Recently, I visited the Sunday worship service of the Upper Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which meets in Beach Lake, PA. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that the minister of that congregation is also the publisher of this newspaper.) I was there to watch two of my favorite human beings, Mort Malkin and Christine San Jose, present a brief discussion they titled, “Can These Dis-United States Ever Find Common Ground?”—or, as I jokingly suggested they subtitle the program, “How Much Longer Can We Keep From Shooting Each Other?”
Christine and Mort started with a concise but thorough overview of liberal and conservative agendas, and the many areas where those groups disagree, from military policy to healthcare to social issues. They then searched for underlying values behind those apparent conflicts where the two groups might find some commonality—such as the importance of personal responsibility. Mort pinpointed several issues, including the welfare of children, as places where liberals and conservatives might be able set aside ideological differences and actually accomplish good things. He also noted that, contrary to the idea of Americans always being at loggerheads, there is a strong thread of cooperation running throughout American history and culture, from barn-raisings and town meetings to worker-owned cooperative enterprises. Christine finished up by stressing, in a very eloquent and heartfelt statement, the personal and spiritual aspects of our individual responses to opposition—the need to resist the urge to demonize and belittle those with whom we disagree, and to maintain openness not only of mind, but of heart.
A stimulating and challenging discussion, all in all, but of course we were only scratching the surface. One of the questions that we didn’t touch on was this: why, indeed, to use Rodney King’s famous phrase, “can’t we all just get along?” I’m not talking about never disagreeing, mind you; despite my charter membership in the Kumbaya Liberation Front, even I would not expect that to ever happen. But we should be able to conduct our discussions, air our grievances and critique each other’s ideas without the incendiary and even apocalyptic rhetoric that now characterizes the mainstream of American political discourse.
I was reminded of part of the answer to that question just a couple of days later, coincidentally enough, with the sudden and unexpected death of conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart, who keeled over from a heart attack while walking near his home, at the age of 43. Breitbart was most notorious for his roles in the ACORN scandal (you remember, where a conservative provocateur dressed as a pimp was videotaped trying to get business advice from ACORN staffers) and the Shirley Sherrod controversy, where he edited video of one of Sherrod’s speeches to make it seem that Sherrod, an African-American USDA official, was boasting about discriminating against white farmers.
Breitbart’s stock-in-trade, it seems, was the artificial outrage, the manufactured shock, served up with a side of calculated indignation. He was quite willing—eager in fact—not only to exploit our differences, but to inflame them whenever possible. He was very adept at this, and his “talent” provided him with fame, influence and more than a little bit of money. He did not seem to pay much attention to the possible negative consequences of his stunts for others, or for the American system, but only to the benefits to be gained for himself and his ideology.
And here is the problem: as long as people like Breitbart can make money by fanning the flames of our discontent, and turning Americans against each other and away from each other, we will never have a civil political culture in this country—much less an effective one.