What binds us together as Americans? It’s a question weighing heavily on the nation’s collective psyche as we enter winter and a holiday season unlike any other in anyone’s memory.
Through most of 2020, we’ve been enduring our own Twin Towers of catastrophe—a deadly pandemic that has altered most every aspect of our lives, and a calamitous presidential election, around which the incessant vituperation of the campaign has become even worse in its aftermath, and far more malignant for our democracy than anyone had previously been able to imagine.
Grievance and distrust are the coins of that realm, and once they start replicating like the viruses they are, the organism can be a long time healing.
Politically, we seem no longer to regard our opponents as simply wrong-headed or misinformed, but as soul-soiled, with evil intentions. Racist, gun-toting homophobes on one end, communist, religion-hating babykillers on the other.
The previous protocols of democracy—hard-fought campaigns, sometimes over-heated, but settled by a count of votes and ritual words of goodwill in the aftermath—have given way to bitter denunciations of the vote itself, as the vanquished candidate incessantly bellows he will never yield to the result.
Darker still are intimations from a heavily armed core of his followers that they never will either, no matter how many courts or state election officials inform them it is time to stand down.
And with something on the order of 70% of his voters (depending on which poll one consults) lining up behind the vanquished candidate’s claims of massive fraud and the illegitimacy of his opponent, we seem to have precious little common ground on which to meet up again and enjoy at least a brief respite from the endless invective of campaign season.
Oh well, at least we have Christmas, a time to come together in goodwill that transcends partisan politics.
Wait—we won’t even have that with most of our loved ones, outside of a Zoom call or long quarantines for all parties, will we?
(If we’re on speaking terms with our loved ones at all, that is…)
Much ink has met paper debating the question of whether the departing president is the cause or mere symptom of our depraved political discourse. Where I stand on this is that no one person is ever the cause of pretty much anything that happens in this world, but boyyyyy ohh boyyyy, has the man given the depravity a huge dose of fuel!
But that’s all demagoguery ever asks for—an opportunity to slip through a crack in the trapdoor protecting us from the roiling underground instincts that compete with our sun-splashed capacities for civil engagement, generosity and love.
Grievance and distrust are the coins of that realm, and once they start replicating like the viruses they are, the organism can be a long time healing.
I fear that is where we are today in these none-too-United States, and I am, lamentably, none too confident in our prognosis.
So let us examine our beleaguered patient. Nurtured on the myths spun by the fine silken words of their visionary Founders, sustained by a sense of destiny, and fueled further still by the long-running admiration of countries less fortunate in resources and less inclined toward bravado, the U.S. has bestrode the world stage like a colossus, tearing right through a civil war, merciless oppression of its native peoples, a Depression, two world wars, and an arduous, often ugly struggle to confer civil rights on all its citizens.
It has done so with passion, tenacity, and pluck, undeterred by setbacks and its own bouts of ruthlessness, ever the strapping, energetic kid with brains and brawn, and an unabashed willingness to use them.
It believed in itself and its institutions—its ideals, its democratic traditions and safeguards, its optimism that all problems could be solved if its energies and ingenuity were given free rein.
Shot through with contradictions, of course, but that was the myth…and that was then.
Today, very little to none of that seems to be operative, no matter the occasional State of the Union or inaugural address that uses poetic imagery from speechwriters as preamble to the shopworn sentiment that “America’s best days are still ahead of it.”
As a jaded nation rolls its collective eyes.
What I’m most worried about is the slipping away of any semblance of common ground.
Not too much common faith anymore, the mainline churches emptying, much of the evangelical movement having joined in a fiercely held partisan alliance with one of our major political parties. The fastest growing segment of the population today? Those professing no religion at all.
The loss of an anchor, that.
Sports and the entertainment industry, which are essentially two sides of the same coin, used to be a haven, but no more.
Time was when kids could covet autographs of their favorite stars and we could high-five across the stadium seats or barstools with complete strangers, without a clue or care about their political inclinations, or more pointedly, those of the players we were watching.
Today, potential fans swear off players and entire teams, TV shows and movies, when various stars speak out on their political convictions, which are far more widely amplified, with much larger megaphones, than they were a half century ago.
