We’re told in our youth “change is the only constant.” As we age, we pass that piece of wisdom to our young. With elder perspective, we realize how much lifelong change we’ve adjusted to and how much of it we survived.
I’ve recently been confronted with a need to deal with a couple of significant changes. They’ve caused me to look both deep inside and, quite realistically, outside myself with some starkness I’ve not experienced before. Not about me. About life in general. More specifically, changes in our nation.
Since our founding, change has been a constant. For most of the last 300 years or so, we’ve slowly evolved through crisis after crisis, learning and relearning, adjusting and trying to keep up. For nearly all those years, the process was mostly doable. Whatever the change - peace or war or anything else - we adjusted, modified, eliminated the old ways and evolved into the new information or other realities. Pretty successfully.
Then came the instant communication of the Internet. The world’s learning curve for change went nearly straight up. Time was compressed. Changes - good or bad - now come at warp speed and in multiples so staggering we barely have time to adjust before we’re hit again. Most of us have kept up. Some haven’t. As that’s happened, we’ve experienced a growing communications gap which has, in turn, become a chasm between what really is and what really was. Or perceived as what was.
I believe this accelerated information flow - and the inability of millions of Americans to keep up - underlies many of the growing divisions in our country and has been successfully exploited. Coupled with hate radio/TV, anti-social media, well-paid hate mongers spewing vitriol and unchallenged lies, politicians unfit for public office and ignorant of the real constitutional role government plays in guiding our nation, billionaires buying and selling politicians and wannabe politicians, paying for and spreading divisive public legislation for private gain, our divisions are being exploited.
If you look at any demographic breakdown, those Americans most likely drawn to this destructive stew are older, white, male and with less education. They’re also less likely to have adapted to change and are, instead, clinging to and promoting a past that seems more comfortable to them, if it ever existed. They reject political, social, racial and other rapid changes while refusing to accept or support any information different from what they already “believe.”
Unfortunately, this cutting off of “suspect” societal, political communications or other inputs is not confined to the far right. Many moderates and some liberal folks do the same. I know Rachel Maddow followers who wouldn’t be caught dead tuning in to O’Reilly or Hannity. And they haven’t listened to a Limbaugh or a Coulter for years. So, with daily exposure to only a single viewpoint, knowledgeable communication with others who think differently is lost and the chasm widened.
Another factor of national divisiveness is the loss of the “melting pot” characteristics that existed in this country for a couple hundred years. That’s largely gone now as people of like races, nationalities or religions separate themselves from all others. Or are forced to. We now tend to hold to our differences rather than accept, learn or enjoy the lives, skills and beliefs of people different from ourselves.
Social media is playing a large, new role dividing us. With this unedited flow of information we face daily, there are two factors. One is there are no checks and balances to determine fact from lie. Hardly a day goes by I don’t see an entry that’s false, facts selectively avoided or copy entirely made up. We all see postings that appear as fact which are copied and re-sent so the lie expands in widening circles.
The second social media affect on our division is it offers people of like minds - rational or not - direct contact with each other, feeding only information they accept. Real or not. Again, a closed circuit without benefit of a reality that may be entirely different. Often a few can be regarded as a large group when that’s not really the case. But, again, causing divisiveness and feeding ignorance of other viewpoints.
We’re also becoming less tolerant and accepting. Look at the current irrational rejection of all things Muslim by too many Americans. Politicians wanting religious tests for immigration or allowing only “Christians” entry to our country. “Ship home11-million possibly illegal immigrants already here,” they say. Attacks on places of worship, threatening acts on their private property, ignorant derision in some media for others religious beliefs and practices. You may say that’s not how you feel or not how others you know may feel. But, too many of the folks who do are in elective office. And that’s a large - and divisive - difference.
These factors - and more - cause me to believe we’re in the throes of becoming a country much different from what we’ve known. Not necessarily a better country. But, certainly, much different. More segmented. More prone to violence with each other. Less communicative with people with whom we have differences. Certainly much more angry. A nation of less participation in organized religion or social/fraternal groups which, in the past, provided a social “glue” which helped tie us together. A nation of fewer direct, face-to-face social contacts which further isolates us, one from the other.
I don’t mean to be too dour in all of this. But platitudes (“It’ll all get better” or “It’ll all work itself out” or “We’ve survived thus far”) are meaningless. While we’ve always had factors separating us and we survived, we’re living with real divisions of issues, religions, races, politics and even families all at the same time. Divisions being actively driven by bought-and-paid-for hate-mongers with seemingly unlimited cash backing.
The distrust of government and each other have never been as real or as widely practiced in my four-score years. In too many instances, the electronic umbilical chord tying all of us together is also providing a means of separation we’ve never dealt with before.
I pray I’m wrong. And maybe I am. But, tell me, what meaningful, effective, concrete solutions can you cite being taken by anyone - or any group - to bridge the problems we face? To solve the problems we face. Taken separately, or as a whole, what real and lasting improvements do you see at work? Not what might or might not happen in the future, but now.
I can ask the questions. But I cannot provide realistic answers.
Whatever emerges as a nation in the next decade or two is guaranteed to be something very different.