We have met the enemy
“Hello, darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again…” — Paul Simon
I sometimes think the best metaphor for contemporary America is two neighbors, perpetually and with increasing anger and invective, arguing across a fence about property lines.
Or at least, that’s what started the argument, now all that matters is that we can’t abide the guy next door.
What maybe never was (but made us feel good thinking it was) Reagan’s shining city on a hill is, seemingly by the day, becoming the clustered darkness of a cave into which we have retreated for … now, what was it, exactly?
Americans are at war with themselves, divided along what would be all too easy to perceive as political lines, and while politics may well have started it, like our feuding neighbors, over time has become much more elemental than that.
Pick your word — I’ve used a lot — balkanized, polarized, tribal. America is politically divided today more than it has been at any time post Civil War, but I think it wrong to ascribe that division to things like party policy or philosophy or even ideology. To the great American equation of representative democracy we have added another element that has become catalytically destabilizing — identity politics and the anger which it inevitably engenders.
This country has been divided, deeply divided before along policy and philosophical lines. In the run-up to World War II there was the fierce debate over intervention and isolationism until Pearl Harbor rendered it moot. And during the Cold War with both the United States and Soviet Union rattling their respective nuclear weapon-backed swords, emerged the dueling slogans of “I’d rather be dead than Red” and “I’d rather be Red than dead” with the threatening images of radioactive clouds hovering over both until capitalism buried communism beneath the burden of its own weight.
But those fights were not like today. Today we don’t fight over what we are for or against, today we fight over who we are and we do so on the battlefields of race and gender and religion and class. We don’t want to defeat those we disagree with, we want to slay them for the evil they represent within the unspoken demand that is common to every crusade.
There’s no policy or philosophical difference to be split between “We want our country back” and “Make America great again,” but they both could form choruses in the cultural battle cry for rural America’s non-college educated, “God-fearing,” economically frustrated “real Americans” in their on-going conflict against the urban, white-collared, coastal “elites,” who represent everything the other half despises.
As I have said for lo, these many years, there exists in this country an ever-flickering pilot light of hatred which has for decades now been fed fuel from 24-hour “news” channels and talk-radio and far too many pulpits and the only slightly veiled racist populism of political con artists to the point of now blazing out of control and threatening to consume this “one nation, under God, indivisible” United States of ours.
Doubt that, do you?
Just listen to what people are saying to each other. Listen to what they are saying to you. Listen to what you say back to them. Check out Twitter and Facebook (I’d advise against lingering too long) to see the way that 2017 Americans talk not to, but at one another. Pay close attention to how quickly any semblance of civility devolves into a coarseness of language that fairly drips with undiluted venom.
Words matter, people. Words fuel the pilot light of the hatred now splitting us into our respective warring camps. Words can even be the driving force that makes a deeply troubled fellow leave his home and live out of a van for months waiting for just the right day to start shooting people on a baseball field, pausing just long enough to determine if his targets were Republicans or Democrats.
Every word that’s said, everything that happens, we now immediately interpret through the filters of our cultural partisanship, creating a no-man’s land of truths and lies which combine into some toxic mix destined to spread within the respective echo chambers of our lives.
We’ve built the most powerful military in the world to defend ourselves against “enemies foreign,” but only an olive branch, mutually extended and accepted, can defend us from ourselves.
But first we must stop hating. And how do we do that when like Paul Simon’s punch-drunk “Boxer,” America today is “all lies and jest,” in which “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest?”
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of The Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.