Saturday, December 3, 2016

More Light, Less Heat, a Post-Truth Promise

It is a mighty task to identify in any kind of helpful detail the great American divide, mightier still to indemnify its architects, and mightiest of all to offer strategies for repairing it.

The most basic question is whether the union should be preserved. I think it must, but the schism is so stark right now that the question is being begged, and if it isn’t answered, it festers. East-and-west is east-and-west, and the Heartland is the Heartland, and never the twain shall meet. This paraphrased Kipling is a reductive and oversimplified but not necessarily inaccurate description of the current American political dynamic, and its greatest schism is so obvious most third graders could spot it on a map. It’s geography. It’s where you hang your hat.

American culture is both broad and deep, but so are its cracks, and these fissures exist across race, age and education to a large degree, but geography is an obvious and entrenched divider, never before more clearly articulated than in this recent presidential election. In the view of some components of an exasperated left, red states ought to form a government with its own representatives that favor conservative social impositions, while blue states should proceed with their own strategies for the future, marshaling resources for initiatives important to progressive sensibilities.

This idea is Civil War 2.0, and in the minds of its proponents, it doesn’t have to be a shooting war at all. It could indeed be the first “civil war.” Many liberal democrats hold the fact of willfully having pulled a lever or punched a card in order to effect the election of Donald Trump as a litmus test of decency. The chief driving force of any liberal Democrat is equanimity for all people, and Trump’s rhetoric on matters of race and religion are such anathema to the progressive person that for many, a hard line in the sand was drawn between them and Trump's supporters.

On the other side of the Weltanschauung, a fair percentage of people living in the Midwest and in the Deep South come from multi-generational occupancy of the land with some amount of the ancestry even predating the United States, and they have an in-the-bone sensitivity to encroachment. States rights as an American ideal are a part of curriculum learning from the earliest grades in Southern school systems, and the Civil War has been painted as a disagreement over just that philosophy rather than one over the slave economy. More importantly than a wildly different early understanding of American history though, in my opinion, more so even than this terribly bloody and never-quite-resolved history, is that liberals just damn make a mountain man sick.

These people are one generation down from men who volunteered for Korea and picked up a bum leg hunkered down in the frozen Chosin Reservoir or who shoveled coal into a blast furnace twelve hours a day when they were sixteen. Then if they were lucky they landed a job they hated in a factory that bent their backs and stole their hearing. But it paid for the car, two weeks away each year and three healthy kids. These Southern and Midwestern voters must honor what their parents went through. They have heard these stories their entire lives and as unfulfilled as their parents may have been, now even the factories are gone, no one past their own governors seems to give a damn, and they don’t know what to tell their children. 

When someone comes in and tells them they are going to bring those old manufacturing jobs back, they know at some level that it’s magical thinking, but it’s an indication that at least federal attention to their plight might garner some attention. What Democrats needed to have been doing in the rust belt is making it easier for low-income people to get into vocational and technical schools to adapt to a changing market.

More people are losing their good job to a robot than they are to an immigrant, and increasing access to education is right in the Democratic bailiwick. But rather than bang that drum with a sincere understanding of what is at stake, Hillary Clinton addressed the topic with now legendarily clumsy rhetoric: “We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” This is an often-quoted, out-of-context part of a much longer and very thoughtful answer, but even so, a candidate who was truly steeped in the agony of these dwindling economies would never have been able to utter those words.

When a hardscrabble Deep South, Midwest or High Plains voter hears someone with any Ivy League degree tell them about how a $15 an hour minimum wage or better yet, a guaranteed income would result in a higher GDP because a sufficient percentage of the population would be creative in the time they would be away from work and would more than make up for any who might take advantage of such a system—“wait right there while I blow your damn fool head off with one of my many guns,” says the indignant rancher whose father was the one shoveling coal into a blast furnace twelve hours a day when he was sixteen, and who barely hangs on to the ranch he and his father worked the last thirty years of the old man’s life. If you ask him about it, he might tell you he loves Trump. Or he might tell you the Democratic Party gave him nowhere else to go this year.

Left and right, red and blue, we don’t seem to like each other much, and why should we? We suck. I suck, and so do you. Admit it. You do. As do I, as I have previously acceded. I am hoping that I may have caught my breath though. And I hope you have too, so, fellow web ranter, if you’ll try to smarten up, I will too. Fair enough? Fair enough. I promise, this will be harder for me than it will be for you. We will continue to encounter armchair historians who might utter something the likes of, “Say what you will about Vietnam and Iraq, the one war the US should never have gotten involved with was the Civil War.” The punch line below the Mason Dixon would be, “Then the Yanks would be Canada’s problem,” while the northern version would be, “Then the South would be Mexico’s problem.” I reject this. I reject it out of hand.

