Right now I cannot honestly say I am proud to be an American. This is an extreme statement, particularly from someone who always votes, pays taxes, and inevitably chokes up a bit during the national anthem. But after reading the online comments posted in response to a CNN article about the most recent Presidential debates, I was left with an intensely bitter taste in my mouth: I believe it is disgust.
The banter in the comments went back and forth, soon deteriorating into a mud slinging, name calling, swearing mess wherein attacks were launched at the other person’s: political party, intelligence, religion, state of origin, mother, or all of the above. The chanting, all caps, and exclamation marks recalled the songs of high school cheerleaders: “OBAMA OBAMA OooooooooBAMA!!!!!!”
Last night on national television I watched two grown men behaving like testosterone-saturated teens, circling each other as they sparred, contradicted, blamed, and condemned each other as liars. At several points I watched with the same sick sensation you feel during an episode of Jerry Springer, when you know it’s going to get a bit revolting, but you can’t quite drag your eyes away.
This debate followed last week’s vice-presidential debate where the best question of the whole election was tidily sidestepped and ignored. Moderator Martha Raddatz quoted a soldier who said this presidential campaign has focused on tearing the opponent down rather than building up the nation. She asked: “At the end of the day, are you ever embarrassed by the tone?”
Biden responded marginally to the question, acknowledging that “some” sources in the election may have overstepped their bounds, before hastily reverting back to the topic of the economy, while Ryan blamed Obama for all the blaming that has gone on (ironic a tad?) and then promptly returned to slandering Obama’s economic policies to fill the remainder of his time.
But the ignored question is perhaps the most pertinent of all. Should we as Americans feel embarrassed by the tone of these elections? Is it possible, when so much power and money and prestige is on the line, to even entertain the idea that such a discussion could happen respectfully? Would it be inconceivable that we might have an honest conversation about the best course of action for our country, without turning the whole thing into a sporting event where the other “team” is characterized as ridiculous, malicious, and even evil?
This has been a unique election for me personally. I was raised Mormon in a politically conservative household and my father worked with Mitt Romney for several years. My father has tremendous respect for Romney both as a person and as a businessman and feels his financial expertise would serve our country well at this time. On the other hand, I remain undecided. I voted for Obama four years ago and feel that in many ways he has done a fantastic job. He is an inspiring, articulate leader who moves me deeply and represents us well on the international stage. For the first time since I have been able to vote, I feel both options have genuine advantages. I also have close friends and colleagues on both sides of the political spectrum, and I guess this is precisely why the bitter, accusatory tone of these elections has been so hard to swallow.
Years ago I spent six months living in east Jerusalem. As an American student, I was able to travel freely between Israel and occupied Palestine. I came to know and admire both cultures, forming meaningful friendships on both sides. And the thing that distressed me most, was that every time I travelled between the two areas I was warned by both: “Be careful over there. Those people are_____.” You can fill in the blank. “They are dangerous. They are evil. They are dirty. They are dishonest. They will steal from you. Hurt you. Take advantage of you. They are not good or kind or friendly. Like we are.”
What is it about human nature that must find someone else to categorize as “other?” –as separate and distinct from oneself and therefore less? I am sick of Republicans calling Democrats crazy liberals who care more about polar bears than babies. And I’m equally sick of Democrats calling Republicans deluded religious fanatics who want to abandon the poor.
The honest truth is that there are genuinely good people on every side of every line you can draw on this earth. And perhaps the most dangerous, divisive weapon humanity holds is an inclination to define a group of people as “other,” and thereby justify treating them as less. That spirit of divisiveness is almost always the true culprit behind war and poverty and genocide, wielded by dictators and bullies alike. It negatively impacts this nation by forcing us to choose between “camps” rather than among complex positions. If we have to define ourselves as either Democrats or Republicans, we collectively lose the opportunity to choose between the best of both political spheres, subjugating the moderate majority to more extreme elements.
Even more disturbingly, divisiveness renders problem solving impossible because issues become so polarizing that friends and family, who care deeply about each other, no longer feel they can actually talk about the most pressing issues with those whose opinions matter the most.
There are crucial difficulties facing this nation today. Resolving them is going to require immense effort from both sides of every line that divides us. If we can’t put party politics aside and come together as Americans at the coffee shops and kitchen tables and campuses of this country, then how can we possibly expect our politicians to do what we cannot?
If we really want a bi-partisan America, then let it begin in the streets and on the blogs, and let it begin with a desire to see “others” as part of the whole, part of humanity, and part of this country—deeply connected to ourselves and our future, and yes, perhaps worthy of a little respect.