Self-help Manual for a Nation

True to its title, Julie Ethan’s book, How Can Half the Country Be So Stupid? A Memoir and Guide to Friendship Between Political Opposites reads like a conversation between friends. Her guiding principle is “Relationships over politics,” so if you’re worried that the book is an attempt to change your political team, rest easy. As Julie points out, “Researchers have proven that facts don’t change our minds, that we won’t let go of our beliefs even when presented with contrary evidence.”

What you will hear in this 33-page, 10-chapter offering is Julie’s compassionate, humane voice. I’ve no doubt that if you went for coffee together, she’d ask about you, listen intently and make you feel at home knowing that conversational skill is, above all, a gesture of hospitality. The foundation of  conversation requires listening and this is how we find common ground.

Julie’s conflict resolution credentials and life experiences as a mother and business owner are beautifully woven together in this book written in, of course, a conversational style. Part memoir, part self-help, part how-to guide, she offers her story and journey to show the reader how her ideas evolved. She takes the reader from motherhood in “Shenanigans and Lego Bricks” (best line: “We didn’t know much about Wall Street, but we knew the call of a loon, the smoky haze of a campfire, and the glow of a perfect sunset.”) to the final chapter, “Using Your Brain to Overcome the Urge to Murder Your Political Opposite”. The last chapter is not just about regulating your blood pressure and keeping yourself out of jail, it rallies all the previous ideas and suggestions in the book into concrete actions we can use to cool political discussions and maintain friendships.

The chapter, “A Blueprint for Bridges”, shows Julie using everything she has learned to bring people on opposing political sides together, to listen to each other, and to hear each other without being hostile. Even more than the chapter which recounts her family business economic crash between 2008 and 2010, this is a harrowing account of the canyon that separates people in America’s two-party camps and the pain felt in both groups. But Julie doesn’t wallow. Instead, she gives readers a tool to help identify the so-called “villains” in news media and campaign advertising. She shows the reader how to cultivate compassion by asking questions and how to listen.

The book’s goal is to build common links between all people and thereby restore some civility to political conversations and civic life. Given the chasm that seems to widen every day in the USA, the goal seems impossible, but Julie makes it look doable. As a Canadian and an outside observer let me assure you that Canada has its own polarized issues – our fraught and toxic relationship with First Nations’ peoples, for example – and her book is equally a guide for snowshoeing the blizzard of our national politics.

So, if facts don’t change our minds or help us see another point of view how do we find common ground? Julie proposes looking “… for underlying values you might share in the situation”, values like community, family and jobs.

I know this book will help me keep calm when having political conversations with those I may not agree with. I will take Julie’s advice and ask open ended questions, try to listen, AND hear the answers without launching into hyperbolic orbit. It may even help my blood pressure when watching or reading the news.

I urge you to give Julie’s book a shot. It might defuse discussions with friends and family AND infuse you with optimism about the future.

To learn more about Julie Ethan, visit her website.

For a sample of Julie’s writing, visit her blog.

12 thoughts on “Self-help Manual for a Nation

  1. Your review is compelling. However, at this point, I may have better luck joining a nunnery than “listening” to opposing political views. I’m at my most polite when I tune them out and think about ice cream. I long to return to a political environment where I can listen instead of tune out and where I can see the value of viewpoint. Ms Ethan is very clever and diplomatic, I can tell. Okay, time for sherbet! 😛


  2. My son’s last visit almost ended before it started on my birthday. I was shaking when he asked me to site my sources for my opinion. I had to shut down the discussion completely because he was intent to prove his case. This book is correct. He will never convince me with his facts that I’m wrong but I love him anyway. So we will not have that conversation. Family means a lot but… I can’t do 4 more years of this insanity. I will consider leaving the country first. Growing up in Germany as the next generation after the worst, I get how history works and we don’t often learn from it. I’m going to see if I can find this book. l’m definitely in need. Thanks for the information here.

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    • It sounds like you made the wise move. There is no way to win these conversations. You should be able to find Julie’s book on Amazon without too much difficulty. Keeping my American friends in my thoughts as the election looms.

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      • I found the book and started reading it last night. Got 3.5 hours of sleep after. I’m not political. I’m spiritual and not religious. I feel a connection to the earth and all things living so conflict doesn’t sit well. I will always love people with differing opinions. We NEED them. It’s meant to be that way. But history tells us that somethings are a trip down a hellish slope. I’m praying my ballot shows up when expected. There are no saviors here. We must do it ourselves but I would like to see us move forward rather than backward into the dark ages once again. I’ll save the rest of the book for the early morning hours now. It’s WELL written. Thanks for letting us know about it.

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  3. This sounds like a book that should be required reading by everyone. The simple act of truly listening and searching for common ground to bridge differences appears to be a lost art these days. We are all guilty of sliding into the tendency of spending more energy to formulate our next (brilliant!) point.

    As usual, your writing is a joy to read … “snowshoeing the blizzard of our national politics”. Only in Canada 😉

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  4. Susanne, thank you for all the time and attention you put into going through the book and providing this impeccable review. You captured the essence, the content and the vibe with your words. As the author, I can’t thank you enough. I’m looking forward to doing the same for you.

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  5. It’s a commendable objective to try to maintain friendships despite political differences; being prepared to listen, debate and respect other views even if you can’t always agree. I certainly agree we should try to do this (even if it’s not always so easy). However, there are limits to this. Sometimes the divide is too wide, where it‘s impossible to reconcile world views which are so fundamentally different.

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