In the aftermath of 2016’s brutally vicious campaign, it’s little wonder that Americans remain deeply segmented and suspicious of one another. Trump supporters see evidence everywhere that their candidate was sabotaged – by the current president, by the intelligence community, by the Establishment pols, by the elitist media. Democrats too find endless reasons for despair, from the election of a man on record displaying “textbook racism,” to the defeat of the first major party female presidential nominee. Their beloved President Obama is in danger of having his legacy all but wiped out – Obamacare will go, there will be no Merrick Garland hearing for the Supreme Court, the Dreamers may lose their legal status.
Nowhere is this mutual animosity more glaring than on the Internet.
To wander into the fray of online politics is to enter into a reason-free battlefield. Just today, the hashtag #BLMKidnapping trended on Twitter, never mind that the heinous crime committed in Chicago against a young man with mental health issues was perpetrated by four individuals with no obvious connection to Black Lives Matter. Who cares about facts? Here was a crime racially motivated against a white person; thus, here was an opportunity to profit off a young man’s brutalization, because it could be used as an excuse to demonize a peaceful movement, connecting BLM to what appears to be a hate crime. Grenade: launched. Casualties: unimportant.
This all seems par for the course, now. There is no adult conversation to be had, no moment taken to consider the weight of a story, the meaning of it. Everyone is a spin master, and everything must sync into political dogma, ride the chords prewritten to tell a preferred narrative that is not to be questioned.
In such an environment does a Donald Trump rise. We’ve grown callous and cynical, and thus we don’t mind name-calling. We think our own side might have some problems, but the other side is pretty much drinking puppy blood, so obviously, we’re in the right. So obviously, it’s not that big a deal to mock, mislead, and even (sh!) lie about those evil people, over there.
It feels obscene and hyperbolic to write, but it seems increasingly hard to deny that there’s just a tremendous amount of genuine hate. Loathing emanating from the Right to the Left, from the libs to the cons.
This is not an America that can thrive. This is not what F. Scott Fitzgerald saw in the tender courage of a defiantly hopeful country.
“France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”
“A willingness of the heart.” A willingness to believe in outlandish dreams. A willingness to fight for ideals that everybody else thought only a sucker would fall for. A willingness to believe in the better angels of our nature, to give even strangers the benefit of the doubt.
A willingness of the heart.
I don’t find much evidence of that online, or elsewhere in our media-drenched culture.
The loudest mouth gets the ears and eyeballs, after all. What else could explain a show like Sean Hannity running for seven years? What else gives reason for Rush Limbaugh’s eternal radio domination? These men are seekers of controversy, and find it wholly possible to live 24/7 in a state of rage. They are flame throwers, or to get more hip with it: haters gonna hate.
Even in more professional venues, the principle holds true. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is not beloved for being cautious and measured; she’s a firebrand. She confronted Trump directly, often with his own preferred weapon: the personal insult sling-shot. Sen. Bernie Sanders is admired not so much for his socialism, but for his unapologetic, brash defense of it.
.@realDonaldTrump swindled thousands of students at his sham “Trump University.” That’s not up for debate anymore – that’s a fact.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) November 18, 2016
We are in a decidedly unwilling mood. We are unwilling to believe our country really has something special anymore. (I suggest more travel to less touristy safe spaces.) We are unwilling to accept the limitations of democracy (see: epic disgust with a “do nothing” Congress.) Most of all, we are unwilling to see the other side as fellow human beings, not to mention, fellow Americans. We simply won’t do it.
And I desperately want that to change.
I know the most amazing people who are Democrats. And I know the most amazing people who are Republicans. And one of the traits they have in common with each other is what F. Scott Fitzgerald saw was the deep signifier of America:
A willingness of the heart.
They put up with me, even though I argue with them. They are friends with one another, and they recognize that we are all in this together. They acknowledge the hard and complicated truth, that the other person is not malicious or cruel, but has tried to come to the best solution, and that solution happens to be one they wholeheartedly disagree with.
This is the abiding friendship between a Justice Alito and a Justice Ginsburg. It’s the camaraderie between President Obama and Rep. John Boehner. It’s the deeper human connection that sees politics for what it is: transient, slippery, utterly temporal.
And what I wonder is this: are we now unable to put politics aside because we are less capable of forging those sturdier roots of connection? Are we so accustomed to being alone online that we cannot imagine the hard work of physical togetherness, the work that reaps forever friendships, that forges binds between souls?
That is the essence of a heart’s willingness to go and fight and maybe even die for an idea.
If we cannot return to that kind of disposition, the one that prefers gritty and true over sleek and curated and at least partly false, then I fear the nastiness of online commentary is not the peak of our culture’s crisis. I fear it is only the beginning.
Image Credit: Tim Gauw/Unsplash