A Tofu Thanksgiving in Montana: Moving Past the Untruths to Find My Way Forward in a New Political Era
Like the election, my Thanksgiving didn’t turn out the way the pundits predicted.
We — two left coast, progressive, vegetarian dads and our foreign-born, college-age adopted son — ventured forth from our condo in the heart of blue Seattle to Dillon, Montana, the deep red ranching community of 4,000 where I grew up. There, despite what the experts said would happen in dining rooms across America, no one in my extended family was disowned over who they voted for. Nor did we make rules about forbidden topics, or, worst of all, agree to disagree and retreat into mutual incomprehension.
Instead, we shared stories, played cards, and consumed an extraordinary amount of turkey, pie, and yes, tofu. While the election was the subject of many conversations, it wasn’t a chasm that divided us into red and blue camps. Nor did it unravel the warm bonds that have always been the most important characteristic of the family and community that we were, and still are.
For me, this time with people who love each other not just despite their differences but because of them, provided much-needed space to face the almost disabling anxieties I’ve had since the election. And it enabled me to, as they say in Dillon, climb back on my horse and get moving again.
Like many people who woke up on November 8 assuming that the polls would be right about the future leadership of our country, I’ve been struggling to understand how I continue to strive for progress and opportunity as an American and a global citizen in this new reality.
My concerns run deeper than policy and fiscal changes. While I’ve been around long enough to know that the pendulum swings with each new administration when it comes to important social and economic issues, I am deeply concerned about the potential harm that some of the proposed policy directions might have on our most vulnerable people and communities in the U.S. and around the world.
On a more fundamental level, I am worried about the core values that lie at the heart of our quest for a more perfect union and a better world. As an American patriot who believes every voice matters in our democracy, a social activist and gay man dedicated to fighting for equality, a business leader optimistic about the opportunities to use the power of markets and technology innovation to change the world, and the head of a global organization working to improve health in the world’s poorest communities, what do I do now?
The tofu Thanksgiving answer: advocate even more strongly for the things I have always believed in, personally and professionally. Foremost among them is faith that people and nations will continue to transform themselves for the better.
The evidence for this is overwhelming. Despite dire headlines, historical trend lines clearly show that we live in a time of unprecedented progress. In the relatively brief time that my son has been alive, more than a billion people have risen from poverty to join the middle class. The percentage of children who don’t survive infancy has been cut in half. More girls are learning to read than at any time in human history. Diseases that once raged unchecked are coming under control.
Simply put, humanity — with all of its failings — is making great progress.
My recommitment to this core truth demands that I do more. Continued improvement depends on pushing even harder to bend the arc of history toward justice and equity. But if we are to succeed, we first must lift a shroud of untruths about the meaning of this election that threatens to obscure the real issues we face and blind us to each other’s fundamental humanity.
Untruth #1: The Great Divide
This refers to the vastly oversimplified idea that we have become a nation of just two kinds of people: affluent, urban, educated, politically correct coastal progressives; and poor, rural, under-educated, angry inland conservatives. This notion is not just wrong, it’s harmful.
This Great Divide narrative overlooks the multidimensional nature of our communities and it denies the humanity of those who don’t agree with us. It’s a story about America that has no room for my son, who attends a liberal West Coast college and who spoke at Thanksgiving with great passion about his Army ROTC training and military values; or my conservative cousin, who argued during dessert for more investment in public education. No one at my mother’s dinner table that day was angry, ignorant, uneducated, or intolerant, no matter who they voted for.
I reject the idea that there is an insurmountable Great Divide that separates us. We are all rich and complex creatures with important contributions to make to the diverse and varied communities we live in and care about. To assume that you know everything — or even much of anything — about someone based on where they live, what they look like, or who they voted for eliminates the possibility of human connection that is the prerequisite for understanding and progress.
Untruth #2: It’s Time to Unify and Just Get Along
This second untruth proposes that, in this time of transition, our national well-being requires a new moment of unity based on acquiescence to the choices and policies of the winning side. This notion violates our constitutional principles and threatens the very nature of our vibrant democracy, which thrives by making room for contending ideas and respecting thoughtful dissent.
I sincerely hope the Trump Administration and the new Congress implement policies that will lead to a better country and world, and I look forward to working with them toward that shared goal. That said, I reject the idea that in this moment, we should all just get along. I also am fully prepared to offer evidence and dissent if any policies or actions undermine the spirit of equality, inclusion, generosity, and justice that is fundamental to who we are as a nation. This is my right and my duty as an American.
