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Do you hang with people ‘like yourself’?

FIRST, READ this from a column by The Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson, which ran on our op-ed page last week:

People prefer to be with people like themselves. For all the celebration of “diversity,” it’s sameness that dominates. Most people favor friendships with those who share similar backgrounds, interests and values. It makes for more shared experiences, easier conversations and more comfortable silences. Despite many exceptions, the urge is nearly universal. It’s human nature.

Then ask yourself this question: Is this true for you?

What Mr. Samuelson is saying is accepted as gospel, as an “of course,” by so many people. And you can find all sorts of evidence to back it up, from whitebread suburbs to Jeremiah Wright’s church to the book that inspired the column, The Big Sort by Bill Bishop.

Here’s my problem with that: I don’t know any people “like me,” in the sense under discussion here. I don’t have a group of people who look and act and think like me with whom to identify, with the possible exception of my own close family, and in some respects that’s a stretch — we may look alike and in some cases have similar temperaments, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to being alike in, say, political views.

Oh, but you’re Catholic, you might say. Do you know what “catholic” means? It means “universal.” At the Mass I attend, we sometimes speak English, sometimes Spanish, and throw in bits of Greek and Latin here and there. The priest who often as not celebrates that Mass is from Africa. Parishioners live in something like 35 ZIP codes. There are black, white and brown people who either came from, or their parents came from, every continent and every major racial group on the planet. My impression, from casual conversations over time, is that you would find political views as varied as those in the general population. Sure, more of us are probably opposed to abortion than you generally find, but that’s not a predictor of what we think about, say, foreign policy.

I may run into someone occasionally who shares my background as a military brat. But beyond a comparison of “were you ever stationed at ...,” there’s not a lot to hang a sense of identity on.

I belong to the Rotary Club, which means I have lunch with 300 or so other people once a week. I can’t think of any attitude or opinion I have as a result of being a Rotarian; nor — to turn that around — did I join Rotary because of any attitude or opinion I held previously. Wait — there’s one thing that’s different: I started giving blood as a result of being in Rotary. But I don’t feel any particular identification with other people who give blood, or any particular alienation from others who don’t give blood, the selfish cowards (just kidding).

That’s not to say anything bad about Rotary, or anything good about it. It’s just not a predictor of my attitudes. I suppose people who have an objection to singing the National Anthem and “God Bless America” every week might stay away, but that still leaves a pretty broad spectrum. Rusty DePass, who worked hard for Rudy Giuliani last year, plays piano at Rotary. Jack Van Loan, longtime comrade and supporter of John McCain, is our immediate past president. Another prominent member is Jim Leventis, who is the godfather of Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, the filmmaker Alexandra. Not one of them is any more or less a Rotarian because of his political attitudes.

Reaching for a generalization, I can point to superficial sameness at Rotary — a lot of members are among the 6 percent of American men who still wear a tie to work every day, although many are not. And the membership is notably whiter than South Carolina, but that seems to correlate demographically with the tie thing. In any case, this is a place where I spend one hour a week; it does not define me.

Bottom line: I cannot think of five people not related to me, with whom I regularly congregate, who share my “backgrounds, interests and values” to any degree that would matter to me.

This is a barrier for my understanding of people who do identify with large groups of people who look alike and/or think alike and/or have particular interests in common that bind them as a group and set them apart from others. I don’t see how they do it. If I tried to be a Democrat or a Republican, I’d quit the first day over at least a dozen policy positions that I couldn’t swallow. How do others manage this?

Maybe I’m a misfit. But the ways in which I’m a misfit helped bring me to support John McCain (fellow Navy brat) and Barack Obama (who, like me, graduated from high school in the hyperdiverse ethnic climate of Hawaii) for their respective nominations. Sen. McCain is the Republican whom the doctrinaire Republicans love to hate. Sen. Obama is the Democrat who was uninterested in continuing the partisan warfare that was so viscerally important to the Clintonistas.

Coming full circle, I guess I like these guys because they’re, well, like me. But not so most people would notice.

It’s going to be interesting, and for me often distressing, to watch what happens as the media and party structures and political elites who do think in terms of groups that look, think and act alike sweep up these two misfit individuals in the tidal rush toward November. Will either of them have the strength of mind and will to remain the remarkably unique character that he is, or will both succumb to the irresistible force of Identity Politics? I’m rooting fervently for the former, but recent history and all the infrastructure of political expression are on the side of the latter.

Does Mr. Samuelson’s observation apply to you? Tell us all about it at