Ed Sullivan and his fabled Sunday night show (coming on right after Walt Disney’s), with Topo Gigo for the kids, the Dave Clarke Five for teens and Rodney Dangerfield for adults, seems an impossibly quaint relic today. It was one of only half a dozen or so offerings on one free, widely accessible public television platform that required flicking one switch to turn it on and the same one to turn it off. The entire family often watched together, negotiating as needed to crank the channel manually among the few available options.
I was reading some financial news the other day and the commentary was focused on whether stocks that depended on “the large screen TV in the family living room” would ever flourish again. Few of the respondents thought so.
Today, we stare at our phones or pads, headphones securely in place, the world of the other, anyone outside our own enclosed bundle of preferences, held at bay.
All of us are withdrawn teenagers now.
And this, too:
Once upon a time, there was a military draft that threw black and white and brown, rich and poor and middle all together into a stew of peculiar but common misery. Out of that came a shared purpose, not only for the conscripts but for all the worried parents of every stripe who sent them reluctantly there and prayed for their safe return.
Then came a war that seemed to offer up those youths’ lives to a cynical and misbegotten cause, and the equal sacrifice and service required by the draft was erased from our collective experience.
All this while a nearly daily drumbeat over years now about priests and coaches and Boy Scout troop leaders abusing children, professors seducing or imposing themselves upon students, police beating and killing unarmed innocents, politicians sticking to robotic scripts while caught on hot or secret mics saying what they really think—who or what is there left to trust?
It seems one institution after another has been through a moral ringer and failed to uphold its end of the social compact, failed in its mission to be faithful stewards of the public good. Turns out they are fallen just as all humans are.
It is also true that this all-too-humanness has always been with us. “The Seven Deadly Sins” are not a product of the 21st century, after all. The difference is that in the past we lacked the mass media to expose and then hugely magnify our failings into the light of day. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I would say it’s a mixed thing. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” wrote T.S. Eliot, who looked reality hard in the face and often didn’t like what he saw.
Today, we observe that reality and ascribe our own reasons for why it currently seems abhorrent, largely informed by the particular media we consume. Those media’s business models, not coincidentally, have increasingly come to depend on stirring over-the-top passions among their consumers.
So much so that a significant percentage of the population has simply stopped believing anything that ever comes out of officials or media perceived to be from the “other side.” And even, among the truly cynical, any side at all. (“Yo, pass me that nihilist’s hash pipe!”)
Conservative Republican columnist Bret Stephens of the “New York Times” reflected on these matters in a finely crafted essay this week. While careful to suggest that our nation’s recent struggles certainly predated the current presidency, he also observed:
“It’s hard to think of any person in my lifetime who so perfectly epitomizes the politics of distrust, or one who so aggressively promotes it. Trump has taught his opponents not to believe a word he says, his followers not to believe a word anyone else says, and much of the rest of the country to believe nobody and nothing at all. He has detonated a bomb under the epistemological foundations of a civilization that is increasingly unable to distinguish between facts and falsehoods, evidence and fantasy. He has instructed tens of millions of people to accept the commandment, That which you can get away with, is true.”
Epistemology being the study of knowledge—how we attain, parse and rationally apply it—we can see that if large swaths of a population can be convinced to distrust most all sources of that knowledge and refuse to consider any source outside of its own silo, conveyed by a favored source that claims to be its sole arbiter—we are headed for a world of trouble.
In a remarkable piece last week entitled, “20 Americans Who Explain the 2020 Election,” “Politico” magazine’s Tim Alberta summarized his findings from many months of conversation with Americans of many different types and political persuasions. What was perhaps most striking—and a combination of helpful and challenging if you’re still confounded by that figure above citing 70% or so of Republican voters believing the fraud claims about the recent election—was how normal and completely rational one after another of these true believers sounded.
Didn’t seem to be a racist or good ol’ boy among them as they simply shrugged, seemingly mystified why anyone would believe it isn’t true, the massive fraud being as self-evident to them as it is. And neither 75+ appeals court losses, a 9-0 Supreme Court decision, definitive pronunciations by Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state, nor the report from the president’s fanatically loyal Attorney General William Barr that the vote was legitimate, was about to budge them even an inch off their position.
