THE POLARIZATION OF AMERICA

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Perhaps I’m just an old curmudgeon looking at the past through rose-tinted bifocals, but I honestly do not remember a time when America was as polarized as it is today. Well . . . maybe when we were all either protesting the Vietnam War or arguing the dangers of the “domino theory.”

But that was one issue. Today it seems we see public discourse on all issues only in stark absolutes (and at a high decibel pitch!). No wonder we’ve had nothing but gridlock in Washington for nearly two decades now. And God forbid that an “opinion”—whether expressed on Facebook or on the floors of Congress—should be supported by statistical or anecdotal evidence! This is a democracy. All opinions have equal value. Moreover, they are invariably expressed as absolute truths. No room for discussion. No admission that there might—possibly—be alternative views of such evidence as is (rarely) presented. My way or the highway. That’s it! Take it or leave it.

Consider the issue of guns, for instance. WHY do some insist that any attempt to curb unlimited access to firearms is a red flag signaling that “they” want to seize all weapons and deny “your God-given right” to own one or several? (The right was not “God-given” at all; it was ensured by men, but that is beside the point.) Why can we not have reasoned discussions of this issue and put some reasonable guidelines in place?

Hunters and collectors—actually anyone who wants them—are entitled to their weapons! But, is it really too much to ask that legitimate ownership of firearms be granted on the basis of background checks and passing safety courses? True: Regulations would not give us a magical solution. (We license autos and drivers, but drunk drivers kill thousands every year.) Still, it would probably help. It is not an either/or situation. Just how many Columbines, Auroras, and Newtowns do we need?

Or take the issues of abortion, planned parenthood, and women’s healthcare in general. I fail to see the logic in closing down clinics because some among us believe that “life” is viable the instant that sperm wiggles its way into the wall of that egg. By all means, let us worry about this petri-dish stage of “life” more than the quality of life that will eventually ensue—or more than the quality of the life of the woman involved.

I would be far more sympathetic to the anti-abortionists’ views if more of them showed genuine concern for the lives of those they seek to “save.” That means ensuring proper feeding, clothing, health care, and education as well as merely breathing. Anti-abortion vs. pro-choice: the issue is too complex for the oversimplified, absolutist views in which it is often couched.

Or, take immigration, race relations, the Middle East, stem-cell research—you name it! “Us” versus “them”—how’s that been working so far in the body politic? Gridlock, anyone?

We need to get back to compromise as one of the basic tenets of the American system. But that would require listening to, trying to understand others’ points of views. Too few of us are capable of such a profound degree of tolerance.

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