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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why We Are Not A 'We'

Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times is one of the most thoughtful newspaper columnists. Two days ago he wrote a piece about how the current political climate of the U.S. has taken a dangerous turn permanently delegitimizing the presidency and tacitly encouraging violence, particularly from the fringe far right: “Where Did ‘We’ Go?”

The Facebook poll asking respondents, “Should Obama be killed?” is the most recent example, but Friedman also mentions the crazy rhetoric of Lou Dobbs, whom I have repeatedly criticized on the pages of Chico Lingo, and too many other examples in the media, particularly in the blogosphere and cable news channels, which also hasten our downward spiral into a country no longer a community, but a country at war with itself.

But I believe Friedman does not go far enough in analyzing the ‘why,’ the reasons the United States seems more fractured than ever. Why do ‘we’ seem to be incapable of tackling problems affecting all of us without a descent into vitriol and even hatred of our opponents? What happened to compromise and practicality and giving each other the benefit of the doubt? Here are some interrelated whys:

1. We as a society do not have patience anymore. TV and visual images are in part to blame. Give your opinion in fifteen seconds, do it loudly, and that’s what we now call ‘debate.’ We have commercialized time on TV: that’s the reason for these ridiculous lightning-round debates that solve nothing, convince no one, and just end up reinforcing prejudices because that’s all the time you have on TV (the most pervasive, influential medium). Plato, eons ago, warned how the focus on images would degrade our ability to think and reason: The man or woman who focuses on images loses the highest form of the self, the thoughtful self.

2. We don’t read anymore. The market for serious books is dying. Just look at the publishing industry. In fact, what is published now is too often celebrity books, memoirs of scandal, books by pretty and famous people who have little to say beyond the adrenalin moment. Disposable literature. Our kids are not reading, but instead play video games. My kids are great readers, but it’s because I’ve kept them from turning on the TV whenever they feel like it; I’ve kept them from mainstream, materialistic American culture. “After you do your homework, watch TV for an hour, but that’s it.” I may be an anachronism, but my kids are excellent students and know who they are because of their own, real accomplishments.

3. We are a diverse culture, but now minorities possess growing power and responsibility and the traditional majority does not easily want to cede being ‘the standard,’ that is, being the face of America. Latinos, as we all know, have grown in number to become the largest minority, surpassing even African-Americans (who themselves are uncomfortable with perhaps not being the ‘official minority’ anymore). The Asian population has similarly increased. Soon, demographers predict that the traditional ‘white majority’ (comprised of families with English, Italian, Irish, German, and other European ancestry) will be the minority.

I can only imagine what these demographic trends have meant in, say, a small town in the Midwest or the South where new Latin American immigrants speak Spanish and bring strange customs to your town. The strength of New York City, where I now live, is that these cultural, religious, ethnic, racial interactions happen every day. You are not so easily susceptible to the TV or talk-radio smear that Latinos are this way, or Jews are that way, or Muslims are sinister, or strangers with accents are suspect, because you see these people every day. They may be your friends. Your kids go to school with their kids.

Prejudices based on abstractions, the raw meat of today’s dangerous political rhetoric, don’t easily take hold when you can see with your own eyes that excellent parents are in every culture, excellent friends may exist in every religion, brave characters with all sorts of funny accents ennoble you. But this is not a kumbaya moment. Irresponsible idiots also come in every shape, size, and color. But the point is that abstractions don’t work on you anymore when you actively seek out and live in diversity. You must judge the individual; you need to pay attention and listen; above all you need to have the patience to understand whoever might at first seem alien to you.

4. The United States is a mature economy, while other countries like China, Brazil, and India are gaining the kind of prosperity we took for granted. Fifty years ago, it must have been a heady time when we were unquestionably the most important economy in the world. But now that’s not true anymore. We are still the biggest, but many have caught up and surpassed our per-capita wealth. Others, the newcomers, have rapidly become significant sources of brain power, savings, and economic and military power. We can’t dictate terms anymore. Our companies have to fight it out to survive, and few have the unquestioned might of yesteryear’s behemoths. The world, most importantly, is moving away from an American-centered world economy, with negative implications for the dollar as a reserve currency.

We’ve also lost manufacturing jobs. The lowest skilled are the most vulnerable to this changing world. They are the most susceptible to zealots and slick-talking TV and radio gurus who appear to have all the answers. And many are listening, because over the years they have been trained to think ‘listening’ is just watching TV. It’s not. TV stupefies you. Period. Talk radio? Turn if off.

1, 2, 3 and 4 might lead you to think I’m pessimistic about the future of the United States. I’ll tell you how pessimistic I am. Last weekend, I went to Home Depot twice (about 30 miles total), because I had purchased the wrong-size American flag to hang next to our front door in Connecticut. Our three-year-old flag, which was faded and torn, I tucked away in my closet. I’m just gonna keep it. It fills me with pride to see our new flag fluttering amid the spectacular colors of autumn in the Litchfield Hills.

I am proud of my country. But let me give you some advice. Turn off the TV. Stop listening to Lou Dobbs, and see him for what he is: an idiot who wants to make money by making you watch him. Pick up a good book and read it carefully. Raise your children to be thinkers, to focus on their homework, to work hard. Make an effort, by picking up the phone or knocking on a door, to meet a neighbor vastly different from you, a Muslim, a Jew, a Mexicano who can barely speak English. Don’t just meet him once, but get to know the person, his kids. If his child befriends your child, and they marry (as Laura and I did nineteen years ago), work on understanding their family. Some things you will never understand. Other things you will uncannily see eye-to-eye. But no one will ever be able to tell you they don’t belong in your neighborhood.

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