And if that is true, we must ask: How do we proceed? A tall mountain looms if we’re looking to save our democracy in a landscape where truth is just one more rabbit hole where we forage around for the latest package of fantasies and falsehoods left by clever propagandists of the dark underground arts who are on “our” side.
Anyone with friends or relatives in that election-denialist camp—of which I have a few myself—is in a bit of a pickle here. Rational persuasion has proven to be a complete loser through four years of this presidency, and isn’t likely to make a whit of difference over the next four years either. (Though I have been wrong about this whole phenomenon before and hope to be again on this point…)
I don’t really know the answer here, so I will settle for a question: Since I will not be solving America’s epistemological crisis any time soon, am I interested in continuing to engage these otherwise good and beloved people who seem intent on covering their eyes and ears to all that doesn’t come from their cult hero?
They include family members and friends of longstanding, with a shared history I treasure, and which I’m not willing to forsake no matter how tightly they cleave to thoroughly discredited, fantastical beliefs in breathtaking conspiracies that would have been impossible to pull off even if the winning party controlled every significant investigative body and lever of government—which they didn’t, because the losing party did.
So we talk about other things, when we can, gingerly, where the love and regard outside the whole dark morass of contemporary politics has an air pocket, however slim it sometimes feels, in which to breathe.
About their kids, their pets, their health, their dreams of trips, and maybe even about Ed Sullivan, and that time The Beatles belted out “I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND!!” to a nation breathing deeply of some mysterious fundamental joy that has been pushed off the stage for now but is always looking to reappear so long as another breath is generous enough to come our way.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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Ed Sullivan from the public domain
Ferris wheel by Conor Luddy, Dublin, Ireland. https://unsplash.com/@opticonor
There’s the loss of “what we have in common as Americans,” but there’s also the loss of “the commons.” Wikipedia says, “The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.”
Remember the fairy tales, where the little old lady lives in a hut in the forest? She was living in the commons. Historically, British kings appropriated the commons and then gifted the lands to their favorites. This led to nearly every acre of land (in America) being “owned” either by individuals, or its use restricted by government — not understood to be held by the citizenry at large.
Here’s an illuminating illustration of “the commons” in practice in a Rhode Island town:
Really interesting piece, Ellen, and among the many things it caused me to think about is how much “in common” virtually every township (now there’s a quaint old word!) has across America, all grappling for quite some time now with the issues the author addresses here. So much of it sounded so familiar—all the way across the continent from you in some Rhode Island hamlet! Thanks for sharing it.
I just finished Steven Lubar’s essay “In Search of ‘The Commons’ in Modern America”, Ellen Skagerberg’s recommended read on the fragile nature of the “commons” today. I lived in Boston for nearly two years. After watching the Ted Williams’ Red Sox team play at Fenway, my older brother and I would inevitably stop at “The Common” to play catch, sometimes listen to free concerts at its music venue, or just stroll along the dirt and concrete paths which wound their way through shade trees and flowered patches of color. Actually, in the early colonial days, the Common was a communal cow pasture. However, as Boston grew, the cows were forced to relocate to suburbs like Quincy and Melrose to make room for the Granary Burying Ground, the city’s first cemetery. Soon thereafter the Common became the local hangout to talk, picnic, politic, spread rumors, protest, and on occasion watch a public hanging or two. While the last one is generally (hopefully, too) frowned upon by the majority of Americans today, I fear some would favor it as an alternative form of justice. Farfetched? Maybe, but rants like “To hell with the courts”, “Hang Biden”, “Lock ‘em all up” and “Cages are too good for them” aren’t uncommon these days. Millions spout them. The heart of the matter is this. Will the uncommon screams of hatred overwhelm the quieter pronouncements of common sense? I just don’t know. I pray our constitutional infrastructures have the power to stave off this barrage of ugly and deep-rooted anger. If it fails to do so, we’ll revisit 1860.
