that year, uncertain war, a looming recession, home foreclosures, “gas at $4 a gallon, at least somewhere in this nation a center holds.” I had read those words with such hope. It felt good, grounded. It felt sure.

Reading it in 2020, I sat there looking at the last line and wondered if I believed it. It felt like we’re falling apart.

take out: Honestly, it feels less like a center is holding and more like we’re speeding along the highway of party politics, looking for the flashy monument to take a selfie at, not even realizing or caring how far from center we’ve drifted. It often feels we are standing on an artificial center — favoring party over people, favoring might over right, favoring self over others. Our current climate seems to be forcing people from the center. We are demanding you pick a tribe, and then fight everyone else off. “There’s only enough room here for us.”

It’s clear that even as I write this, there is no real movement toward finding center. The results of the November 2020 election are still being tallied, indicating the truth of something my brother wrote to me in a text last night:

I think what we’re finding out is that this country is as divided as we all feared. No blue wave. No repudiation of Trump. No matter what happens in this election, it’s going to take a long time to find common ground again.

A false center

Like the Belle Fourche monument in the NYT article, intense partisanship has driven us miles off center. And just like the Belle Fourche monument, intense partisanship is convenient, easy to find, flashy, exciting. It allows you to sum up your positions and those of our opponents through stump speeches and memes. It allows you to boil everything and everyone down into two categories: good or evil. With this ease, our loyalties to our parties and to our favorite news personalities become more important than our loyalty to our principles or even to our fellow Americans. We refuse to offer an olive branch because “the other party” is the group that needs to change. If they didn’t dislike us so much, maybe we could get along. We become defensive, fearful, and divided. We think they other side is out to get us, so we pull away and divide into tribes, refusing to share any common ground.

We’re so far off center, but no one is going to fact check it.

In the weeds

Although I felt no reassurance of a center holding us together and that we were dwelling too often at a Belle Fourche-like false center when I read the article the other day, I did discover a similarity between finding true center in the U.S. political conversation and finding the geographical center of the U.S.: they’re both in the weeds. Finding center isn’t convenient or easy. It’s not speeding along the highway in one direction, ticking the R or D boxes. It takes real effort. If we are going to find center and get off the teeter-totter of partisan politics, we have to want it.

We have to get in the weeds.

Getting in the weeds is taking an honest look at our grievances and grudges, the messaging we consume, the vitriol we allow and even put out there — and rejecting those things that are not worthy of our American ideals. Getting into the weeds means understanding that issues are not all black and white. The answers may not all line up neatly in a blue or a red columns, but they might be messy and hard to grapple with. Getting into the weeds means listening to other voices, seeking understanding, and shifting your perspective. Getting into the weeds means recognizing we individually might be part of the problem of division in our country, and we have to want to take the harder road of changing our own behaviors.

We also can’t pass the buck. We can’t blame the politicians, the media, or the other party for our problems of being so divided. Take away the president, the divides will remain. Take away cable news, the divides will remain. It’s not their existence that divides us; it’s our believing the narratives. They can’t sell ideas without buyers. No one forces people to stop at Belle Fourche, they make the stop at will. We also can’t expect any one politician to make us come together on his or her own. We each have to do the hard work to find common ground again.

Even when tempted to take the easy path of party politics, we have to keep going. It doesn’t matter who wins this 2020 presidential election. This election is not the end. Although the margins between red or blue are razor thin in number of votes and we operate and vote within a two-party system, I believe that if we went to the center of America, most of us would be there. We have a choice. We have to choose to be better to each other. We have to chose unity.

Where the skies are clear

So, what could a journey on a path less traveled look like right now in 2020?

We’d turn off the highway of party politics onto a small, rural exit and go down the bumpy, dirt road. We’d find the handwritten sign “Center of a Nation this way ” and continue through the dandelions and wildflowers and past the barbed wire fence. Careful not to fall into our old patterns, we’d steer around the rutted ground of partisanship.

When we find the little clearing, we’d clean the dirt and weeds off of the geodetic surveyor disc that says CENTER and retire the tattered and worn flag that has been forgotten for so many years. Old grievances and political grudges we’d carried around so long — grievances we’d spent days and nights turning over in our minds and railing against online or to long-suffering family members — would start to ease off our shoulders. Away from the madding crowd, we might even loosen our grip on these grudges, forgiving those who we’ve seen as so wrong but maybe never even met.

Then we’d carefully unfold a flag that this time represents not just what we want for ourselves, but what we want for everyone else too: liberty, equality, justice, unity, compassion, understanding. As the Stars and Stripes steadily climb the narrow pole in the middle of nowhere — out here where the skies are so clear — we’d look to our left and to our right and see that although we’re starting over, we’re not alone.

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