Two Nations, Indivisible

Maybe it is 1860 all over again. Within days after President Obama’s re-election, disgruntled red-state Republicans (and even some terminally alienated blue-state GOP diehards) were petitioning their states to secede from the Union.

Granted, these latter-day rebels were scanty in number and could easily be dismissed as cranks. Secession has been a touchy issue on these shores since the previous Civil War, and our federal government doesn’t exactly help grease the wheels of state secessionist movements.

What made the secession threat intriguing was the accommodating response from so many denizens of the left and near-left: Let them go, and good riddance!

I’d read these mini-diatribes against Red America — that primitive and alien land of old-time religion, gun worship, antipathy toward gays and blacks and foreigners, anti-science obstinacy, substandard grammar and misplaced apostrophes, environmental brutality, cheerleaders with big hair, and on and on. We’re two separate and irreconcilable cultures, proclaimed the blue-state hipsters with their radio dials perpetually tuned to NPR’s squeaky-voiced Ira Glass and whatever obscure music combo happened to be looking edgy at the moment. And it wasn’t just the hipsters: several of my more mature, tax-paying, solid-citizen liberal friends were feeling the same urge to jettison the hicks and get on with life.

As I compared the beefy, godfearing, trailer-dwelling Bubbas with the ironic, compulsively slim, chef-worshipping bicoastal urbanites, I began to wonder if Lincoln made a mistake by attempting to lasso the Confederate states back into the Union. All those hundreds of thousands of gallant young warriors cut down in their prime — for what?

In 2012 the United States seems to consist of two peoples inhabiting opposite sides of a deep gorge. The bridges are down, and

These finches evolved into separate species because they became isolated on separate islands. Is this the future of America?

the two cultures are evolving away from each other. Eventually, like Darwin’s finches on their isolated islands, they could emerge as separate species. Maybe we needed to go our separate ways after all.

Then I came to my senses. First we had to consider the thorny logistics of dismantling the republic. What if a hipster magnet like Austin wanted to secede from Texas? What if the hillbilly stronghold of central Pennsylvania decided to go rogue and cut the cord from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? We’d make the pre-Bismarck patchwork of petty German kingdoms and duchies look like a unified empire by comparison.

More important by far, we needed to think about the shared qualities that brought us together in the first place — aside from our boiling resentment of the taxes imposed by good old King George III. Surely a people that collectively loves pizza, movies and beer can join forces once again for the common good.

But even there, chances are that the blue-staters would prefer white pizza with artisanal goat-cheese topping, small independent films and microbrew beer, preferably from Belgium. The red-staters would gladly take pepperoni, blockbusters and Budweiser. Is there any hope?

What made us — all of us — a unique people known to the world as Americans? Was it our willingness to abandon ancestral roots for the chance to start a fresh life? Our bold spirit of pioneering, discovery and enterprise? Our national preoccupation with success? Our ability to welcome and assimilate newcomers from a hundred nations? Our admirable balance between rugged individualism and community spirit? Our willingness to help our neighbors — even if they lived halfway around the world? Our good-natured, down-to-earth irreverence in the face of airy pretentiousness (a trait embodied by native American philosophers like Mark Twain and Will Rogers)?

I’d vote an emphatic “Yes!” to all of the above. So what happened?

First, the ’60s happened. Traditional values came under assault by scruffy young radicals, and the traditionalists rebounded by digging in and rebelling against the rebels. Soon enough it turned into a shouting contest: Rush Limbaugh bellowing against the mushy entitlement state… liberals heaping infamy on the banksters… Bush Derangement Syndrome followed swiftly by Obama Derangement Syndrome… Republicans refusing to cooperate with Democrats… red-staters and blue-staters morphing into grotesque self-caricatures… Twitter mavens tweeting to their own amen corners… contentious opinions swirling in cyberspace, growing more and more distorted and snarky and intolerant of dissent… age-old friendships ending abruptly with a flurry of political and cultural fisticuffs.

It doesn’t look promising at the moment. A grueling, open-ended recession (no apparent light visible yet at the end of this tunnel) has frayed our national nerves, fueled hostility and exacerbated our differences. The haves are pulling blithely away from the have-nots, and (most alarmingly) the middle class is joining the underclass in an unhappy and unexpected alliance of the downtrodden. Upward mobility is virtually dead unless you’re already up (with a little effort, members of the elite can grow still eliter).

We begin to look more and more like a Latin American republic, even without considering the vast numbers of unassimilated Spanish speakers in our midst: a small, self-entitled upper crust and a vast peasantry, separate and unequal.

