Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Working in Absolutes is Absolutely Killing This Country

In 2000, Saturday Night Live aired a skit based on the premise that Al Gore and George W. Bush were essentially the same Presidential candidate. The skit is not noteworthy because it was funny; it is noteworthy because we had nothing to argue about.

It feels like 2000 took place 50 years ago. It is impossible for Republicans and Democrats – conservatives and liberals – to agree. Our culture has become so toxic in the past decade, driven by the War in Iraq, a crumbling economy and the first black President.

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Our culture reached its nadir in the past week following the fallout from a Missouri grand jury's decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the death of Mike Brown. The entire country again divided itself to extremes.

Brown was an unarmed teen gunned down in cold blood or a violent thug criminal who got what he deserved. Wilson was a heroic policeman doing his duty as an American patriot or a racist predisposed to shoot on sight based on stereotypes.

In the aftermath, the hundreds of black teens that gathered in Ferguson were labeled as protestors or looters – the description depended on your point of view.

Without any voices occupying the middle, it has been a low point for our society. To say we've lost the plot is a polite understatement. On Sunday, five St. Louis Rams players showed solidarity with protesters by emulating the “Hands Up, Don't Shoot” pose. On cue, it has become fodder for social media and cable news for another 24 hours as we move further and further away from any true, meaningful change.

To wit: the St. Louis County police department and the St. Louis Rams are in a digital war of words and, man, if that isn’t the saddest thing I’ve had to write in a while.

Whether you side with Officer Wilson or side with Mike Brown's family, the end goal should be to ensure we don't have unarmed teenagers dying in broad daylight in the middle of the street. That should disgust everyone on a very human level. Instead, it has become merely another talking point for more and more political “debate.”

I put “debate” in quotes because there is no debate going on in this country. All anyone does is consume the news they want to read, remember the facts that prove their point and pound the living hell out of them to any and every one.

Now, this is the part where I'm supposed to point the blame on social media, or the Internet, or Fox News, or MSNBC, or journalism, or bloggers, or, well, you get the point. There appears to be this bizarre fascination with blaming technology for the cause of our problems.

We are the problem, myself included. The problem is we can't stop listening to and giving credence to the lunatic fringe on both sides. An even bigger problem is neither side can admit they have a lunatic fringe, even as they creep closer to them on a daily basis.

The lunatic fringe has always existed, though it took different forms. The Internet has been around for two decades but its ugliness has only increased in recent years. Social media has been around for close to a decade but only in recent months has Twitter turned into a veritable volcano of hate spewing from seemingly everywhere.

How did we get to this point? How did we reach a point where a 12-year old child is killed by a cop in Cleveland and many rush to choose sides? Shouldn't we all be on the same side – the side where children are not killed by police officers on playgrounds?

It is far too simplistic to blame social media or Fox News for the hatred bubbling to the surface in society because it's always been there. When I worked as a daily newspaper reporter in eastern Connecticut, I was confronted by many who were either racist or homophobic or worse. They wrote letters to the editors. They wrote letters to me. They made their points clear. But we ignored them. And many others did too. We did not give them the satisfaction of our disapproval.

Today, there is no ignoring the lunatics because the lunatics attract page clicks and followers and television viewers. It's become clear to those in charge that the more extreme you get, the more people will listen – whether they agree with you or not. It has moved beyond humorous and into dangerous territory as the shockingly low turnout of the voting public means these lunatics make their way into office. Is it any wonder that our government has essentially done nothing for six years?

In football, the most popular player on the team is the backup quarterback. He never plays, so you can allow yourself moments of fancy to imagine how great he could be. Here in the District, we saw that play out with Kirk Cousins, who was lauded by many as the future of the team until an RG3 injury meant he actually had to play. Surprise, surprise, Kirk Cousins wasn't the answer.

For the past six years, Republicans and conservatives have been our nation's backup quarterback and they have rallied support by demeaning and denouncing the starter. Having lost control of Congress, you can be assured Democrats and liberals will run that same playbook for the next two years.

Every issue has become a stand-off without a middle ground. It's ruining our country and no one seems to give a shit, because it's all about talking points and winning. 

I thought Officer Wilson should have gone to trial. If he was acting in self-defense, as he claims, than it would have been proven in the courts. So it sickened and disgusted me to read people celebrating the result, just as they celebrated the exoneration of George Zimmerman. Have these people lost all decency?

This country is splitting apart at the seams and is crying out for a leader. But how can one emerge? There was hope – a word has lost all meaning – when Barack Obama swept to power in 2008 with a hopeful, powerful message of, “Yes, We Can.”

Instead, we can't. Obama was not the skilled politician necessary to deftly extend his hand across the aisle and the bitterness escalated.

There is little hope for a new leader to emerge because our political parties and institution refuse to promote new blood, leaving us with a string of retreads. Does Al Sharpton need to be at the forefront of every racial controversy? Can conservatives trot out anyone who does not regular appear on Fox News to be their voice? Could the 2016 Presidential election actually devolve to Hilary Clinton and Mitt Romney? Is this the end?

When I started writing this piece, I wanted to end with a call to action – a reason to believe in the good of our nation and our country. I wanted to share why I think we can be great again. I don’t like to be a liar.

That leader may be out there but we haven't identified who he or she is yet. We are a country wallowing in despair because we can't put the good of many ahead of our own steadfast belief in ourselves.

Technology has only brought out the worst in us. Why can’t it bring out the best in us? 

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