I never thought we’d get here. I’ve always imagined a critical mass, a core group of competent, moderate people “out there” – with reassuring common sense and wisdom – who would pull us back from the brink, and protect us from our self-centeredness, our anxieties and weaknesses, and our lethal self-destructiveness.
I was wrong.
Like everybody, I’ve been alarmed by “polarization” for a long time. But I’ve been assuming (wrongly) that, in the clutch, all but the nastiest and the silliest among us would look at what’s rolling toward us, sober up, cut the bull, drop the ideologies – and grab a paddle along with the rest of us.
That’s not happening. Apparently it’s tribal all the way down.
My side can’t lose to your side. Period.
But that’s not even what scares me the most. It’s more that the actual effect of the good – all that we’re blessed with here in the U.S. and in the West generally – hasn’t been to consolidate some minimal combination of gratitude, humility, and genuine loyalty to the history and processes that got us here.
Plus, it hasn’t driven home how important it is to be honest and humble, rather than angry and certain, when facing crisis and the unknowable.
Instead it feels like the effect of freedom and material comfort on human beings turns out to be largely negative, even debilitating.
It’s not the difficult, seemingly endless problems that are so discouraging. It’s our responses to those problems: impatient, on-automatic, self-centered, over-simplified, anxiety-laden – producing gibberish that passes for conversation about virtually everything, not just politics. That’s what’s really scary.
I’m not making the umpteenth plea for civility. It’s more than that. It’s the fear and self-doubt under all the angry bluster and feigned certainty. It’s how disheartened we’ve become that we can listen to each other, face problems, make choices, settle for a half a loaf sometimes, but believe we’re acting in good faith and trying to get it right.
I understand how someone can lose it sometimes, get really cranked up – but you don’t have to be very smart to notice what a waste that is, and how little good actually comes from being that way.
One way or another, the current mess cannot stand. What happens next, what we become, may – partly –be under our control, but a whole lot of it won’t be.
It sounds ridiculously naïve to say it, but we should all be having urgent, earnest conversations at work, at kitchen tables, as we stand online at the supermarket, as we watch our kids’ ballgames, in dorm lounges, and any other place that people congregate, about what’s happening, what’s not working, and why not.
We should have those conversations knowing that people who are both intelligent and good disagree with us. We should start there. Impugning motives or simply mouthing a “narrative” are mere tactics used by people avoiding having to answer valid criticisms, and who aren’t actually interested in adult conversation.
Neither the politicians, nor the CEO’s, are aliens from another planet. They’re us. Reality is shaped by the unknowable, unforeseeable net result of all the actions and choices we make – and don’t make. I thought we all knew that.
It’s not all politics. A lot of it is the “culture.” But there’s no getting around the relentless push where the rubber hits the road, where the hard choices are made and enforced. We should decide among ourselves what’s fair, where the boundaries are, then tell the politicians what we want – not the other way around.
There’s a long haul coming that probably includes less of a lot of things, and will make for a lower standard of living for many of us. It could even be good for all of us if we make the right cultural adaptations. That’s another reason we should be having uncomfortable conversations.