A Nation Divided

We live in a divided nation. You can feel it, we all can. The anger. The hate. The deep-seeded distrust and division fragmenting the United States like a North Dakota fracking rig. At least they get oil. What do we get? Populist presidents? A forever gridlocked legislature? A media we have every reason to distrust? None of it does us any good.

It’s not as if this is the most divided we’ve ever been. Seven score and 16 years ago this nation fought a brutal Civil War in which 750,000 Americans died, more than in WWI and WWII combined. In Gettysburg there is a wheat field known to soldiers as the “whirlpool of death”. Thousands of soldiers on both sides died there over the course of a few hours. When the fighting finally abated the field was soaked with blood, not of bitter enemies, but of brothers. That’s the tragedy of every civil war. It pits neighbors, friends, families against each other. Many nations don’t survive, or they remain divided for decades. But ours did survive, and we were made better for it.

The problem that faces us now is far different than the one we faced then. The Civil War erupted from the singular issue of slavery. Remove that from the equation and Abe Lincoln would have had a boring presidency. Today there is no single issue for us to fight over, no solitary cause to fight for. We’re divided on everything—abortion, immigration, education, privacy, police, foreign policy, gun control, the environment, and somehow even free speech. Of course, it would be ignorant to pretend America hasn’t always been like this. There’s a reason it took the Founding Fathers four months to craft a four thousand word document. People often reference the founders as if they were some kind of homogenous hive mind, but the truth is that they were as divided as we are. It took them weeks just to determine what the president should be called. The difference is that somewhere along the line we stopped disagreeing with people and started demonizing them. 

The other day I was debating with a friend of mine. We bounced from topic to topic until he said something I will never forget.  “We’d really be better off if the whole middle part of the country just sank into the ocean.” He said. I laughed, assuming he was joking. He was not. “They’re destroying the Earth,” he continued, “We’re better off if they die before they have the chance to kill us all. They’re all a bunch of racist rednecks, anyway.” That ended our debate. I mean, where can you even go from there? He genuinely believed the entire middle of the country was so far gone we may as well just let them die by some natural disaster. And if you grew up in the Midwest like I did, you know many feel a similar way about the coasts. “New York, Seattle, San Fransisco—they’re all filled with elitist pricks we’d be better off without.” 

We just don’t like each other anymore. On some fundamental level we’ve developed a notion that your geography or political ideology dictates who you are as a person. Democrats are evil. Republicans are cruel. Liberals want to kill babies. Conservatives want to kill immigrants. Gays are destroying marriage. Christians are destroying science. These are the extreme, black-and-white platitudes we speak in. Is there no gray area? No shared values we can agree upon?

You would think freedom of speech is a cause both sides could rally behind. Those who hold dearly every word of the Constitution, and those who value the ability for everyone to express themselves surely should agree on this issue, if nothing else. Except these past few months alone have shone us that is far from true. Take Milo Yiannopoulos for example. Say what you will of him—and there is much that could be said—but he has a right to speak as much as anyone else. Yet he had that right violently revoked at the University of Berkley when rioters broke windows, burned property, and beat people all to keep his voice from being heard. There is some kind of twisted irony at play when those who decry fascism behave identically to the Hitler’s Brownshirts in the lead up to WWII. And those on the right who bemoaned this event then proceeded to make themselves hypocrites when they cheered Laura Loomer’s protest of Shakespeare in the Park. She had no more of a right to interrupt a person’s free expression than the Milo rioters did. 

And perhaps this is the real problem. We’ve started putting our tribe before our values. It’s not about the underlying principles anymore, it’s about partisanship. It’s about whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, liberal or conservative. That’s all that seems to matter now. We look at our politicians and we wonder why they’re so divided, but they are no more than reflections of us. We’re the ones who are divided. We’re the ones constantly at each other’s throats. They’re just giving us what we want to see. If we want things to change, it starts with us. It starts with making an effort to understand the other side. It’s start with having conversations, not shouting matches. It starts with conceding that not all Trump supporters are racist homophobes destroying culture, and not all Hillary supporters are evil socialists destroying the country. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. It’s time we started acting like it. 

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