Thursday, October 30, 2014

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am…”

If the movie `A Christmas Story' were based upon my life story it wouldn't have been a Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock that was Holy Grail, rather it would be a two-wheeled contraption of any kind. My mother was convinced that any kind of two-wheeled motorized vehicle was the devil's work. I heard “you'll break your neck” more times than Ralphy heard `you'll shoot your eye out.’

So, I blame my mother for my 45-year obsession with motorcycles. As soon as I graduated from high school and left home I scanned the Lawrence Journal-World want ads for a used bike. The first one I found was a two-stroke Suzuki GS 350. It was not exactly a rolling classic. Its most distinguishing feature was the beautiful trail of blue smoke it left behind.

Over the years since that Suzuki met with an untimely demise on the streets of Lawrence, Kansas, I have owned several different makes and models of motorcycles from dirt bikes to café racers to my new Indian cruiser. What I have learned over those years is that motorcycling, like many hobbies, is a subculture filled with subcultures. A casual observer might think a motorcycle is just a motorcycle but a rider knows that the difference between a dirt biker and a chopper rider is vast.

There are dirt bike aficionados, cruiser riders, chopper fans, bobber freaks, sport bikers, adventure cyclists, touring riders, stunters, and just plain commuters. The sport bikers with their high revving speed machines look down their visors at the teacup helmeted leather clad cruiser riders with much disdain. The adventure cyclists clothed in jumpsuits astride SUV like machines with giant metal saddlebags have no use for retro-riding hipsters on stripped down Triumphs.

It's not too much of a stretch to draw comparisons between motorcyclists and Kansans when it comes to politics. We have conservatives, moderates, tea partiers, liberals, libertarians, socialists, and everything in between. Over the past several months my mailbox runneth over with glossy postcards explaining the horrors and dangers of differences between candidates and positions.

If we assembled a random group of motorcyclists we could quickly reach agreement, in spite of our differences, on why we ride and what makes a motorcycle a motorcycle. However it is not in the best interest of motorcycle apparel makers, magazine publishers, or manufacturers to have agreement. Marketing demands that people identify and behave in ways that create identities around niches. It is the best way to sell more stuff.

If we assembled a group of Kansas voters in a room, the one thing that all could agree on is education is a major issue with Kansas voters. Most all candidates are touting their records of support for schools, students, teachers, and more resources for public education. Based upon the glossy flyers that show up in my mailbox, everyone wants the best for Kansas education.

Unfortunately, much like the motorcycle business, politics demand that we create niches of voters just like subcultures of bikers. The harm of a strategy of identifying small differences and turning them into big ones is that it polarizes Kansans against one another. An unknowing observer might think that Kansans are all either fascists or communists.

What we know about human behavior and beliefs is that if graphed it looks less like two bubbles separated by a chasm and more like the old bell curve we recognize from statistics. If we slice the curve in the middle, we polarize 50 percent on the left and 50 percent on the right. If we look at polls in major elections right now we get 50 percent on the left and 50 percent on the right. That view of politics gives too much power to the extremes. The folks at the 49th and 51st percentile have far more in common than those at the 1st and 50th. I propose that after the election we encourage our legislators not to slice from the left or the right but to take a big slice from the middle.

Kansas has long been a progressive, common-sense state. We have done this by taking our slice from the middle. Modern politics are trying to do to our state what is happening to our nation. The attempt to define our country in terms of extreme red or blue ignores the fact that most of us are purple. (Please note this is not an advertisement for the Wildcat nation.)

Whoever wins and whoever loses needs to be prepared to view our state as a whole and not as one side against the other. Let's take our slice out of the middle. A motorcycle has two wheels and engine. Whether it's a Harley-Davidson or a Vespa it is still a motorcycle and it's still fun to ride. Kansans agree that education is the most important issue facing our state. Lets unite around it!

The fact is Kansas education is good but needs to get better. Kansans need to define what our kids need to know and be able to do upon graduation not based upon party lines but based upon what the majority of Kansans in the middle want for their kids. Kansans then need to provide the resources necessary to make this happen. We will never get there if we keep trying to slice the curve from the left and the right. Like it or not, Steelers Wheel was right, ‘Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”

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