We live in a polarized world. NPR had an article the other day about how many issues the country seems to divide about 50/50 on. It makes for an environment where it can be difficult to see a way forward.
Part of the issue--a big part, I think--is that we have evolved a media model where people get their news from television, and only controversy and spectacle gets covered there. Sometimes the spectacle is real and unavoidable; think the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan. But so much of our news coverage seems invented to garner an audience, and an audience that has been weaned on controversy at that. (I think back to Paul Harvey, who for years loved to find the fringe and outrageous in the news and present this as somehow representative of The World At Large.)
I had a rare political conversation with a coworker the other night in the cockpit. Rare not in that politics came up, but rare in that we had an actual conversation. In very rare circumstances I find I'm working with someone who shares my views--this is maybe a once-a-year occurrence. The other times are divided between guys who speak their very conservative views forcibly and unbidden and, failing to get much of a response from me, the topic dies; and guys who just don't have much to say about politics (though the topic inevitably comes up at some point, and even the politically-taciturn types are almost always of a single stripe).
This guy with whom I flew the other night held the usual views: Obama is ruining the country; Congress specifically and Washington generally need to be nuked; people are working specifically to destroy our nation, etc., etc. When I poke gently at these sores, I find his iron-clad convictions are almost diametrically opposed to mine.
But many of us will tend to cool our fervor if we learn that others are not of a like mind, and what's interesting is that he went on to talk about his general vision of America--and in THAT we were not very far apart at all. And he stated as much: he said he had some very liberal friends, and when they sat and talked they found a large area of overlap. Indeed, as we talked I think he and I also found large areas of overlap (even if we might order them differently): there needs to be a strong national defense; there should be a functional safety net; we should provide stewardship of our planet and its natural resources.
Now, we may diverge sharply again the moment we move from the what to the how, and indeed there is still much of the what that we cannot agree on. He cites the Constitution as the reason there should be no universal health care, and I cannot accept this as valid reasoning; he thinks the federal government needs to get out of education and it be left to the states, and I cannot agree with this; he thinks regulation and government meddling is killing business, and I think big business is effectively unregulated and is getting all its own way, and quite to the detriment of We the People. But the larger lesson remains: that almost all of our national discussion is now occurring by shouting from our entrenched positions over a vast middle ground, a middle ground that we might otherwise be occupying together. He and I agreed that we were not being well served by television news, but he was hesitant to join me in my observation that the big news outlets are corporate-owned and are doing the bidding of those corporations. He agreed with me that our government is now doing the bidding of lobbyists and big money interests, but could not join me in impugning the motives of those interests. Again, I don't know that we're irreparably separated (not that there is ever a chance to build on these conversations).
Surely some of the gulf between my coworkers and me is that we're each working with our own facts. And this, I contend, is the point of failure in our news media, and, by proxy, a failure of the citizenry. My coworker, unusually, expressed a desire to commit himself to plans of action that are actually shown to work. This is, I think, sensible and pragmatic and entirely correct. But partisan news outlets by definition are selling a point of view, and they tend to give us sanitized talking points so that we're often armed for one side of an argument. I tend to get most of my news from NPR and from my Twitter feed of the Associated Press, the New York Times, and a series of other news-related outlets (including a number of liberal blogs). But I contend that NPR and the Times are a very far cry from Fox News, even if they are held as evil by the Fox crowd. There is nothing on Fox--ever--that corresponds to the reasoned search for truth and meaning that characterizes almost all of NPR's programming.
I got a feed item from Rolling Stone about the political blogger Matt Taibbi speaking yesterday at the Occupy Wall St. rally in New York. There wasn't a lot of info there, but there were some pictures of the crowd and of Matt speaking. What I found striking was the sporadic excoriating comments to the article that dismissed Taibbi as being an unworthy journalist. This is to be expected, I suppose, when the subject matter is controversial, and especially when one writes with an incendiary style (as Taibbi does). Taibbi pulls no punches, and his language is what you'd expect to hear from a good (if very well-informed) buddy during a pub conversation.
But mostly I think the rancor is a partisan lashing-out in the face of a damning indictment. Taibbi has written some pretty scathing things about John Boehner and Michelle Bachman and the Tea Party and indeed about the Republican Party in general, but the bulk of his writing and his expertise is in financial matters; and from his book Griftopia and numerous articles that have followed it, every person in this country (in my opinion) should be bloody mad as hell at what the financial services industry have done to us. He may often show a partisan bent (though the Republicans have rarely floated a more fantastically-deficient slate of candidates bent on pursuing a more schizophrenic series of mutually-exclusive goals than we're seeing now), but the crime perpetrated by Wall St. is a crime against all of us, red and blue alike. It's a crime that has occurred through administrations of both parties, and neither party has even hinted at holding anyone accountable (Obama is given no free ride in any of this by Taibbi).
So I quite expect to see hate mail when Taibbi demolishes Michelle Bachmann, but I think the vituperation is misplaced on the subject of Wall St. Chances are the commenters have been as sorely misused as the rest of us, but they're not getting the right facts.
I rode in a crew van a couple days ago where the driver had the local Louisville news playing, and there was coverage of a disruptive Occupy protest in the city which police had broken up and made some arrests. The other pilot in the van had piped up that "all those [Occupy] protesters should be shot." "Yeah, how DARE those sons-a-bitches exercise their First Amendment rights!" I responded. And from this I learned that A) they're all unemployed, and B) THAT (non-) fact should deprive them of their First Amendment rights.
OK, so not all of us are going to shake hands on the middle ground.