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Progress Shouldn’t Lead To Polarization

There is an advantage to being elderly:  I have had the opportunity to see a lot of progress.  I have often said that in my life time more change has occurred than the rest of history combined.  It is important that we, as individuals as well as society in general, keep pace with progress.

One of the downsides of progress is that groups can move to isolate themselves and identify only with those of like mind.  If we think back it becomes obvious.  In the 1960s many stood in strong opposition to the Vietnam War and to the Civil Rights Act.  So virulent became the opposition that violence displaced common sense and fairness.

I was in the Army during Vietnam and saw first-hand how shabbily returning combat veterans were treated, as if the war were somehow their fault.  The anti-war faction had become so polarized they lost sight of how wrong-headed was their treatment of returning soldiers. We have made progress since then. The Veterans Day celebrations last Sunday honored all those who served regardless of public opinion about the rightness of the war.

Had I been a young Black man in the 1960s I suspect I would have been a follower of Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael.  So extreme was the reaction to the obvious rightness of the Civil Rights Act that many were driven to violence.  Polarization had taken place and, although understandable, it stood in the way of progress. Since those dark years of the civil rights struggles we have made notable strides but there is much left to do as witnessed by a few unfortunate incidents on the night of the election.

The problems of polarization were certainly in the fore on last Wednesday morning when Mitt Romney had to deliver his concession speech, which he had not written in advance, according to reports.  So confident were those on his side of the aisle that many Republicans seem genuinely shocked.  In the campaign women, Blacks, gays and lesbians, Hispanics, Asians, and the 47% of the electorate who are deadbeats and victims had managed to be upset by Republican rhetoric.

That reminds me of a closing line in the comedy act of Mort Sahl:  “Is there anyone here I haven’t offended?”  The Democrats seized that opportunity and turned out the vote with a very efficient ground game which peaked on Election Day.  The only issue that made the election close was the universal concern about the economy.  Had it not been for that, the Republicans would have lost by a landslide.  On the other hand, had those groups not felt disenfranchised, The Democrats would have been dead and buried because of the sluggish economy.

One thing polarization will do is convince the adherents to a point of view that they are totally in the right.  Listen to what Mary Matalin wrote on November 7 in National Review Online: “What happened? A political narcissistic sociopath leveraged fear and ignorance with a campaign marked by mendacity and malice rather than a mandate for resurgence and reform. Instead of using his high office to articulate a vision for our future, Obama used it as a vehicle for character assassination, replete with unrelenting and destructive distortion, derision, and division.”

Oh, how I wish I were an English professor; here is an example of purple prose complicated by malignant alliteration.  But the point is that in the face of such polarization there is no room for reasoned thinking.

Unless those in power and positions of influence can come to abandon the absolute rightness of their views, there is little hope for the progress needed to guide our country through the recurring crises of governing.  Gridlock will continue.

Here’s a practical starting point for Congress:  Instead of polarizing yourselves by sitting together as a party, why not draw straws for random seating?  At least the lost polarity of a dividing aisle might make progress a little easier.

by Hayden Hollingsworth

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