During the pandemic I have gone on some fairly long bike rides with band members and friends, exploring parts of our city that some of us are somewhat unfamiliar with. Most of us New Yorkers have been trapped in our apartments, so getting out has been, for me at least, both enlightening and a life saver. 

I organized some rides to Staten Island recently, the island borough just south of Manhattan, promising my fellow riders “a visit to the land of Trump and Wu-Tang.” That pitch is exaggerated, but not entirely untrue — Staten Island has earned its conservative reputation — but of course, it’s more complicated than that. There is a whole artistic mural culture on Staten Island, and the stories on this island suggest that divides here are being bridged, and that its politics are more nuanced than they first appear.

After taking the (free!) ferry from Manhattan we stopped for lunch at a Sri Lankan restaurant called Lakruwana, which has an amazing bas relief mural facing Bay Street. 

Lakruwana Restaurant
Credit: Mario Burger

The food was good, and the rest room had plaques all over with messages on them. 

Staten Island
Karma is a bitch, eh? Credit: David Byrne

At least 5,000 Sri Lankans live in the northeast part of Staten Island. How’s that working out? It depends on how you look at it. Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war only ended in 2009. In that conflict the minority Tamils fought against the Sinhalese-dominated government after being stripped of citizenship, though they had been living there for hundreds of years. The “Tamil Tigers” were guilty of frequent bombings, and the Sinhalese government was likewise accused of committing many human rights abuses including bombing civilian targets. It was nasty all around.

Sometimes when folks immigrate from a conflict area, they bring their old rivalries with them, and end up living cheek by jowl with their former enemies in their new adopted home. This can mean these two sides don’t communicate much. There’s an uncomfortable silence. But food can be a bridge. Customers at the restaurants here come from both sides of the Sri Lankan conflict. They put aside their differences to come together for the food they miss. Julia Wijesinghe, the daughter of the owners of Lakruwana, decided to go a step further. She opened a museum of Sri Lankan culture in the basement of the restaurant in 2017 — a celebration of the culture that is shared by folks on both sides of the conflict.

There are signs that the divides in the community are healing. In 2019, following a rash of horrific bombings in Sri Lanka, the Staten Island immigrants united to hold candlelight vigils to honor the dead in their homeland. 

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

As we enjoyed our lunch we looked across the street at a building covered by a massive mural and wondered who was Charlie B, what is NYC Arts Cypher, and what is this place? Of course, there’s a story here. 

The late Charlie Balducci (he passed in July) was an early reality TV star — a young artist who landed a “part” on an episode of the MTV show True Life. Stressed out over all the filming, at one point he ripped into a limo driver who was an hour late picking him up for his wedding: “[I’ll] hunt you down like fucking cattle and I’ll gut you!” Charlie later said that’s how any Staten Islander would have reacted. 

But there’s another side to Charlie. He used his cash and his notoriety to start NYC Arts Cypher, the non-profit in this building, where he and others mentored young artists. The organization confronts social issues like bullying and drug use, and trains the kids in branding, design and how to make a living doing legal street art. Those murals we saw everywhere. One way they raise funds is through an annual Halloween haunted house in the building. One of the folks sitting outside in the picture above told me that the haunted house is still on this year, and that there would be “stuff jumpin’ out at ya.”

So Charlie is maybe not the cliched reality star some of us might at first assume. This guy really did something incredible with a lot of heart, and it’s still going.

Credit: David Byrne

We moved on until we hit the boardwalk that lines the Atlantic beaches. It goes for miles and it’s gorgeous.

Then we headed back inland, passing by a lot of wild turkeys. WTF! Apparently there are over 250 of them on the island. At first we thought: a nice Thanksgiving dinner maybe?  But I wouldn’t mess with them  — they’re big, and like true Staten Islanders, they didn’t seem afraid of us at all.

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne
Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

Nice lucky segue here from turkeys to flags — there are a LOT of flag murals on Staten Island. Some of us saw them as dog whistles for Trump supporters. While sticking up a Trump sign in NYC might get you some looks, who could argue with the flag?

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

It turns out there’s a story here too. As reported in The New Yorker, many of these flag murals were painted by a local artist, Scott LoBaido, and yes, he’s a Trump supporter. But once again, it’s a little more nuanced than that. 

He says that he has painted at least three flag murals in every one of the fifty states. The acquaintance asked whether he paints Confederate flags. “No,” LoBaido answered immediately. He raised his Martini glass to salute a driver who was saluting him with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup through the open window of a pickup truck. “I can’t say I would never paint any particular thing,” he went on. “But a Confederate flag? No. I know some people say it’s not racist, it’s about Southern heritage. But I’ve never painted a Confederate flag. It’s nothing like the American flag. The American flag is the greatest work in the history of art, because it’s about everybody—Blacks, whites, every immigrant, every person who dreams about this country. It’s about me, it’s about you even though I know you don’t agree with me politically”

This gives me hope, hearing a Trump supporter say that the flag represents a country that is open to people of every race and background. It just goes to show that things are sometimes a little more complex than I might at first assume. 

Staten Island
There are other kinds of murals on Staten Island, too. Here’s one at a school playground that celebrates what LoBaido is talking about. Credit: David Byrne

We took Old Town Road (!) on into the neighborhood of Richmond until we came upon a mural proclaiming the area to be the Wu-Tang District. Yup, last year the borough made it official. At the event inaugurating the new district, Ghostface Killah said, “I never saw this day coming. I knew we were some ill MCs, but I didn’t know that it’d take it this far.”

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

The projects depicted on the mural are just off to the right. The right side of the mural now incorporates a memorial made of painted cinder blocks.