Even though it may put me in the line of fire from those who disagree, I believe that in order to build a better America and world, we all must engage in the process of inquiry, debate, and compromise that is the foundation of smart decision-making. As my Thanksgiving respite reminded me, a truly thriving, healthy, and unified family, community, or country is one where differing voices and ideas are not just welcomed but expected — and honored.
Untruth #3: Facts Don’t Matter Anymore
Another untruth that purports to be both cause and consequence of the results of this election is that we live in a post-truth world and must adjust accordingly. I completely disagree. I’ve spent a significant part of the past month talking with leaders from a wide range of public and private sector organizations that are struggling to figure out how to operate in a time when baseless claims count as facts, false stories shape people’s beliefs, and fake news sites are a source of information for many. The resulting downward spiral of misinformation, misunderstanding, and poorly considered decisions leads us to the worst outcomes possible. And it drives me crazy. So it was a relief to be reminded by my pragmatic Montana cousins that honesty and humility will always overcome arrogance and deceit. Different people derive their fundamental truths from different sources — from nature, science, religion, literature, family, community — but I remain confident truth will always win out in the end.
As a result, I have renewed my determination to do the best I can to ensure that quality research, science, evidence, and analysis remain the foundation on which we build solutions to the problems we face. I’ll do this as president and CEO of PATH — an international nonprofit organization committed to saving lives and improving health — by continuing to address the fact that more than 150 million children around the world don’t get enough to eat, nearly half a million people die every year from malaria, and nearly 300 million women around the world want more control over how many children they have but don’t have access to modern contraception.
And I’ll do this in my role as a lecturer at Stanford’s business school by continuing to teach my students to look at the research to understand which innovations and interventions can be effectively deployed to continue to make progress in addressing these and many other issues. Ultimately, only policies that are informed by evidence will enable us to create a healthier and more prosperous country and world.
Untruth #4: Us vs. Them
The idea that there is an “us” and a “them” engaged in a mutually exclusive competition for social or economic success is the most destructive untruth of all because it is based on the lie that progress is a zero sum game — that the extension of rights and opportunities to one group diminishes the advantages and privileges enjoyed by another.
There’s been an alarming tendency by bullies and demagogues across the political spectrum to blame an “other” for the difference between the life we live and the life to which we aspire. As a gay man and activist, I have experienced this notion of otherness and the bullies who use it for their own cynical purposes for most of my life. Limiting anyone’s rights — diminishing anyone’s humanity — diminishes us all.
But “Us vs. Them” has gained extraordinary currency during the past year, whether framed in terms of domestic political demographics, immigration, or globalization. Instead, I say that “Us Must Include Them.” As Americans, our interests are too entwined and our problems too complex to think we can create a better future by fostering anger and resentment at some “other.”
The false story of “Us vs. Them” isn’t just a domestic fallacy — it’s a mistruth with global implications. While the effects of globalization were a factor in the election, we must transcend this narrow way of understanding the world and shape our ideas and policies around the reality that we are global citizens as well. This means recognizing that the improvement in life expectancy and living standards around the globe achieved over the past quarter century is one of the great achievements of human history.
Of all the untruths unleashed in the recent months, “Us vs. Them” is the one we must push the hardest to refute.
Going Forward: Renewal and Rededication
I am very thankful that our visit to my hometown reconnected me to my sense of purpose.
Now, back on my horse, I have rededicated myself to the hard and rewarding work of advancing equity and progress by promoting innovative solutions that improve health and well-being at great scale worldwide.
Among other things, this means we must work harder than ever to ensure that decisions about how we utilize scarce resources are based on science and evidence, not politics and prejudices.
And we must continue to strengthen American leadership in global health and development in order to keep bending the arc of history and progress toward a more secure, healthy, and just world.
Whether we live in Dillon, DC, or Dallas; Seattle, San Francisco, or Salt Lake; Brussels, Beijing, or Bamako, we all must commit to do our part to continue to build on the incredible progress of recent decades that has put us within reach of creating a world where every child is born with a good chance to live a healthy life.
And we must make sure that “us” includes the perspectives, realities, and needs of “them” globally so that we can truly improve the world for everyone, no matter where they live, who they love, or who they voted for.