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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

We have 9 million reasons to find common ground, so let's try

My happiest moment at 30,000 feet was in 2006 when I saw the Detroit River announce the end of my international flight and my return to Michigan. I remember thinking, my forehead pressed against the small plane window, “I don't even care if we crash now. As long as we crash into Michigan, it would still be a relief to spend the last few minutes of my life at home.”

Though our landing turned out to be unremarkable, I'll never forget that deeply desperate moment, as my sense of relief, wonder and appreciation of my home state has not left me since. It wasn't just because the prior several months I'd spent in Sweden were...what's the most succinct way to describe them? Let's just say the results of my rushed, sight-unseen employment arrangement made via Hotmail proved to be exactly as insane as a reasonable person might have assumed.

But my return home was also meaningful because what I'd learned about who we are as Michiganders while I was away made me newly proud to be one. 

I'd never thought much about our state identity until confronted with the bizarre stereotypes Swedes have of Americans. We are all, I was told, fat, litigious, gun-toting, pot-smoking, L.A.-hanging cowboys who end phone calls without saying goodbye. Which is why, obviously, we are the popular culture envy of the world. Who would not want to be exactly like that person?

In trying to explain how Americans weren't all Charlton Heston/Snoop Dogg hybrids, I found myself constantly distinguishing between American subcultures, from the east coast to southwest.

“But in Michigan,” I'd find myself saying, “we're less into the cowboy hats. Guns are kind of a thing though. But we're also known for being very polite – not like, Canadian-level polite, but more polite than New Yorkers.”

By the time I left, I'd developed a clearer description of a Michigander than I'd ever had, simply by listening to it come out of my own mouth. We're passionate about our work ethic, with many of our parents and grandparents having come from manufacturing backgrounds.

We're also innovators, do-it-yourselfers, who sometimes are too stubborn to ask for help. We're outdoorsy. We camp and ski and swim in lakes. We're down-to-earth, quick to joke and easy to laugh, but not if you're laughing at American cars or Detroit. Those are ours. Don't be mean.

I had a hard time believing all Swedes expected an entire country to fit into one cultural box, and they had just as much trouble understanding how Americans did not. But as I listed the qualities shared by many of the 9.9 million people in my state, it became obvious how a country of 9.5 million Swedes could be so culturally similar. It's not so different for us Michiganders, I had just never realized how much we all had in common.

This feels like an especially important thing to remember after a long couple of years of infighting here in Michigan. Though politics is always heated, it seems we're on a trend of legislation and initiatives that are increasingly directed at bringing other Michiganders down rather than pulling us all up together.

We're finding new ways to give less support to the poor and unemployed through drug testing. We barely managed to accept a nearly free Medicaid expansion to help the working poor, and for no apparent reason, are allowing them to needlessly suffer for an additional three months.

Some residents are so determined to continue stripping women's rights that they are sidestepping the regular legislative process to push through a veto-proof law that would require women to purchase an abortion rider for their health insurance before becoming pregnant – even in the case of rape, incest or the health of the mother.

None of these things make life better for anyone. They only hurt people. We have some real challenges here in Michigan. None of them are going to be solved by demonizing one another and pointing fingers. We need to call a time out on trying to bleed other Michiganders of what is important to them while making no progress on what is important to the entire state.

We're all on the same side here. We have a recovering economy that needs our ingenuity, a broken education system than needs our energy and innovation, and so many other shared struggles we could take on to make real, positive, impacting change in our state.

After all, at 30,000 feet, we are just one big land mass full of Michiganders. And if we can remember that what connects us is more significant than what divides us, we can really make a difference in the issues we all care about, together.

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