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A Last Hope for our Democracy?

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It seems to me we've come to a place where there is no point in further arguing with each other over Iraq, Iran, terrorism, government spying, corporate power, civil liberties, oil, our standing in the world and so on. To be sure, the urgency of these matters is of the absolute highest order. It's just that most of us have long since settled into one of two opposing camps catering to fundamentally different worldviews. Maybe, like me, you've found yourself getting weary of going-nowhere remonstrations with friends, family, neighbors, even strangers. It's exasperating, no matter which side you're arguing from. There is simply no common premise to argue from anymore. The dialogue is over.

In one view, the world is a dangerous place because there are bad people "out there" who must be destroyed and until that happens we need to fall into line behind a strong leader. In this worldview, based on the idea of inherent personal qualities such as good and evil, loyalty and disloyalty, crises are responded to in personal terms such as "blame" and "punishment". If someone punches you, you punch back without asking questions and you punish anyone who doesn't help you with the punching. Democratic ideals and civil liberties are peacetime luxuries we cannot afford to hold onto right now.

In the other view, the world is indeed a dangerous place; however, in this view we are not merely victims of "bad guys" but instead active participants in the process of abetting or resolving a given conflict. In this worldview, based on the ideas of choices and their consequences, crises are handled in behavioral terms such as "contributing factors" and "problem solving". Understanding the origins of a conflict and getting engaged early on enables us to take wise action to peacefully defuse a volatile situation before it blows up in our faces.

Two worldviews. Each leading to radically different and fundamentally irreconcilable ideas about what we should do in a given crisis. Each worldview becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you come out guns a-blazing because you expect the world to be a violent place, you will find the world to be a violent place; if you pursue non-violent solutions, you will find the world to be a generally cooperative place. The point is, there is no point in trying to "prove" you're right. We're all right. We get the worlds we expect.

But can we continue this way, with a fault line running right down the middles of families, friends and neighbors? Can half of America remain at furious loggerheads with the other half? Can we continue as two nations in one country?

Maybe, but I don't think so. As long as there is a healthy spectrum of opinions and dialogue, America can make incremental course corrections and deal with virtually any challenge from within or from without. But when we've become perfectly polarized into two warring camps more concerned with winning than surviving, we have a dangerously unstable situation where we cannot respond effectively to any crisis.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "A house divided against itself cannot stand".

Like two men in a horse suit pulling in wildly different directions without regard to the other, we are stumbling and bumbling toward a future of war, bottomless debt, jobs sent overseas, decimation of the middle class, poverty, scarcity of basic healthcare and other services, suspension of civil liberties and, for our nation as a whole, second-class status in the world.

Personally, I really like our life in America and all the good things we have, both material and societal. I don't want these splendid legacies torn from our grasp. So I would like to suggest a path out of this morass. It begins with common ground.

Regardless of your politics or my politics, we simply must find some common ground so we can start rebuilding our nation. On this I think - I hope - we can all agree.

Is there any common ground left? I think there is. If we look just a little below the surface, I think it will reveal itself to be the desire for national unity and the recognition that unity is the sine qua non for tackling any and all problems we face.

But we need to be careful: There are two paths to unity. One of them leads to hell.

The first is simple: force everyone to conform to the one, "correct" worldview (you're either "with us" or "against us"). Though dividing people this way may afford power to the divider, it is an unstable arrangement and has never in history survived for very long. Leaders who use divisiveness to catapult themselves into power eventually discover they need to apply escalating levels of brutality to maintain the status quo.

I remember a poignant line from the magnificent film, "Sophie Scholl: Die Letzten Tagen (The Final Days)" where the eponymous Sophie Scholl, courageous co-founder of the renowned resistance group inside Nazi Germany known as The White Rose is confronted by her interrogator after her arrest for distributing leaflets questioning the sanity of "Total War" as their leaders called it. Exasperated, he finally pounds the desk and screams, "Why can't you just think and feel like we do!?" Unwilling to recant their views, she and her colleagues are tried and summarily executed -- just few short weeks before the Allies dealt the final death blow to that unhappy regime.

So remember, every time you point to another American and call him or her unpatriotic for being conservative, liberal, red state, blue state, whatever - you are acting out a script perfected by tyrants.

In contrast, the second path to unity is the path of inclusion, of diversity, listening, accommodation, consensus. Leaders who take this path surely take the more difficult one, but it is the path of true strength. The names Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King come to mind.

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Bruce Toien is a database designer/developer in the Portland, Oregon area, with an interest in the interaction between technology, society and a sustainable economy. Over the years, Bruce has published numerous opinion pieces relating to these (more...)
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