Commentary: Lock and load: There are infidels among us!
Posted: 5:54 pm Thu, October 25, 2012
As we get closer and closer to a vote on the constitutional amendments to define marriage as a civil institution and to require a photo ID in order to vote, I feel that our social fabric is tearing itself more apart. Friends and neighbors don’t just discuss these proposals; they become agitated, even enraged, at the effrontery of the “other” side of the issue. Many people I run into just turn themselves away from the politics of these issues. It’s as if we were at sword’s point over religious differences.
This reciprocal alienation not only continues the cultural polarization that has come upon America in recent decades but intensifies it perhaps beyond repair. We Americans may be losing all of our civic virtue and so, in the future, our republic.
We have gone beyond policy disagreements to enter the stage of antagonism where those opposed to our ideas personify bad faith and corrosive intent. They have become infidels, and we feel self-righteously called to deny them the right hand of fellowship and to wipe them out politically. They have no claim to our good will or to our compassion and understanding.
More and more Americans are moving to a political stance where those who oppose our views on marriage or voter IDs are taken for “bad people” with whom no civil dialogue is needed or is even possible. We are separating into tribes where the “other” is presumed to be hostile and in need of either conversion or subjugation.
Consider President Barack Obama’s “dissing” of former Gov. Mitt Romney in last week’s debate. The president led off his performance saying “Gov. Romney’s says he’s got a five-point plan? Gov. Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That’s been his philosophy in the private sector; that’s been his philosophy as governor; that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.”
According to the president, Romney also likes a world where “you can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.”
In other words, Romney is an inherently bad person not to be trusted or listened to.
The Republican right for several years now has been similarly dire in its rejection of Obama. He has been portrayed as a “European,” a “socialist,” an angry Third World intellectual mad at whites.
In other words, he too in his own way is a bad person not to be trusted or listened to or followed.
By so demonizing those we disagree with, we use the generally low road ad hominem debating tactic. We hope to divert our audience away from ideas and reason to fear and other more base emotions.
Why have we shrunk to such pettiness these days?
If we are to stop the decay, we need to understand what is nourishing the putrefaction of our political process.
It is, I would say, a simple matter: it is the collapse of trust.
According to the Gallup Organization, in June 2011 these were the percent of Americans who trust key institutions:
Church or organized religion: 48 percent
Medical system: 39 percent
U.S. Supreme Court: 37 percent
Presidency: 35 percent
Public schools: 34 percent
Criminal justice system: 28 percent
Newspapers: 28 percent
Television news: 27 percent
Banks: 23 percent
Organized labor: 21 percent
Big business: 19 percent
Health maintenance organizations: 19 percent
Congress: 12 percent
Not only has our trust in institutions fallen to historic lows, we have also lost the capacity to trust each other. Therefore, we turn away in fear from community, from respecting others, from collaboration. We then seek reasons to justify our feelings of mistrust. A quickly available and easily understood reason is the simple one: “They” are bad people with harmful intentions.
We move from tolerance and cooperation to smear and intransigent stereotyping. Politics breaks down and becomes civil discord. Governance breaks down and the people turn away from their leaders in despair.
The rejection of others that comes with religious fundamentalism has crept too much into our politics. We see the other side as ‘infidels” — people who are a threat to us because they are so irredeemably wrong.
Too many of us have forgotten Martin Buber’s warning. He once famously made a distinction between “I-It” relationships and “I-Thou” relationships.
His “I-It” sensibility tracks our cynical sense for politics and institutions as self-centered manipulation of advantage while his “I-Thou” perceptions of what really “is” far better track our aspirations for ethics and a transcendent moral sense. The world of “Thou” is a reality in which we share without being able to appropriate it exclusively for ourselves. The self-willed person, unopened to relationships, cannot meet the “Thou” and is condemned to the fear and sadness mandated by the fateful powers that drive the world of “It.”
According to Buber, “in times of sickness it comes about that the world of ‘It,’ no longer penetrated and fructified by the inflowing world of ‘Thou’ as by living streams but separated and stagnant, a gigantic ghost of the fens, overpowers man … If a culture ceases to be centered in the living and continually renewed relational event, then it hardens into the world of ‘It.’”
When we place ourselves in an “I-It” relationship, we objectify the other as a thing, distant, open for exploitation, something we can crush without consequences. “I-It” relationships lead easily to conflict and war. There is no reciprocity, no mutuality, little collaboration when the other has no claim on our moral sense.
But if we put ourselves into an “I-Thou” relationship, our psychological, cultural, social, political, interpersonal situations take on a very different and more constructive character. We see in the other something of ourselves or something of a transcendent value. They too have a claim on our moral sense. We are in community with them, even if we don’t like them that much or don’t agree with them at all.
In recent decades, as we less and less trust our institutions — the world of “It” — we have also lost the capacity to rise about the world of “It” so our cynicism and our insecurities intensify and we seek scapegoats for our perceived sense of misalignment with power.
Trust comes when we dare to put ourselves in “I-Thou” relationships.
A version of this column originally appeared in Saint Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report, sister publication to The Daily Record.