When did everything become so black and white that nuance, middle ground and actual discussion disappeared, like last year’s Easter eggs, and that any opposing view is seen as a threat or insult?
All my life I’ve observed factions in my own family of Dutch Protestants versus Irish Catholics and Republicans versus Democrats, but never in the sense of war camps determined to decimate one another. Though passionately loyal to their religious and political convictions, the extended families of my parents were always willing and able to put their personal tenets aside in favor of shared memories over coffee and cake or beer and pretzels. I know that that sounds simplistic and naïve, but bear with me.
The media during the presidential campaign of the past year seemed perfectly comfortable in churning up enough tweaked photos and edited stories to make anyone’s blood boil about whatever the “opposition” was doing at any moment. Tabloid-quality narratives on the Obamas made the Emperor Nero and Messalina look like Calvin Coolidge and Little Orphan Annie. Sometimes the stories were laughable and sometimes heartbreaking in their ferocity. Hillary Clinton was unfairly bashed until, in the media, she no longer resembled even a fragment of her true self. Donald Trump was as much under attack until he became, at least to Democrats, the Anti-Christ. They all became comic book characters in single dimensions that were both comical, because they were absurd, and dangerous, because too many gullible people wanted to believe they were accurate and truthful assessments. Each side developed immunity to any truth that didn’t agree with its predetermined convictions. There was nothing too outrageous that couldn’t become part of someone’s arsenal of “truths” to condemn the enemy. Prejudices on both sides became impenetrable to anything that contradicted their preconceptions.
The adrenalin rushes from both sides in the powerful feelings of self-righteous indignation released bone-crushing sarcasm and criticism of the opposition. Truth didn’t always have much to do with the messages. Too many people on both sides became comfortably smug among their equally ill-informed allies in a shared laser focus on their own safe sources for information. The extremes were Fox News and MSNBC, which are light years away from each other in their style and content of reportage, but both managed to sculpt the news in the most artful ways , trimming this detail or leaving out something else, always rendering the final stories perfect fits for their generally predetermined political agendas. For me, PBS came closest to news unencumbered by emotional claptrap and tipped scales.
I’ve stopped reading the absurd, often mean-spirited political posts on Facebook, one of the last places I go to find any measure of balance and untrimmed truth. Both parties can duke it out, but without me. The other day I saw a post on FB by one of my former students from the 1970’s. Her message was that none among us knows the pain of other people, so we shouldn’t always judge…but rather be kind instead. I thought the post one that was badly needed, but in her very next post, the same woman indulged in a pronouncement of cruel, malicious jibes against Michelle Obama just for the way she looked. My heart sank as I realized that the student’s posts were cafeteria-style, chosen on whims that often had little connection or real moral significance from one moment to the next. Another post farther down the page by someone else was bashing Melania Trump for no good reason. There have been days that I’ve felt sickened by post after post of the most vitriolic and unmerited criticisms of all those from the political battle of the past year, some of the digs being as puerile as ones from when we were kids on the playground… “Your momma wears combat boots!” Are there really adults so insecure that such meanness makes them feel better or safer? It’s simply beyond my comprehension.
I’m weary of the easy, cheap stereotypes for the words “conservative,” “liberal,” “Republican,” and “Democrat.” They’ve lost most of what they once meant. All four words seem to have become ugly insults, because people have become too lazy to analyze dispassionately what the words can mean, but the cold, factual, dictionary definitions have lost their original luster in favor of enraged add-ons of disgust and pure assumption.
As a nation we seem to have forgotten that we’re all in this together and that it’s not a boxing match where one can’t win unless someone else is down. The resulting stalemate has made much of our political discourse snide and devoid of any level of empathy in the wider view, because we have no wider view.
I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but he is now the President of my country, for better or worse. I believe that the discord and obstructionism which was used so ruthlessly (but not always successfully) against President Obama should be at its end. The new president should be given the chance to see what he can do for the nation (not for the political party). If he fails, he can later be impeached so that we will all have to join forces to clean up the rubble left behind. As Americans, we have survived Andrew Jackson and George W. Bush as presidents. The country will not collapse. I believe it will become even stronger, if for no other reason than that of a possibly painful lesson to be learned in hindsight. President Trump will be as observed, checked, and criticized as any former president has been. We all have the right and responsibility to watch him carefully and maintain our duty as a republic to criticize him if or when he strays from the common good or what is constitutional. Any other way would suggest a number of former dictatorships of which the world has already seen too many. So give the man a chance to make things better. Our nation was great before, so I rather dislike the sarcastic notion that we can be great “again.” But, perhaps we can improve, and our new President’s prolific rhetoric can become reality in some ways. We’ll never know unless he can take the wheel and steer us somewhere else. Also it’s up to all of us. One man can’t do it alone, as we’ve seen so many times in the past.
Bitterness and civil war are not the answers to our continuation as a nation. We need to find areas of agreement for unity, not fragmentation for every single cause that comes down the pike, however worthy. There can be debate based upon facts and shared hopes so that we can find some middle ground, where extreme, one-sided, self-righteous, greedy rage cannot topple us into oblivion. Reason and compromise are so difficult, maybe especially for adults. Let’s do something together as a nation, for a change. JB