It will come as no surprise that political discourse in our country has reached rock-bottom. Insult, fear-mongering and incendiary language designed to whip-up the base and cast the opponent as the personification of evil appear the order of the day. The enemy is at the gate, and all stops must be taken to defeat it and assure its misguided and dangerous ideas are eradicated from whatever tool chest of policy options decision-makers have available.
The Senate’s impending impeachment trial, and the countdown to the upcoming 2020 presidential election will only amplify the bitterness of discourse. One side is sure to muse about possible slippage into the cult of personality and the risk of fascism, and the other slippage into socialism and eventual destruction of the entire American way of life.
Our divisiveness might be driven by America’s struggle to come to terms with certain cultural, complexion and economic changes unfolding over the past decades. The significance of these is magnified by the echo-chambering that accompanies online connectivity. Those with whom we disagree are characterized as unhinged and lawless threats to our constitutional democracy, or untrustworthy, disloyal and dangerous enemies of the people.
Politically charged recriminations surrounding crises, like the current one with Iran and Iraq, only facilitate deepening the rift.
This makes me reflect on a plaque I saw at the Kohima War Memorial in the gardens of York Minister cathedral in the north of England when recently visiting on an extended trip to the United Kingdom. Dedicated to members of a revered and ancient British military division that gave its last full measure in a World War II battle, it reads: “When you go home tell them of us and say ‘For your tomorrow we gave our today.’ ”
The years have made me sentimental, but I could not help feel tears begin to well in my eyes with recognition of how critically important it is that we never lose sight of that profound directive.
We hear now — and will continue to hear as the days and weeks of the new year — much from, as they say, the sunshine soldier and fair weather patriot (or dare I say, the self-aggrandizing partisan political pundits and the talking-heads) on both sides of America’s political divide. Yet is there any doubt that those who made the ultimate sacrifice would be utterly disgusted and thoroughly repelled by the incivility and intolerance evidenced in today’s political discourse?
Only a completely unthinking and righteous ideologue could possibly believe the war memorial’s valiant souls spilled their last drop of blood so that our “tomorrow” could be exemplified by a civic and political environment that fertilizes seeds which threaten to render asunder all they gave their “today” to protect.
With the new year, my wish is a simple one. It does not aim for some naïve, Pollyannaish idea that we can all sing from the same political hymnal. For with different eyes, we are all to see the issues that confront America and the world in a different light. Instead, I wish for a change in the attitude with which we engage each other.
With the exception of media darlings who profit monetarily or in notoriety from the rhetoric of division, I believe we benefit most from an environment where we strive to build each other up, rather than tear each other down.
Strong beliefs can be strongly held. Yet there should be more focus on hearing each other than on being heard; more attention given to opening up our own head and trying to understand why our neighbor sees things as they do than on persuading them of the error of their ways.
Self-reflection and a willingness for constant reconsideration should be the precepts by which we live. When we approach each other without disdain, yield to the belief that those we encounter share our own desire for civic advancement, remain open to seeing the world as it really is, and, thus, having our mind changed, we honor the memory of those who have given their life to protect our freedom, and we reject the idolatry of tribalism.
Political engagement is an unavoidably messy business. We do not need to make it even more so by swearing allegiance to a catechism of intolerance from team liberal or team conservative.
Rex J. Zedalis, professor emeritus, served on the law school faculty of the University of Tulsa 1981-2019. He is retired to Placitas, New Mexico.