I share pretty much all your trepidation, Robert. Though everyone knew—because he explicitly warned us, for the last five years—that Trump would never go gently into the night, it is nevertheless shocking to see it carried to the extent of White House meetings Friday discussing the possibilities of him declaring martial law and calling on the military to help him with a do-over on the election. And all those gun-toters, speaking right into the camera, saying they’re ready. A perilous 30 days awaits, I fear, when even Yale-educated, not-stupid people such as Eric Metaxas, with a large audience, talk about “dying” for their hero and his righteous cause. Read this, from a Baptist website, & chill your bones…
I have a good friend who has been actively weeding out anyone who supports Trump from her life. “They are dead to me!” How slippery is the slope which extends that pronouncement to, “….and they don’t deserve to live?”
I would say at least “somewhat” slippery, Dennis, with great potential for at the very least a callousness toward human life and the common good that is the exact reflection of the more extreme sentiments we’re hearing from Trump’s die-hard backers. All the war and death rhetoric is extremely corrosive, I fear, with not much more fuel required to have it jump the fence from hyperbole and metaphor to real-time action. I think Biden and the staff advising him are striking the exact right tone of soothing, low-temperature calm, but I’m not at all sure it will be effective, given the overheated rhetoric and real-world facts such as 60% of the Republican congressional delegation joining the petition for SCOTUS to overturn a duly contested and decided election. Worrisome times…
Thanks also for the “Time” article you refrenced in the web link: epistemological foundations. https://time.com/4675860/donald-trump-fake-news-attacks/
YES! We talk about other things and/or things that we DO have in common. We are friends because we have similar values, morals and over all beliefs. I don’t think we need to agree on everything. If there is a respectful tone, space and understanding to our conversation then it is a benefit to hear a differing opinion, although not always easy… especially when you throw in a stay-at-home order – YIKES! I will continue to embrace those folks who are working towards a better life for themselves, their family and their community and with that there are bound to be bumps in the road as they are folks who are willing to push boundaries, demand better & say really dumb stuff – I continue to strive to put myself in that camp. I appreciate your perspective Andrew. Thank you and Merry Christmas.
Hi Tamara, I think what you highlight for me more than anything is the key role of intention. Simply put: it’s not always easy being a good person, even though most people are more good than not, most of the time. But stress impacts everyone, and there are few more stressful circumstances than thinking a loved one is deluded and wrong about something, and that particular something influences not only your own lives, but in the case of politics, the life of the nation. And you both know that the other person thinks you’re bonkers on the matter at hand…
This is all the more intense if you happen to live with or are otherwise in close contact with the person. That’s when, as you suggest, you set your intention to focus on your similarities in values, memories, all the rest that binds you. Then take lots of deep breaths and hope they finally, someday, see the light!
I think a big struggle for many people now is the overwhelming evidence, ready at hand every day and confirmed by so many different sources, that Trumpism has been a malevolent force, not merely wrong on policy matters. That has caused many people to ask, “How can someone who holds my values not see and reject such outrageousness, such a clearly bad human being?” A hard question to grapple with, but I’m with you in putting the relationship above even that schism—provided the other person tries along with me. Thanks for this! Merry/Happy Everything!
I think cult is the key word here. And Andrew, you may remember from our early journalism days, we have some insider understandings of “cult”.
You don’t necessarily dismiss a family member who is part of a cult. But you see it for what it is. You don’t argue about its (emotion-based) dogma.
Personally, I’m going to do some research to refresh my grasp of how to deal with well-meaning (often mask-averse) cult members. In the meantime, the hospitals overflow..
Yes, I think it took a really long time for most people who saw Trump for what he has always been—a con man and utter narcissist—to give up on the notion that surely EVERYONE would come to see this soon enough and the whole nation would be done with him. But he knew before we did that he had created a cult following, who were drawn to him for reasons that had nothing to do with rational analysis or argument. So here we are—him still defiant and trying to overturn a democratic election, the majority of the nation holding its breath, but a clear majority of Republican voters hoping he succeeds. Don’t that beat all…
And indeed, the hospitals overflow while proven mitigation measures are regarded as an affront to liberty in much of the country. And the mind continues to reel as we end the year and enter winter. Happy holidays, Joan! :-)