The Centre Cannot Hold

According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”  The chasm is exhibited in more than just politics, although the divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.  In a report issued on June 12, 2014, the Center made the following observation.

Partisan animosity has increased substantially over the same period. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

America seems to be the land of extremes. The labels employed so frequently in public discourse are usually an indictment and a stamp of extreme disapproval: right wing, left wing, socialist, capitalist, communist, opponent, liar, criminal, idiot, moron, etc. We are either desperately searching for the next word or deed that will offend us or someone else, or we are so self-absorbed that we care nothing about those outside our circle of friends and supporters. The polarization is crippling. There is no room for compromise but only intense fear that any concession will result in a quick trip down the proverbial slippery slope. Common ground is gone; there are only camps. An opinion or policy is either right or wrong, not worthy of thoughtful consideration or discussion. There are no intentions of improving on an idea or a plan; either reject any suggestions or scrap it altogether. Considering a different path along the same trajectory is out of the question; only the opposite direction is acceptable.

As much as I dislike doom and gloom forecasts based on the current political climate, I am nevertheless disheartened by what appears to be the disappearance of an ideological center in America.  So many issues now divide us as a population: abortion, immigration, terrorism, gun violence, the economy, same-sex marriage, etc.  Interestingly enough, the research indicates that Democrats are becoming more liberal at a faster rate than Republicans are becoming more conservative (many of my friends would disagree with this finding).  A third political party that poses a platform blending hot-button items into some semblance of a synthesis has very little chance of succeeding.  The viability of a third party of any kind is almost inconceivable, including the Libertarian Party.

America has a colorful history of political antagonism, even to the point of violence.  The Civil War makes the current political waters seem relatively calm by comparison.  Yet looking back at the first half of the 20th century when America went through two world wars, it seems that members of those generations had the ability to put their differences aside to concentrate on greater problems. Even during the Reagan administration, when I started paying attention to politics, the divisions didn’t seem as deep as they are now.  Sadly, the spirit of cohesion and reconciliation that followed an event as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was short lived.  Hostility almost seems to be equally directed internally and externally.

I know that round-the-clock news coverage from so many sources has certainly heightened awareness of the national debates, and social media sites are breeding grounds for vitriolic memes and declarations that serve to further divide people on a wide variety of issues, from 2nd Amendment rights to welfare reform.  The spectacular, if not outrageous,  Presidential campaign underway now obviously is bringing a tremendous amount of tension to the surface, forcing so many of us to dive deeper into our tribal nature and choose sides.  I am reminded of the familiar lines from the poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .

Perhaps our enemies don’t really need to attack us at all; they just need to be patient, and wait.

The Sky Is Falling

World leaders are meeting for the next week or so in Paris to discuss ways in which the major countries around the globe can reduce carbon emissions in hopes of warding off catastrophic effects from global warming.  How serious this problem is has become a topic of “heated” debate in this country, just like almost everything else, from Starbucks holiday coffee cups to Syrian refugees coming to America.  A handful of scientists (about 3% worldwide) are not convinced that the current climate changes we are experiencing are caused by human activity, which is all the evidence needed to call the whole idea a scam by a growing minority of people in this country who completely distrust any message coming from the federal government or the research of individuals, institutions, agencies, and organizations funded by federal tax dollars.  They are convinced that restrictions imposed by governments due to climate change will result in onerous taxes, economic ruin, burdensome regulations, dictatorial bureaucrats, and higher energy costs.

It would appear that the denial of climate change issues has moved into the realm of conspiracy theory.  Some of my friends argue that scientists are lying and falsifying data to appeal to liberal policy makers who pay them and who seek even further control over our lives and property.  They point to the changes in terminology — moving away from phrases like global warming and toward phrases like climate change — as an indication that the science is not solid and that climatologists are not to be trusted.   Here’s a flash.  What we are seeing around the planet IS global warming, but we have folks who can’t understand that global warming is NOT a term to describe weather.  There is a difference between climate and weather, so the vocabulary was modified in an attempt to increase understanding about the problem, which obviously failed.

Frankly, I don’t feel qualified to speak too much about climate change from a scientific standpoint, so I have to trust the consensus of opinion of the majority of climatologists around the world, just like I feel compelled to trust the vast majority of doctors who believe immunization is more helpful than harmful. I could list many other examples. I can remember a time when conservatives thought that recycling was a trick on dumb liberals, that is, until they discovered there is plenty of money to be made in the recycling business. Then it became desirable. I suspect we will eventually see this same pattern evolve with the reduction of carbon emissions, sustainable energy sources, and other similar initiatives.  I believe in being skeptical, but skepticism on the level of global scientific opinion of such a large majority seems unreasonable.

Christianity Is Alive and Kicking in the U.S.

The latest crusade to save Christians from persecution in the United States is now focused on Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples according to the law as defined by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.  She was eventually found in contempt because of her continued refusal to obey the law and carry out her responsibilities as an officer of the court based on her religious beliefs, nor would she allow her employees to issue licenses with her signature, which is required.  Rather than comply or step down from her position, she stood her ground and was arrested and jailed on contempt charges.

First of all, I can’t imagine how unfulfilled Ms. Davis’s life must be to go through with this defiant stance against the State of Kentucky and ultimately the Supreme Court.  Her actions seem to be that of a self-imposed martyr.  Given her past personal relationships that have been broadcast for all to read about over the last week or so, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  In some ways, she is a bit pathetic.  Apparently, she is convinced that this is indeed what Jesus would do, because Jesus didn’t like same-sex marriage.  Of course, there is no hint that Jesus ever said anything negative about homosexuality, but there are plenty of passages condemning it in the Old Testament and several in the New.  That’s all Kim Davis and millions of other Christians need to know.  If attention is what she needed, she certainly succeeded in getting it.  And she is returning the favor to someone who needs it even worse and is very vocally supportive of her actions: Mike Huckabee, a minister and also a Republican candidate for President, who can’t get the media’s attention because EVERYBODY is waiting to hear the next outrageous phrase coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth, who is the current top contender for the White House for the Republicans.  Yes, we are all in shock.  I don’t know a fiction writer today with enough imagination to come up with something this rich.