Staten Island
Credit: David Byrne

So, Staten Island seems to be, in some ways, a lot more nuanced than my snobby Manhattan biases might have led me to believe. Check your attitude, David! It’s a work in progress for sure — how these communities can get along. But even in these brief trips I learned that things aren’t as black and white as I first assumed. These trips we take aren’t just good exercise and a way of getting out of the house, they change the way I see things. 

Like a lot of folks, I occasionally hear people espouse values and beliefs different and often counter to my own. When I was young, I didn’t understand this. Many of these beliefs and positions seemed irrational to me. How could people believe such crazy things? But as I read, traveled and met more people, I learned that values and convictions that might seem strange to me often serve a purpose for others. 

I have come to sense that I, too, might harbor some odd beliefs – and, like others, I come up with convoluted rationalizations for them.

Sometimes that purpose is simply the sharing of these values and beliefs with others who feel the same way. Shared beliefs can foster a sense of community, or provide meaning in people’s lives. It seems that we as humans have evolved to need something that provides unity and cohesion. Sometimes that might be liking the same songs or movies. Or, if that means believing in statues that cry or space aliens, well, okay, maybe no harm done. 

I have come to sense that I, too, might harbor some odd beliefs — and, like others, I come up with convoluted rationalizations for them. I have a set of values that, to me, should be seen as self evident and should therefore be adopted by everyone. But if we’re going to find common ground and live together, we need to at least attempt to understand the mindsets of the people who think differently from us.

Some years ago the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt proposed in his book The Righteous Mind that there are six basic moral values, and how important each value is to us as individuals determines our behavior. I am not interested in debating how innate or universal these values are, or if there are more or less than six, but I do find them a useful tool for understanding those with views different from my own. These tools help prevent me from feeling superior. They allow me to imagine what someone else might be thinking and why they believe what they believe — because we actually share many of the same values.

Here are the values (and their opposites):

1. Care/Harm. We are all one family and should have compassion for everyone else, as much as we can. Suffering should be eliminated if it can be.

2. Fairness/Cheating. A society should strive to be fair. Justice should be equal for all. Cooperation is better than cruelty. The flip side is that cheaters and free riders should be scorned or punished.

3. Loyalty/Betrayal. Loyalty to one’s family, community, team, business and nation is essential. It is the force that holds things together. 

4. Authority/Subversion. One must abide by the law, whether one agrees with it or not. Our collective agreement to obey social and legal institutions is what makes us function as a society.

5. Sanctity/Degradation. Purity, temperance, restraint and moderation stabilize our world. Certain behaviors are immoral and must be shunned.

6. Liberty/Oppression. People should be allowed to be free in their speech, thoughts and behaviors as long as they aren’t hurting others.

I find that, to some extent, I can see the worth in every one of these six values. None of them seems completely wrong. That said, clearly I have my personal leanings. I value some more than others. That’s exactly the point. The idea is that folks tend to prioritize some of these values, and which ones we prioritize determines our politics, how we behave and how we think of others. I do this, you do this, we all do this. 

The values we prioritize, says Haidt, determine where along the political spectrum we fall. Whereas liberals tend to emphasize care and fairness, conservatives are somewhat more apt to value loyalty, purity and authority (though, as Haidt points out, neither group discounts care and fairness all that much — it’s on loyalty, purity and authority where liberals and conservatives really diverge.)

So, for example, as someone who places a high value on care and fairness, I might support laws that say everyone, no matter their personal beliefs, must treat LGBT people as equal citizens. But folks who rank sanctity higher than care or fairness in their value hierarchy may feel that homosexuality is “unnatural,” and that its “degradation” of sanctity therefore overrides the need for equality. 

As we’ve seen recently, some folks believe face mask rules intrude on their personal freedom. They feel that their individual rights (liberty) take precedence over those of the larger community, whereas I place more value on cooperation and the health of the collective (care). I don’t think either freedom or liberty are wrong, but in certain situations, I might feel that those values need to be curtailed for the good of everyone.

I might feel that in order to challenge unjust laws one sometimes has to break them (fairness). Others will disagree and say “the law is the law” (authority). Many Americans believe that free speech is an absolute right (liberty) and if others are hurt, offended, or feel discriminated against by what I say, well, that’s the price of freedom. In general, I personally share that value, but I don’t see it as absolute — there are times when maybe it should be regulated if it is intended to do harm or incite violence (care, fairness). The point is, I can see some worth in all of these values. 

This raises an important point. The fact that all of our disparate beliefs spring from the same six values doesn’t mean all beliefs have the same merit, or even any merit at all. Prioritizing some values — like sanctity of race or homeland, in the example to follow — can justify inhuman behavior. 

Adam Gopnik, writing about the Nazi “angel of death” Josef Mengle in The New Yorker, noted: There is nothing surprising in educated people doing evil, but it is still amazing to see how fully they construct a rationale to let them do it, piling plausible reason on self-justification, until, like Mengele, they are able to look themselves in the mirror every morning with bright-eyed self-congratulation.” The point is, we shouldn’t excuse behaviors that harm others — we should simply try to understand why those behaviors happen and the mechanisms that are used to justify them. To paraphrase the writer Hannah Arendt when she was accused of justifying what the Nazis did: To understand is not to excuse. 

What does all this tell us? It tells us that, though I may disagree with folks on certain issues, those disagreements are nonetheless rooted in values that they — and I, to some degree — share. Our beliefs and our politics may be very different, and yet, by recognizing the values behind them, I can, to some extent and in some instances, empathize and understand why someone might feel differently about an issue than I do. It helps me to not judge them as ignorant or evil, and gives us a foothold, a place to start a conversation.