The social divide was vast in the nineteenth century. And it was geographical. It is likewise vast and geographical now, but is it worth breaking up over? Is it as acute now as it was then? Was it a good idea then? As tempting as it may sound to some parties on both sides, it must never happen. While some counties in some states are for all intents and purposes wholly red or blue, there are no states that are, with even the bluest of the blue and reddest of the red commanding two to one majorities. That still leaves millions of conservatives in California and New York and millions of progressives in the South and the Midwest. Further division is truly not an option, and those closest to the center on both sides must rise to a shared national obligation of bringing more light than heat to the way we speak with one another, albeit often through an antiseptic medium that invites bypassing normal human courtesies.

This is the spiritual side of the great divide, but the practical side in this case will surely rule the day if we can’t quite figure out that what we think we might want isn’t what we really want. A Divided States of America will never happen if only over the question of who controls the military. I think we can all agree that the South may not have the nukes. The last thing geopolitics needs is good old boys cranking up the Molly Hatchet and threatening North Korea.

Seriously though, the red states would really hate to lose the troops and the blue states would hate to lose the nukes, and once you tried to get started, the military as its own entity might suddenly have its own ideas. Unless Washington becomes a walled-off divided city like East and West Germany or post-war Jerusalem and you want kids on either sides of the border zones TP-ing and egging each other’s houses on Halloween, secession is madness. If for the Halloween reason only, we need to learn to get along. 

Abraham Lincoln was a brilliant man, much smarter than me, and probably you if you don’t have the brains not to have stopped reading this by now (I do appreciate it though), so his conclusions at a similar precipice bear hefty consideration. He thought the preservation of the union of these states to be “the last, best hope of Earth.” Our destiny to hang together as a nation from sea to shining sea, is baked into our Constitution, it has been baked into our geography, and it should have been baked into our sense of national unity, of being in it together, which in my life has never been this fractured.

Ours is a nation that was predicated on genocide, perpetuated by slavery, maintained by exploitative labor schemes and is now sustained by perpetual war. Over the course of this experiment, an exemplary democracy was built, with no greater stage on Earth for heroic individual achievement and self-actualization. I don’t suggest that the one set of exaltations is either a fair or a necessary trade for the opposing pool of shame it juxtaposes, merely that it is so. But I also imagine a world without solid US participation and I see chaos and exploitation at a far greater level than exists now, and we cannot be our best for the world while we focus on warring from within.

If we accept that we are stuck with each other, then what to do? Can we attempt to frame our political opposition in a less caricatured way, in one that seeks to appreciate the circumstances that nurtured this opposing viewpoint? Only in comic books and in cartoons does the villain wring his hands and twirl his mustache, cackling with glee as he imagines the havoc he will wreak upon the unsuspecting city. Heartland distrust in the liberal university sociology professor comes from a place that is rooted in square deals and firm handshakes, and distrust of the heavily armed citizen comes from empathy for America’s thousands of innocent gun victims. If it is a case of talking at rather than talking to, the conversation will continue to devolve and perhaps even worse than civil war, the nation will stick together with all of the love and joy of a bad marriage, its opposing poles swirled together in a forced puree in which each of the two ingredients regard the other as a putrefaction of the recipe.

Within the two-party system, the extremes of each will forever be untenable to the mainstream of each. The committed racist, the committed bigot, the committed homophobe, of which there are many thousands in the ranks of Republican voters, will never be accepted colleagues of the vast preponderance of modern progressives. There is identical truancy of common ground among virtually all conservatives for open borders, guaranteed incomes, and other far-left impositions of governmental authoritarianism.

Where there is a prayer of fence mending is between estimable and open-minded individuals who are personally positioned closer to centrist positions on whatever bone of contention ends up in the topic barrel. Responsible conservative gun owners and progressives from rural backgrounds who can drop ten rounds in a silver dollar-size grouping from a hundred yards on iron sights could have a conversation. In my Pollyanna vision, enlightened disciples from either camp on any issue could then deliver the sane presentation of the actual argument when the conspiratorial version comes up in conversation over wine and cheese at the art opening, or over beer and pretzels at the Dew Drop Inn.

Anyway, what is this interminable screed about? I suppose it’s a promise to move along this continuum on a case-by-case basis rather than on presumption of Trump using the presidency as a branding enhancement, which is still what I think he’s up to. I also think there is a right wing coup underway that is wholly independent of the Trump presidency, and that may unwittingly be in at least part undone by Trump’s own wild idea of what the presidency is about. Likewise, Trump himself may get upended by some of his own cabinet picks. I guess the point is, you really can’t say until you see it happening, which though it hasn’t yet, seems to be a gathering storm. My own promise in this post-truth era is to be a little old-fashioned and try to stick with the truth. More light, less heat, my friends, and thanks for reading.

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