Can We Talk?

The Divided States of America is now two countries and they’re not talking to each other. Each talks ABOUT the other. Each shouts insults AT the other. Each holds a set of precious ideas about the Other and themselves that dares not be subjected to outside scrutiny lest their sacred edifices of identity and ideology crumble.

Mutual disdain is so intense that some from each side regard the other as less than human. The gap has metastasized into a chasm of opportunity for malevolent forces. If we won’t find our way to a truce, to hearing each other out and seeking smart compromises, this short and handicapped experiment in representative democracy will soon cease to resemble a democracy or a republic at all.

We’re all talking about how divided America is. You can go to your favorite news or social media site right now and read something either radically divisive or about our radical division. But America has always been divided. We were so divided in the eighteen hundreds we split in half and brother savaged brother in a gruesome war. Our discord over Vietnam and civil rights sparked nationwide protests and martial suppression. We seemed to unite against the stampede of fascist foes during World War II. But there was significant dissent against our involvement.

Even during the Revolution we were bickering factions. But with a common enemy. And a mutual goal heady enough curb our differences. For a minute.

America was forged in a crucible of molten contentions. That tense diversity and debate helps define our greatness. We’ve always vociferously disagreed amongst our starred and striped selves.

The difference is that now we don’t just quarrel, we regard political opponents with toxic contempt. We pillory each other on social media. Our worst tendencies are enabled and enlarged by sensationalist television, radio, and print media. And encompassing the whole carnival is the internet, that mirror of the irrational and digressive human brain, endlessly echoing whatever viewpoint flatters our biases. Within those cyber silos we rarely encounter let alone engage opposing views, except with juvenile taunts and name calling.

The gap between liberals and conservatives is full of toxic waste. So much partisan demonizing has been dumped into it that it’s become a no man’s land through which we fear to tread. To brave it in search of common ground is to be seen as traitor to party and principle.

Recent exploits have made it evident that when there is so great a breach, when our strongest bond is the grip we have on each others throats, we render ourselves easy prey. We make ourselves vulnerable to hostile foreign intervention and domestic predatory opportunists. Feverishly preoccupied with finding fault in one another, we’ve left our gates unlatched and unguarded.

Whether or not you believe our recent election was hacked, it should be clear that it can and will be. Whether you love or lament the astonishing fact that Donald Trump occupies what some still call the most powerful position in the world, it should be obvious that the position is attainable by persons with the goal of disrupting the status quo to the point of global instability. And even if you adore the current disruptor, believing he has your best interests in mind, who’s to say the next disruptor won’t enact martial law and do away with free elections?

We don’t want to become what we fought to free ourselves from in the first place. A monarchy. Which we may as well call by its less sexy name, a dictatorship. Whether our leader leans left or right, whether malignant or benign, charitable or ruthless. We don’t want ourselves or our children to lose our participation in the processes that shape our nation.

I think nearly all of us love America. We may not have much else in common. We may imagine very different nations when we think of her. Our ideal vision of her may not even include an opposition party! But we have this in common. We love her. We would labor, fight and sacrifice to see her well and whole and prosperous.

Add this to the malleable notion of patriotism: Except when our actions would harm or limit others, we as a people DO NOT LIKE TO BE TOLD WHAT WE CAN AND CANNOT DO. Some hate the tyranny of being told we can’t own guns or certain kinds of guns, or may only possess them in such numbers. Others abhor the tyranny of fear-mongering corporations that profit from ever more heavily arming the fearful. Some of us despise the chains of political correctness, of having to walk on eggshells through life and spend more time offense-proofing our words than actually saying much at all. Others detest the bullying that camouflages a hateful face with a whitewash of free speech and political incorrectness.

Americans don’t love tyrants. We won’t tolerate indentured servitude. Yes, it’s tedious having to argue our position with those fools on whichever is the other side every damn time we mutter a notion. But it sure beats the helplessness of a systemic boot heel on our necks grinding us to the will of some silver-backed ape who would rig our elections, filter our press, and dictate how we behave and what we’re allowed to do and say and think.