But this is the United States of America, you insist. We have our pride. Our history and our legacy are at stake. What can we do to rouse ourselves, reunite ourselves, restore a sense of common purpose?

I have an answer (not the answer, because nothing is that simple these days. But any answer is better than none). And my answer is simply this: stop thinking in terms of “us” and “them.” See individuals. Individuals who are just as proud, ornery, flawed, confused, scared and magnificent as we are. Like all living organisms, they simply want to survive, thrive and pass the baton to the next generation.

If we want a baton to pass along, we’ll have to stop hunkering down in our ideological bunkers. We need to step outside, breathe some fresh air and wave to our neighbors on the other side of the chasm. Then we need to repair the bridges that broke down over the past few decades. We don’t want to evolve into two separate and incompatible species, do we? After all, we’re not finches… we’re Americans.

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

Author: RICK BAYAN

Founder-editor of The New Moderate, a blog for the passionate centrist who would go to extremes to fight extremism. Disgruntled idealist... author of The Cynic's Dictionary... inspired by H. L. Mencken... able to leap small buildings in several bounds. Lives with his son in a century-old converted stable in Philadelphia.

13 Comments

  1. That’s well intentioned and sincere enough, but how does an intelligent and rational moderate or liberal even begin to find common ground with the more reactionary and conspiracy drenched elements of the tea party? I’m not sure it’s possible. Even the remnants of traditional republicanism seem intimidated by their TP brethren.

  2. Well, I think the article has some lovely and sincere sentiments. But Rick, I think you are preaching to the choir here. Most liberals get what you’re saying, but most conservatives don’t. You mentioned how our forebearers “welcomed and assimilated newcomers to this nation”. Well, that’s not how I remember it. That’s not how it is today either. The Irish, Italians, Jews, Blacks, Indians, etc. etc were hardly welcomed, and had to fight for everthing they got. Many are still fighting, and they are still fighting the same exact mind-set that existed then.
    The class differences that existed in earlier America are nothing like today The gap between rich and poor is greater than it’s ever been in our history. It’s a whole new world of foreign people, different religions,strange cultures,scientific discoveries, greater technology all smashing into each other 24/7. People are frightened, and most especially conservative thinkers.
    It would be nice if we all could focus on our similarities as Americans, but some are too frightened and perhaps too ignorant to do it.

  3. I have been thinking about this post… sometimes when i listen to the ideology of the right that encourages ‘no compromise e street’ it becomes discouraging that a working together can occur and that it is going to be a slow evolution of human consciousness that will bring us out of this divisiveness.

    The only thing i feel at this place that might make a difference would be for all of us to make an effort to speak, write, and live for what we are ‘for’ rather than ‘against’… Many know what they are ‘against’, but not able to state what they are ‘for’. Each time we stand ‘against’ we are in a lesser position and to stand ‘against’ is to give the negative and the divisive greater power and prominence. I fully believe that if the Republican and Romney had used their convention to speak ‘for’ rather than ‘against’ the presidency would of been theirs. When any group spends most of their energy on ‘against’ they eliminate the chance of aligning with someone that stands for that which you are ‘against’. If both sides would take a powerful stand ‘for’ it could change the tone and avoid so much of the ‘us’ against ‘them’…

    It is important to be against some things. For example i am against rodents, poisons snakes, mosquitoes in my house. But when it comes to trying to work through differences it works so much better in human interaction to share what we stand for rather than what is despised in the ‘other’ that is not ‘us’.

    Thanks Rick for writing on this topic and it is a hard one, for it is so easy for us to fall into deep tribalism rather than claiming the greater truth that we are all in this together.

    Do want to add that i made light of the secessionist folks, for i know darn well they are not about to leave the U.S. and kind like a child that threatens to run away from home, sometimes it is best to offer them the suitcase and let them walk out the door, knowing full well they will be home for supper…

  4. And Z…puleeeeze don’t talk to me about the elitist snobbery of the Democrats. LOL..hardly when the Romneys et al are the elitist snobs condemning 47% of the people.

  5. The rules of the forum are that comments are to be about the topic–NOT ABOUT the writer or another commentator. SK and Z, pay attention!

    As for the “Us vs. Them” attitude, that is probably the main cause of all the conflicts in the world. The only “them” that I am willing to recognize are the international terrorists who seem to believe that any killing (done by them) is justified so long as it supports their cause through fear. I had thought (back in 2001) that the world was about to come together, unified against a common enemy. Sadly, we lost the chance due to either arrogance, fear, misunderstanding, or outright stupidity.

