Open Forum: ‘Us vs. them’
Posted: November 30, 2012
This year commemorates the 225th anniversary of the third most important date in the history of mankind (third behind the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ).
This was the year a revolutionary type of government was formed of the people, by the people and for the people. On Sept. 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed by 40 extraordinary individuals. Sadly, this grand experiment appears to be coming to an end.
I admit this comment is hardly original. Pundits and politicians talk and write about it daily. Depending on one’s perspective, it’s usually attributed to a creep towards European-style socialism, our overwhelming debt burden, or a departure from our Christian values. On the other hand, I believe the brilliance of the American form of government will be destroyed by something far more fundamental. I’m referring to the pervasive and insidious attitude of “us vs. them” that has infiltrated every part of our culture.
Good or bad? Legal or illegal? Moral or immoral? Safe or dangerous? This binary thought process is everywhere — government, religion, community, and home. The need to be on one side or the other, on a team or in a group, has been in the human DNA since the beginning. These patterns of thought and action were burned into the human psyche and passed down through generations.
And so it went on for hundreds of thousands of years. Man versus man. Idea versus idea. Religion versus religion. Until a new form of society was born in the American colonies where all men would be treated equal and given the opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This would be a country where conformity wasn't dictated, differences were celebrated, and power distributed evenly.
The great James Madison described this in the Federalist Papers. He wrote: “Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens . . . Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”
No matter your political affiliation, it is difficult to argue that in today’s society individual freedom is “in little danger.” Madison was right in thinking society would be “broken into so many parts, interests, and classes.” What he failed to realize is that each of the disparate parts, interests, and classes would somehow coalesce around two monolithic parties and ideologies.
Enviromentalists, unions, trial lawyers, and women and gay rights supporters became Democrats or liberals. Big business, evangelicals, small-government advocates, and defense hawks became Republicans or conservatives. Not only did these groups pick a team, but they also became distrustful of anyone not on their team.
The pervasive attitude in our culture is that if the opposition’s position is advanced it spells certain doom for the community, institution, religion, or nation. Compromise is now defined as weakening one’s values or giving up moral high ground, instead of two sides making concessions to settle disputes. Zealotry has now become a prerequisite of leadership.
We're all taught from an early age to never compromise our principles, whatever those may be, and “stand up for what you believe in.” The downfall of this lesson is everything has now become a principle: taxes, guns, marriage, women’s rights, health-care coverage, the environment, and so on. Don't get me wrong, I’m not arguing for moral relativism. We need leaders with strong principles to represent us. However, principled decision-making loses its luster when it ceases being a reliable map used for guidance and becomes an electrified fence not to be crossed.
All of this has made us deeply cynical of each other’s motives. We see things through the prism of “what's their angle?” Attempts by the other side to reach a compromise are really just a means for them to defeat your position. Then if you do actually compromise, those who supported your original position think you sold out or didn’t fulfill your promises. To see this mentality in action, look no further than the “fiscal cliff” quagmire underway in Washington.
Does any of this really matter? Here are some facts. American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading. We're 48th in infant mortality and 50th in life expectancy despite being second in health-care spending relative to GDP. We’re the world's largest consumer of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and gasoline.
We rank 94th in income equality. The national debt is $16 trillion, or $140,060 per household. Some 41 percent of all births are by unwed mothers. Our corporate tax rate is highest in the world. Of the 23 richest and most populous countries in the world, the United States has 20 times more gun murders annually and 87 percent of all kids killed by guns. The real question is: Do we believe that these alarming statistics were caused by our departure from the country’s original framework and the toxic mentality of “us vs. them,” or are they merely coincidental?
Bill Buettin is a resident of Winchester.