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We Need to Talk

Big media today is all about monetizing the non-conversation of outrage and division and using them to consolidate power. The Limbaughs and Hannitys have been strategically intensifying ginned-up divisions for decades, encouraging an uncivil public square and shredding a shared vision of national purpose that might otherwise surface. Discourse is cheapened by their model of constant interruption and relentless advocacy of one side of an argument, dismissing opposing views with sneering contempt.

The president fits right in. He is unequipped to make the transition from child of the media to mature includer-in-chief. While his superstardom distracts and divides, corporate forces fueled by dark money—weapons, health insurance, big pharma, fossil fuel interests, the NRA—subvert policies that reliable statistics indicate a majority of the public wants.

Polarization within our own country echoes our fears of the “other” beyond our borders, justifying dehumanization and ultimately war itself. It’s easy to slide into mobocracy, as in the shameful recent “send her back” moment. The left is not immune from its own irrationality in its indiscriminate contempt for the “deplorable” right.

Setting aside the refreshing vigor of the initial Democratic debates, reluctance to bring these underlying conflicts of worldview into the light of vigorous dialogue still occurs on many levels.

One under-mentioned issue is the ongoing threat of nuclear war, a topic which almost disappeared in recent presidential election cycles. Setting aside you and me talking more, why aren’t the generals of the nine nuclear powers in permanent dialogue about an arms race hell-bent for apocalypse? Instead, Russia and America are withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, an agreement that worked to greatly lessen superpower tensions.

Leaving the Paris Accords did not help our national conversation about the global climate emergency, nor does the president censoring accurate climate data from government websites.

Add Russian interference in our voting, immigration reform, the epidemics of mass shooting and opioids, the #Me too movement, and achieving health coverage for all, and we have a set of issues crying out for vital dialogue. We’re all Americans, we all want better policy outcomes, and far more unites than divides us. The discipline of inclusion, active listening, and staying open to learning something new isn’t rocket science.

If we give conservatism its due as a prudent understanding that things can always become much worse, and a consequent awareness of the delicate nature of institutions and the need for their careful preservation—including the preservation of the natural world, as in conservation—and if we give progressivismits due as the belief that institutions should be subject to periodic re-evaluation as circumstances evolve—then conservatives and progressives ought to be equally interested in how the other thinks, enabling a vital center.

Bridging the chasm becomes easier when diverse viewpoints encounter each other within a big tent of shared goals. I see this at my local Rotary Club, where men and women firmly on both sides of the political divide work harmoniously toward larger ends such as feeding the hungry or providing help to people who need a hand up to complete professional training. But even in such comfortable settings there is still some inhibition when it comes to open dialogue, a tacit agreement to leave political divergence unaddressed in the name of a brittle accord.

The times are too momentous for us to bite our tongues in the name of a veneer of civility that inhibits the constructive exchange of views. Civility, while necessary, is not sufficient. Civility is a word, like tolerance, which implies a segregated model of live-and-let-live—a kind of self-gerrymandering that foregoes encounters with difference and potential breakthroughs to commonality.

Whether we label ourselves conservative or progressive or something in between, it is hard to envision how we can continue on our present path of racism, militarism, and unsustainability. Our largest challenges, first among equals the climate emergency, are beyond solution by individual nations. A new level of cooperation is required that requires less America first and more Earth first. Let’s talk about how we can help other nations, even adversaries, with floods or droughts or water deprivation. That kind of action could change our conversation with a country like Iran.

Our Declaration opens with the pursuit of happiness. Hannah Arendt observed that we may have misconstrued its meaning. What it seems to mean to us is shelves of self-help books about how to be happy in the silos of our private lives. What Arendt thought it meant to the founders was the happiness that wells up in society as a whole in the inclusive exercise of its collective responsibility—maybe this happiness begins in the pursuit of conversational climate change.

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Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.

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