Before we bring up the president's visit (See Barack City!), let's talk about fishing.
"Your column ... was one of the dumbest things I've ever read," the email began.
Last week, I wrote about four local men -- each from Mexico, here without papers -- who were handcuffed, arrested and taken to jail this summer by a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officer for fishing near the Chickamauga Dam without a license. My point was twofold:
• To show the absurdity of arresting -- arresting! -- someone for fishing without a license.
• To suggest the punishment would have been different had the men been of different skin color.
"You are an idiot," the email began, "wrapped in a moron."
My inbox, Facebook, voicemail got swamped, the equivalent of dynamite fishing: Boom! and suddenly I'm surrounded by so many angry words.
"Cram it," the man began, "up your little brown ..."
The Chattanooga fishing community was enraged. Some began a boycott. I started checking under my tires for treble hooks. But like a man who's thrown a dinner party that ends with everyone getting sick, the whole mess led me to re-evaluate and re-examine just exactly what I had served up.
I listened and talked. Heard different perspectives, other stories. What I thought was true was becoming less so. The last straw came with my good friend, also a TWRA officer. A man among men, not a bad bone in his body, he said this:
"I would have arrested them, too. Citations don't work when no one has an ID. Didn't matter what color they were or weren't."
That did it.
I think I was wrong.
After all, opinions aren't permanent, stuck in concrete galoshes and forever sunk to the bottom of our political dialogue. They ought to be fluid, alive; such words -- I may be wrong on this -- ought to come easily. Or, at least, after much thinking and rethinking.
Please: Don't read into this any newfound claim that people of color don't face discrimination in ways large and small. Especially Latinos. Especially here.
Nor did my change of mind come from YELLING emails, silly threats or messages telling me to stick the column where the fish don't swim. They all did just the opposite. (But hey, I, too, have been mad before.)
My opinion softened because of friends and strangers who let me see I didn't know the whole picture ... and did so with respect, honesty and civility.
Which brings us to the president.
And how we talk to each other these days about politics.
"When was the last time anyone from the other side of politics changed your mind about an issue?" a friend asked recently.
Not often. You? Didn't think so.
Because the dialogue we use or hear others use -- from one side of the aisle to the other -- is near-absent of anything constructive, healthy and creative. We've become political bottom-feeders, reducing our speech to something base and divisive, continuing to reach into the tackle box for the worst of all lures: insults, stereotypes, eye-rolling, the inability to listen.
No wonder so little gets solved.
No wonder we are deeply angry with one another.
(No wonder the Lincoln Memorial got vandalized last week.)
Sure, I'm part of an American Media Machine that revels in division. But not all of us go along with it. My hunch is you don't either.
You may like Obama or not. Conservative, or you lean left. Who cares.
What matters most is that we the people rediscover the ability to put down our fists, listen to one another and craft dialogue using certain things.
Patience. Intelligence. Silence. The ability to know when things are working, and what to do when they're not.
Which, not surprisingly, are the same things you need to catch fish.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...