Evangelicals across the nation are crying out again that there is a war on Christianity.  Religious liberties are at stake.  The liberals are forcing the silent majority to conform to the sinful culture of a nation that is turning its back on God.  They claim that Kim Davis has been thrown in jail simply because of her faith, and before long, it will happen to all Christians.  Really?  Does Ms. Davis’s refusal to carry out her duties as a government official not warrant repercussions, such as arrest (she is an elected official, and therefore cannot simply be terminated — she must resign or be impeached)?  Southern Baptists who were completely against drinking alcohol routinely issued liquor licenses to businesses in their counties and municipalities in their capacity as public officials. And speaking from experience, I can testify that it is difficult to find a more conservative religious person with deeper convictions than a Southern Baptist.  Apparently, serving or drinking booze does not offend God as much as two men who are in love and want to get married.

So how oppressed are Christians in America?  Are they indeed in danger for expressing their beliefs?  Is the government trying to stamp out Christianity and move toward a totalitarian secular society?  If the entertainment industry is representative of the cultural landscape, and I think it is, then Christians can relax.  The faith-based movie, “The War Room,” is the top box office hit this week, and it isn’t being banned or boycotted anywhere that I have seen. It follows the success of another Christian movie last year, “Heaven Is Real.” Both movies were released by mainstream Hollywood studios. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled them unconstitutional. The President hasn’t issued an executive order shutting down theaters showing them. No one is going to jail for showing them or watching them. In fact, this latest one is taking the nation by storm. So for those who constantly preach about the war on Christianity in this country, please rest assured that your faith is alive and well and still one of the most influential forces in our society, for better or worse.

Facebook Reality Check

Facebook is a remarkable virtual place for people to share an almost infinite array of information about themselves, their families, their friends, their activities, opinions, wishes, hopes, dreams, beliefs, fears, faith, political views . . . the list is almost endless. However, if we are looking for a balanced snapshot of how the world is “supposed to be,” or if we’re even expecting accuracy as far as news and information is concerned, we really need to look elsewhere (and good luck finding those ANYWHERE). In that respect, the most we can hope for with Facebook is the flavor of the day — the issue or story that has captured the imagination of a lot of people for a brief moment. This week it may be a dead lion, last week it may have been the death of a jailed black woman, the week before that it may have been photos from a spacecraft leaving the solar system, and before that it may have been Planned Parenthood, and before that it may have been a battle flag from a lost war a long time ago. A year ago, Facebook was filled with folks pouring ice and water on their heads as a fundraising challenge. Five years ago it was all about the World Cup. I think we just have to take Facebook for what it really is: the dominant social media platform on the planet (I suppose) — sometimes a landfill, but sometimes a treasure chest. And those of us who have Facebook profiles can never lose sight of the fact that the advertisers are Facebook’s customers — we are the product.

Bad News

I’m not quite sure when it happened, but somehow over the last few decades, news has become a commodity that is invented, developed, marketed, and sold much like a sports drink or a hair product.  The transformation seems most apparent in television network and cable news outlets.  It has been argued that the round-the-clock cable news companies completely changed the way the public thinks about information and how it is delivered.  And then there is the Internet.  Regardless of the origins, so much of our news is now completely consumer driven, and our consumers consist of a whole lot of people who are not so well educated and who crave entertainment.  Sensationalism is entertaining — give ’em what they want!  But what they want is certainly not what we all need to be truly informed.

Americans who get their news from the mainstream sources will likely be able to tell you how many people died in the latest plane crash, the identity of the latest victim kidnapped and/or murdered by ISIS, what Kim Kardashian was wearing at the Grammy Awards, which presidential candidate is ahead in the polls, and how many times a police officer shot an unarmed African-American man yet again.  What they probably won’t be able to tell you is the impact that drought is having on farmers in California that will adversely affect food prices across the country.  It is doubtful they will know anything about the violence raging in Libya and other areas of Africa, which is increasing the number of people fleeing to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.  They will likely be unaware of a new type of blood test that is starting to transform cancer treatment, sparing some patients surgical and needle biopsies.

I’m not trying to unfairly pick on CNN, but they are the leader in world news.  Yet, they have fallen into the sensational trap of providing shallow news.  A quick look at today’s headlines on their website reveals these tasty stories:

  • Johnny Depp’s dogs face deportation or death
  • Ex-NFLer accused of murdering prison cellmate
  • Rock singer discloses mental disorder
  • ‘Simpsons’ stalwart rejects $14M deal

And the top three stories are about the Amtrak train crash, which will probably dominate CNN and the other outlets for several weeks, leaving behind the search for more clues in the German airline crash into the Alps a few weeks ago — old news now.

Checking out other outlets like FOX News, CNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC will result in much the same material.  In addition to giving us bad news, the providers are also constantly trying to test the political, ideological, moral, and religious climate of their viewership.  Since the country is so deeply divided along those lines these days, we find the media organizations making choices about coverage and slanting their editorial content accordingly.  On top of sensationalism, we are also fed a steady diet of partisanship and divisiveness.  This isn’t comprehensive news — it’s very carefully selected information designed to keep the customer happy and coming back for more.  It’s like abandoning fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, and meat for fast food and convenience-store snacks.  Some of like burgers while others like fried chicken, but none of it is very good for us.