    The main problem that I see with dealing with far-right conservatives is that their political philosophy has become a religion. Facts are not necessary. The scientific method (try things, see what happens, tweak them, develop reproducible models) is not necessary. They know their views because they are TRUE. If events don’t comply with their views then all of us must be misinterpreting the events or have missed something in our investigations. It can not possibly be that their philosophy (read: assumptions) is incorrect.

    So long as one group decides that they are morally, ethically, absolutely correct, there can be no compromise or cooperation because they can not compromise on the “truth”. As an example, most Christians (all truly devout ones) would not accept a compromise position on whether or not Christ is the Son of God. To do so would make them no longer Christians (virtually by definition). The same is true of nearly all religions. There are certain subjects that are morally off limits because they define the convert/believer.

    The far-right philosophers have, for some time now, started putting more and more items into the realm of doctrine (for them). If you doubt this then ask one of them if freedom of religion is necessary. Ask them if being allowed to have their children not required to go to school on Sunday, Christmas, etc. is necessary.

    Topics that seem to go into the doctrinal level for the far-right conservatives include (but are not limited to):

    1) Abortion
    2) Small government is better than big government.
    3) Private sector can solve things better than any government program
    4) “Fair” taxation takes either a) equal amounts from everyone or b) equal percentages from everyone.
    5) Taxes must be “fair”, instead of simply being a means to obtain revenue from those most able to afford the taxes
    6) Anything not fitting into their conservative philosophy, so long as it benefits unnamed groups of people who might be gaining access to resources they are not directly paying for, is Communism/Socialism/of the Devil, etc.

    While these beliefs exist in the group the “liberals” are trying to negotiate with, the only cooperation that the “liberals” can expect is that of a defeated, but intransigent, army of zealots.

    The reason that Israel can get nowhere with negotiations with the Palestinians is because the latter refuse to acknowledge the right of the former to exist! What possible negotiations could the Israeli representatives have; how their people are to be executed? Perhaps how fast they must vacate all of SW Asia?

    The same dynamic has been occurring with Democrats and Republicans. When the Republicans are negotiating as if the Democrats won a contest and are holding a gun to their heads, the Republicans are not going to negotiate in good faith and will constantly look to find a way to get the gun.

  6. While I understand that it’s not the entire problem, there’s much to be said about Fox News and its format of essentially “us versus them” that has been in place since not long after 9/11. They have effectively advertised themselves (along with their companion publications – WSJ, etc.) as the ONLY sources of correct, conservative media and tapped into the mild-paranoia about a liberal “mainstream” media (despite the fact that FNC is the highest viewed cable news station – which I would suspect qualifies them as “mainstream” by ratings).

    Then add to that the direction of MSNBC as the “counterweight” to FNC for the left. When the news networks essentially act as campaign engines for either side and profit from a divided electorate, it’s pretty tough not to add them as part of the problem.

    Finally, I sometimes wonder if the US was a great experiment that ultimately failed; that maybe we have too many disparate factions of people to be one country. As has been the case over the millenia, borders rarely remain the same and lands split off and become new countries. It just tends to suck for those alive when those often violent splits occur.

  7. Agree with just about everything Rcoutme wrote.

  8. the funny thing is… the us vs them does exist, but not between the red and blue. We are not in the middle of a culture war. We are in the middle of a class war. In the end, because they are winning, there will become more and more of us. What will the billionaires do when the 99% is lower-middle class and has decided that enough is enough?

    I look at the Democratic Party and ask…how long are YOU going to keep taking from them in order to keep yourselves in office? If you are the party of social justice, and more and more of America requires social justice, why aren’t things changing in America?

  9. “Finally, I sometimes wonder if the US was a great experiment that ultimately failed; that maybe we have too many disparate factions of people to be one country”

    Seriously? What would we have had to do to succeed? Would you call Rome during the reign of Augustus Caesar a failed experiment? Because that’s where we are at now, at the height of our power, if not our bliss :)

  10. Slam, that’s fair. Chalk it up to the morning doldrums. I guess I’ve taken the current division to it’s (il)logical conclusion. I just sometimes wonder (though not for long) if we’re trying to keep together something that doesn’t belong held together. I often need to caution myself not to expect perfection out of human beings, especially politicians.