Well, I know a way we can avoid tyranny, thwart foreign bids to corrupt our system, smack down homegrown takeover artists, and – heavens forbid – even nudge us to the miracle of finding something in each other to like.

I have two requests for every citizen, every resident longing for citizenship and each refugee huddled in some makeshift sanctuary dreaming of citizenship in this land of diminished but possible opportunity:

The first request is not easy. But once achieved it will make the second more attainable and meaningful.

That passion, protectiveness, admiration and pride we bear our homeland. I know we have it but don’t often hear well considered reasons Why.

So my first ask is that we write down what America means to us. Each in their own words: What does America stand for? Why is she important? Are her privileges meant to be for all? Or for an exclusive few? What gestures of investment does one need to make to earn entry and participation? If for a few, why and on what basis?

Describe anything you hold to be inherently American. I’ll do it with you. Surely we can do one thing together. Putting our values into our own words can be life-changing. It helps us discover and deepen those notions rooted in fact and noble sentiment. And to discard those merely sloshing about in a mire of fear and lazy habit.

This declaration of why you love America is not for others. Keep it where you can always find it and alter it as your idea of her grows and changes. From now on, when you think of America you will not only have feelings, but be ready to articulate the principles and concepts behind them.

Now we can move on to the next ask:

A return to clear-eyed and reasonable civil discourse. Not because we’re going to magically start agreeing on everything. Or anything. But because we all, in our different and not necessarily incompatible ways, love our country and want her to be great. We all want her to be her best and brightest self. And for that to happen, America needs all of us.

Because we are America.

I’m almost done. All that’s left is the story that opened my mind to a way back to cross-partisan collaboration. It’s a method I believe we can all embrace.

I know a woman who went through a divorce when her son and daughter were under twelve. The rest of us knew way before the wedding that she and her husband were destined for catastrophe.

“By the time we split,” she said, “all we had was mutual contempt. We could barely speak, let alone look at each other. When we had to be in the same room, you could see sparks and smell smoke. We wanted more than almost anything to get as far from each other as possible and never meet again. Almost.

“But we had two amazing kids. So impressionable. So vulnerable. Both worshipped the ground we walked on. We knew any shots we took at each other would ricochet and wound them, too. We’d seen the fallout of minor explosions that burst through our façades. There was no question we both wanted to be with them as much as possible. And above all to never play them against each other.

“So we made a pact. We met at a neutral place with a box of pictures from our children’s whole lives. We spread them on a table between us to keep us mindful of why we were there. And we took an oath that in all our interactions we would handle each other as if we were handling our children. As if their fragile little lives hung in the balance. Because they did.

“And I’ll tell you, it sure as hell wasn’t easy! Barge-loads of resentment tugged just under the surface.

“But the surprise was, the more we did it, the easier it got. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll never want to spoon again. But contempt gradually gave way to mutual respect. If for no other reason than that we saw the evidence in each other of how much we love our children. And of the restraint we mustered for their sakes.”

I’d struggled to invent a way to get our feuding factions to trade pitchforks and cudgels for salad forks and olive branches and start listening to each other again. As soon as my friend shared her story, I knew I finally had it.

I hope I’m not wrong.

We all love America just as they both loved their children. Even if we feel America is stumbling into error, we want not to abandon her but to correct her course. We may not like each other much right now. We may feel contempt and disgust for such errant dolts as hold morally and logically opposite views to our own. But if we keep on treating each other with dismissive mockery, we do so at the peril of our representative democracy, our beloved republic.

Yet if we can agree to try, for as long as it takes till we get it right, to handle each other with the love, respect, and hope that we have for America, we stand a chance of not only preserving her richest traditions and fulfilling her most breathtaking promise. But also of finally achieving that thing for which our irritable founders bickered. A more perfect union.