We have a lot to reflect upon. Seventy-four million Republican-voting Americans see America very, very differently than the 81 million Democratic voters. Worse, estimates are that half of Republican voters believe the Big Lie—that the election was stolen in an unlikely, complicated plot that included Republican governors and secretaries of state, the long-dead Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, and Smartmatic and Dominion, the major manufacturers of our voting machines. Of course the theory was fully debunked and its proponents lost 64 of 65 court cases when they could present no evidence of fraud.
We can’t sweep their presence or their attraction to distinctly un-American notions under the rug. Nearly half of us willingly went along with—and actually formed the basis of support that normalized the unseemly, disrespectful, and hateful rhetoric that culminated in the post-election conspiracy theories and the assault on our Capitol. Even more astonishing (frightening, depressing—choose your verb or adjective) is the Ipsos poll that finds that 19% of our fellow citizens supported the violent insurrection three weeks ago at the Capitol.
Soul-searching is required.
Many of us think the soul of the nation bears love and good intentions toward all of our fellow men. Almost as many sanction a very different version of America. One in which the melting pot is only good when it accepts White Northern Europeans. One in which the Statue of Liberty and the poem at her base—the Emma Lazarus one that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” don’t apply equally. Like other resolutely American symbols, it has become a Rorschac test, seen differently by the various factions in our fractured county. More than half of us believe that sentiment applies to all, and is a statement of our goodness, but a significant minority argue that poem is wrong-headed, and doesn’t represent their beliefs.
Ms. Lazarus wrote the poem in response to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 that became our first law limiting immigration by a specific ethnic, racial, or foreign group, illustrating that the thorny issue of immigration is not a new one.
On the one hand, America feels large enough to hold anyone seeking a better life; people who have heard of the American dream of living free and being able to pursue life, liberty and happiness. On the other hand are the marchers with the “No Vacancy” and “America is Full” signs.
The discussion, sometimes loud and violent, as we saw on Jan. 6, centers on what America is, and who Americans are, as well as the limits to a “melting pot” society. We have, at various times, rioted against Chinese, Italians, Jews, Irish, Blacks, and just about every other ethnic minority around the globe, except White Northern Europeans.
I focus on race, creed and immigration because those are the terms of our estrangement. Those are the issues that form the core of what we must reflect upon. Certainly, economic and cultural estrangement must be considered, for many have lost jobs to globalization and a technological revolution that is moving faster than our ability to understand its implications. And many are not ready to accept that Black lives actually do matter as much as other lives, or that LGBTQ people deserve equal treatment—but the heart of the issue that is tearing us apart is race.
Racism is as old as the Thirteen Colonies, and to deny that fact is to stop discussion before it starts.
In our reckoning, we will have to address conspiracy theories. Some significant percentage of us are suffering from “apophenia,” which, according to Websters, is, “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things.” The leading actor in this ongoing melodrama is QAnon. Birthed as the theory that world leaders and American Democrats in particular, host a child sex-trafficking ring. QAnon gleefully brought us Pizza Gate, where a subscriber to the theory shot up a DC pizzeria thinking he’d expose child molesters. Reed Berkowitz, a leading game designer, said of QAnon: “It’s like a Darwinian fiction lab, where the best stories and the most engaging and satisfying misinterpretations rise to the top and are then elaborated upon for the next version.”
This question then arises: are we no longer governable? Without an agreed upon set of facts and, even more to the point, an agreed upon set of values, we find ourselves at a moment in history not at all unlike our pre-1860 predicament. The divisions so deep that a return to harmony, let alone everyone rowing in the same direction, seems unlikely.
When faced with mutually assured destruction, détente worked in the 70’s with the Soviet Union. Maybe some form of it now could lead to peaceful coexistence.