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Moving Forward: We can all get along

Moving Forward column by Chris Graham

This is one of the more difficult columns that I’ve found myself having to write.

I’ve been troubled in recent days by a run of comments on our website advancing slurs on Barack Obama that have me wondering if what we do here at the AFP is even worth the trouble anymore.

I’ve been proud to say over the many years that I’ve been involved in local media that I’ve found my hometown to be a most open and welcoming place to live and to be. I’ve been involved in a number of charity efforts both as a journalist and as an active participant, for example, and have come across people from all walks of life and races and ethnicities and educational backgrounds and partisan and ideological stripes who haven’t given a second thought to rolling up their sleeves to work together to solve those things that need solving and do the work that needs to be done to make Waynesboro a better place to live.

That was never more evident to me than during my run for city council, when I had the great fortune to get to meet and work with conservatives and moderates and liberals alike to advance a common agenda aimed at Moving Waynesboro Forward, and despite our loss at the polls, I felt heartened that we had made some headway toward building a coalition that will one day span that which divides us and get this city running on all cylinders again.

Fast forward a few months, and I’m seeing a bitter streak rearing its head regarding the Obama campaign that makes me think that we’ve taken several big steps backward.

For the record, Barack Obama is not a Muslim – not that it should matter either way if he was Muslim, but he’s not. We’ve seen several posters assert as fact otherwise in recent days here on the AFP, and then claim that as a Muslim Obama thus is necessarily a terrorist bent on the destruction of America, because as we all know, all Muslims are fundamentalist extremist terrorists.

I’ve been trying to offer a moderating influence on the forums by suggesting that people calm down a bit and consider rationally several important facts about the Muslim world, most importantly that while there are certainly Muslim terrorists out there who aim to do us as their Great Satan no small harm, it is certainly not the case that all Muslims are fundamentalist extremist terrorists, and those who harbor that view would do themselves and their community well to better inform themselves about the world around them, or maybe meet and talk with some Muslims who play important roles in our community, like Zahir Mahmoud, the director of our city library, or Faryal Zubair, an intern here at the AFP who is the editor of the school paper at Waynesboro High School.

And yet the slurs persist – and what gets me down the most about this is that some of the people who are pushing the issue here are people that I know well and respect very much and consider to be friends.

You can’t possibly imagine how tough this is for me to have to compute. Because I have spent my adult life in journalism trying to educate myself on the issues of the day so that I can report on them as accurately as I can, and in the course of so doing I have had the fortune to come to know a great many people from every possible ideological and political and religious background. And what I have learned from this is that I have learned a little something new from everybody – most significantly the people with whom I would not naturally hold anything in common.

I famously have had a Newt-Free Zone bumper sticker on the back of my Geo Metro dating back to my decision in 1995 to intensely dislike Newt Gingrich when he was the outspoken House Speaker advancing what I thought was an overly political and short on substance Contract with America. Well, I met Newt a couple of years ago at JMU, and guess what? Not only was I charmed by him, but I found him to make several points with which I agreed when I gave him the time to answer my questions, which admittedly were not softballs.

That experience has been repeated so many times over that I have long since lost count. Among the people that I have come to respect the most over the years are the likes of Chris Saxman, a conservative Republican and the co-chair of the Virginia McCain campaign, and Ben Cline, another conservative Republican, from the Rockbridge County area. I consider Emmett Hanger a dear friend; and have earned the praise of House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell, who told me earlier this year that I was one of the few Virginia journalists to give his Republican caucus a fair shot in my coverage.

I say this because I’m trying to make the point that it’s really not that hard to not agree with somebody who has different partisan and ideological views and yet not be so disagreeable that you have to slur their good name in the process.

And having made it my life’s work to try to elevate the discourse to a point where we can raise issues with Sarah Palin for not (in my eyes) being as fiscally conservative as she wants to say she is, to give a for instance, it bothers me to the core of my being to see people respond to arguments aimed at a person’s voting record with the kind of vitriol that we’ve been seeing here lately.

What’s interesting is that we’re hearing I think appropriate questions being asked by McCain-Palin supporters about why some Obama-Biden supporters are spreading filth about Palin’s young son, Trig, and her daughter, Bristol, and her personal religious observance, all of which are completely and totally out of bounds, in my view and I think in any forward-thinking person’s view. And yet some of these same people are spreading this filth about Obama being either a Muslim or a radical black Christian and making constant references to his Arabic middle name to raise the spectre that he is somehow linked to or involved in terrorism in ways that border on the ridiculous.

I’m not suggesting that I think the whole world has to vote for and love and worship Barack Obama, not at all. I concede that there are a number of perfectly good reasons for people to want to vote for John McCain, and to me absolutely none of them have to do with whether Obama is a radical Christian or Muslim or that his middle name is Hussein or that he’s African-American.

Back in the sixth grade, I was given the task of delivering Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a public-speaking contest, and did about as well as a white kid in predominantly white rural Augusta County could do in the process (I finished second). Would that his words about judging people on the content of their character and not all those other silly things that we get ourselves caught up in ring true all these many years later.

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