America has once again split itself along ideological lines. It’s not just Red States versus Blue States, we’ve always had that. It’s pro-mask versus anti-mask, real science versus anti-science or bogus science. Then there’s facts versus “alternative” facts.
The daily insults we heap on each other about our country, our government, our politics, our health care, our racial equality and even our religious practices have polarized us into a nation divided and angry. Sometimes it feels to like the Civil War has never really ended. It has just mutated into economic and social battles that periodically spill into our streets and set fire to our cities.
The irony of all this is that in a civil war no one really wins. How can there be winners when we are fighting our own people? To me, it is the Achilles Heel of a two party system. Peace is never obtained, only temporary maintained, while the “losers” lick their wounds and plot the overthrow of the ruling party only to start the whole battle for ideological dominance all over again.
If Republicans or Democrats believe that everything will be OK in America if they controlled enough of the government to fully implement their ideology, they are living in an illusion at best. If they secretly believe that they deserve permanent dominance because they know what’s right for the entire nation, then they are wishing for a dictatorship. Only a dictatorship can kill, bribe or beat into submission a population as large and diverse as America. Lincoln said it long ago, “No nation divided against itself can long endure”.
I make a distinction between a war for dominance and the honest clash of ideas where there is recognition that no one has the right to be the sole winner. To me, this is why we have not ended the Civil War of 160 plus years ago. We have not matured enough as a body politic to recognize that our own selfish needs are just that. They block us from accepting that other people do not always believe as we do and have the right to those beliefs.
In times of great stress, any system reveals its weaknesses. Earthquakes reveal structural flaws. Economic crises expose the inequalities and vulnerabilities of monetary and government policies. Pandemics, as we see so acutely in the US and some other countries, expose the deficiencies in production, acquisition and distribution of essential medical equipment and services. An effective response to any of these vulnerabilities is greatly hindered when deliberate misinformation about the severity of the problem is utilized to fulfill political goals or promote a particular set of social biases.
It seems that America has turned its inherent strengths of diversity, individual liberty and geographic security into liabilities. Xenophobic and nationalistic thinking has made us afraid of those different from us. Individual liberty has been weaponized to ignore our responsibility to each other. Something as simple and effective as wearing a mask to reduce infection rates has been turned into a battle about “political correctness”. This has happened at a time when the need for cooperation and communication between Federal, State, County and Community governments is essential to address the many stressors we are facing. Currently, E pluribus unum seems to have been erased from our national consciousness.
When I work with couples who are experiencing conflict in their relationship, I often find that they are practicing a thing I call the, “But You War”. When one criticizes the other, the response is, “But you do that too”, or “But look at what you do”. It becomes a gun battle with out resolution. Both eventually walk away wounded. This seems to be what we are experiencing in America. Each side of whatever polarization they are experiencing, tries to justify their actions by pointing out the flaws in the other. No one stops to ask if there is any fallacy in their own views. The war is all about maintaining a defense by staying persistently on the offense, never giving an inch to the foe. My task as a therapist is to get the couple to slow down their assaults and begin to just listen, not necessarily agree, but certainly hear the other’s words.
This process is not easy. Often, I have to be the medium through which they speak until, hopefully, they gain enough courage and emotional maturity to listen and speak directly to each other.
I do believe our size and diversity in America could be marshaled to find answers to the many challenges we are currently facing. This will take leadership at all levels of our society to get us listening to each other without having to immediately defend ourselves. Just as in couples counseling, we need leaders who can help us get out of the, “But You War”.
At this point, dear reader, you may be asking how the title and subtitle of this essay relates to what you’ve read so far. The truthful answer is, “It does, kinda, sorta”. You see, I started out thinking I was going to write a humorous piece about the time when my new love, now my wonderful wife, and I were doing a photographic project of the rooftops of Manhattan. We were living on 81st and Columbus in a beautiful, if somewhat dusty, sublet on the top floor. We had an unrestricted view all the way down to Central Park South and beyond on a clear summer night. We had many adventures living there and perhaps I will share some in a later essay.
In our neighborhood, just about anything one needed to sustain life could be found including a laundry and dry-cleaning shop. The laundry we utilized was run by an elderly couple who spoke with a decidedly Eastern-European, Polish accent. The first day I brought clothes to them they asked my name for the receipt they were making for me. I told them, “Bruce King”.
“Ah, Mester Bruski, so good to meet you”! From then on, whenever I would enter their shop, I would be greeted with a hearty, “Welcome Mester Bruski!” They would periodically try to speak Polish to me. I would usually just smile and pretend that I more or less understood.
I was proud to have been made an honorary Pole. These were honest, hardworking Americans. They didn’t look at me and see how I was different from them. They accepted me as I was. We were Pole-erized in the way I wish all Americans could be: accepting that we have a great deal more in common than we have differences. Maybe we could finally end our Civil War.
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