  11. Eh, same as it ever was. Yes, there is a divide. No, it’s not new. The people I don’t understand, and who are called rednecks or uber-right-wingers or whatever by whomever who resembles myself, find it just as difficult to understand me. I understand that I am on the fringe of the culture wars too — most folks all over like sushi these days, but there are not too many who order the uni with quail egg and pair it with a cucumber gimlet. I understand I’m a snob, an “elitist”, what with my gay friends and handmade repurposed organic sustainable clothing and feminism activism and 10 piercings in my right ear and my recycled bamboo flooring and my soy-milk churning excersize bike. It makes about as much sense to most people as the furvent Christians who won’t let their kids go to school and the abortion picketers and the whole wrangler jeans thing or pledging your viriginity to your dad (?) and of course the desire to put bottled ranch dressing or ketchup on things (ok, those last two are just me, maybe). I guess the point is: if I had been raised in a different environment, maybe I’d find redeeming qualities in ranch dressing as well.
    As it is, it might as well be another universe.

    In any case, in my area it’s somewhat popular to talk about how great it would be if Texas (or whomever) actually made good on their secession threats. Some go to great lengths to appear to be in earnest. I find it pretty tasteless, personally. Joke about whatever, I suppose, but let’s not gleefully argue this would actually work. If Texas seceded, it would amount to the largest humanitarian crisis this country has ever seen. As much as I don’t really understand how they (many Texans, that is) live their day-to-day lives, and they understand me about as much, I am not going to joke about what would result in the bloodshed and refugee-status of millions of them. And us.

  12. Rick i thanks you again for this post, i went to sleep last night thinking about it and awoke the morning still sorting through what small piece i can commit to now, in order to bring space.

    Something that is big medicine at a personal level is the reminder to ” withstand the tension of the opposites “. Truly feel that America and the democracy that she is built upon is strong enough to withstand these opposites. One of the things i am assured of is that much is to be gained and deepened when the testing of the opposites come to a system, be that individual or collective, for that is an invite to the alchemical/ creative process that canburns off impure elements and push this Nation forward. Withstanding the tensions of opposites and the problems that arise from them is the core fiber of a healthy democracy.

    I believe that democracy is a long slow evolutionary process….we are still arriving…. we keep moving towards greater freedom and personal responsibilities with a slow evolution of consciousness that embraces ‘other’….whether it be ethnicity, race, gender, or class there at each step there is a pendulum that swings too and fro…. some that cherish the old and are perhaps fearful of the unknown… and others that have been traumatized by the old and are so ready to jump into the unknown in order to get away from the oppressiveness they have known in the old structure. Example, for us that can NEVER fit in the traditional politics or religions and have been told that in a thousand different ways, we carry those scars, yet we are the ones that are going to have to pull back on spewing hatred as a return to what we perceive as hateful. The political right is deeply anchored in fundamentalist religious ground and they love their religion. When i talk to them face to face they feel their faith and God is under attack by the Left… I continue to feel we have more a religious divide that contaminates our politics and so often the divisiveness seems irreconcilable..

    Here is an example of someone from my own family. She is married to a very strong fundamentalist seminary graduate. When he found out his wife’s aunt’s views are deeply oriented towards the Eastern meditative traditions, he set up prayers circles to have the Dali Lama and my Eastern teacher converted to Jesus. When that did not pan out he forbid his wife to have contact . Now, seven years later, we have contact but he does not approve because the wife is suppose to be subservient to the husband. This her attempt to put into words how she feels about one issue and those that are “other”…..

    “I want to make a statement about the same sex marriage thing. Whether you think Christians are fake or not, we believe in Jesus, the Bible and all that. When you ask Christians to back something we believe is against our faith, you are asking us to choose between God and you. This puts us in a dilemma. I wish to never hurt or offend anyone. Please understand that what you may perceive as bigotry or hate is not. When a lot of us believe we really do believe. We are just not willing to change a 2 thousand year + faith to be accepted and liked by our culture. I totally accept my gay friends, but can my more gay or liberal friends accept me? Being a Christian or being gay automatically makes us a target. Either party is demonized by the other. This stinks! But honestly, right now it seems that being gay is certainly more acceptable than being a Christian.So at the risk of being misunderstood. “

    I so strongly see the only light is in sharing what we are willing to stand for and what we love rather than to continue to split off from the ‘other’ through the subtle mechanism of hatred that returns hatefulness for perceived hatefulness.

    ” The inability to withstand tension leads to splitting.” That is a short meme that i have planted on the forebrain… Often i fail for i am in process also…

    Breathe deep and withstand the tension is all i know to do at this time and to commit speaking from what i love rather than what i am against.

    Just my few chirps …

  13. Nice piece Rick. I look at it all like this: there are macadamia, pecans, walnuts and cashews, but I prefer a dish of mixed nuts. You can sick eating too many pecans; I know that from personal experience.

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