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Can we still come together?
The Mideast conflict is just the latest issue dividing Americans, raising the question of whether we are up to the challenges of our time
If we were confronted with the challenges that faced America in the 1940s, would we be able to come together to respond? (Photo by BW Square on Unsplash)
Americans made sacrifices both broad and trivial during World War II, and they were embraced by the whole nation. Patriotic families were expected to offer up their sons to battle and to pay taxes at a marginal rate of up to 94 percent of income. Women joined the workforce in record numbers. Workers were exhorted to put 10 percent of their income into government bonds to finance the war effort, and many factories earned the right to fly a “Minuteman” flag after every employee joined the “Ten Percent Club.” Meanwhile, the quotidian effects were felt everywhere: Food choice and travel were limited by rationing; to save gasoline and rubber, home delivery of groceries and laundry was suspended, and sightseeing was banned.
If you can’t imagine 21st century Americans coming together to make similar sacrifices for any cause — even, say, if the nation’s very survival was at risk, or if our European allies were occupied and attacked — you’re not the first. Are we more selfish nowadays? Or have we been so numbed by shocks to our sensibilities that we have learned to quickly rebound by forming a sort of Axis of Indifference? After all, we need to get back to watching Yellowstone, playing Minecraft and pickleball, and complaining about inflation (which, by the way, has been cut by two-thirds in the past two years).
Our collective callousness seems about to be tested, though, because it’s getting ever harder to stay apathetic. The awful scenes of wars in Ukraine and the Mideast, the toll of incessant climate disruption, the global immigration crisis, the violence and addiction that plague our communities and our domestic political turmoil are pushing their way into the consciousness of even the most inattentive Americans. You get a sense that something’s about to give.
In fact, if there’s anything good to come from the vicious Oct. 7 Hamas assault on Israel and the brutal Israeli response in Gaza, it is that Americans are being confronted with the realities of life in the world’s tinderbox, and are taking note of how differently people in their own community may feel about what’s going on there. There are roughly 2 million Arab Americans, and they have far less political clout than the 7.6 million Americans who are Jewish, but the vociferous demonstrations in support of Palestinian rights of recent days are a reminder that the ideals espoused in our founding documents are embraced by all of us.
So we’re being asked to choose sides, as though the stakes are no more consequential than the annual football matchup between Iowa and Iowa State. If the best we can say in the face of this calamity is that we choose peace, then we may need to be reminded that difficult situations rarely are solved with simplistic answers.
No, the tough realities of this time require thoughtful and nuanced responses — which isn’t what our political system tends to deliver. We’re more accustomed to sloganeering and over-simplification.
There’s no shortage of examples, but three are in the news a lot right now.
The federal deficit is high, so we get right-wing House members threatening to shut down the government in a few days unless their demands for drastic spending cuts are met — cuts, that is, that would defund Amtrak, sharply cut food aid and childcare support for poor Americans and make tax fraud easier for the rich. There’s no mention of paring back the deficit-exploding tax cuts for rich Americans enacted during Donald Trump’s presidency. Nor do the extremists seem worried that they are holding up aid for Israel and Ukraine, and for efforts to counter Chinese expansionism in the Pacific.
We live in a time of polarized opinions, yet we get claims by new House Speaker Mike Johnson, who eagerly strategized Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election results, that homosexuality threatens American democracy. In Johnson, Republicans have hitched their congressional agenda to a Christian nationalist, a divisive stance that is antithetical to the religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution.
And in the face of Russian expansionism that threatens not only Ukraine but also the Europe nations beyond its borders, we hear Trump bragging that if he is returned to the White House, he could end the war in Ukraine in a single day — though during his term in office, his supposedly great negotiating skills left Iran free to resume enriching nuclear fuel for weapons and North Korea rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal. His secret solution to Russia’s invasion seems sure to involve catering to Vladimir Putin, as he did throughout his term in office.
These and other illusory solutions that are typically offered up these days by the radical right — that is, the minority that controls the Republican party — win more widespread voter approval than you might expect. Trump is not only the runaway frontrunner for his party’s presidential nomination, but is at least even with President Biden in a 2024 rematch, according to some recent polls. And Republicans seem likely to win back a majority in the U.S. Senate next year. Why do you suppose Americans so easily fall for flummery?
Two factors especially lead to the disconnect between reality and voters’ views: First, we have become numb to tragedies and chaos, because we have seen so much of it lately, and social media makes it constantly present in our awareness. Second, we have stopped bothering to try to understand what’s going on — in part because of that numbing effect, but also because some news sources eagerly distort reality, and many of us would rather simply ignore the news, anyway. We’re often not looking at what’s real, then, and when we do, it gets a quick shrug.
That struck me last week when a radio newscast reported that a former Memphis cop had pleaded guilty in the killing of Tyre Nichols. I hesitated; the name was familiar, but who, again, was Tyre Nichols? There were a few days when we all knew that name — back in January, when a band of cops beat him savagely, and then lied about it to their superiors as Nichols lay dying. But that might have been obscured a few days later, on Lunar New Year, when there was a mass shooting that killed 11 people in an Asian American community in California. And there was another mass shooting in the same state a few days later. Then, again, at Michigan State University, and then in Orlando, and then in Mississippi. Which of those do you recall now?
One tragedy is dislodged from our consciousness by the next, to the point that we get inured to it all. That’s especially true of the gun violence that touches every part of the country, in big cities and small communities alike. We can’t get politicians to do anything about it — not to be too partisan, but Republicans have clearly succumbed to the gun lobby’s money — so we have begun to turn away in hopelessness. “I don’t think we’ve cried enough yet,” the Rev. William Barber II, the prominent civil rights leader, told an Axios reporter last spring. “Sometimes a nation needs to be made to cry if it’s going to change.”
Barber partly blames the media — always a favorite target across ideology, of course — because it “flips the page” to the next bad story “It’s almost like we treat bad public policy like it’s a commercial,” he said.
But aside from the flagrant fibbers of Fox News and their imitators, good journalists are doing all they can, I’d say, to give Americans a true view of what lies beyond their personal experience, with context. There’s a lot of thoughtful analysis being produced by our best journalistic institutions. But it’s the media consumers who are, in Barber’s words, flipping the page. A Pew Research study released last month found that fewer than 4 in 10 American say they follow the news at least most of the time; almost 1 in 3, on the other hand, say they pay attention to the news “hardly ever” or “almost never” — a decline in news awareness that has grown steadily for more than two decades.
And of those who say they do still pay attention to the news, where do they get it? More than half of Republicans say they “most trust” Fox News and the ultra-conservative networks like OAN and Newsmax. There is no equivalent dominating news source for Democrats. If you’re in that bubble of gullibility that still trusts the credibility of Fox, please remember the $787 million it paid to settle the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit for knowingly pushing Trump’s Big Lie about the election, and consider this: If Fox will lie about something as consequential as a presidential race, imagine how easily it will push a false narrative about any other topic of the day. Fox viewers are being duped.
So between our numbness to the news and our inattention to its nuance, a lot of us can’t grasp what lies behind the chaos that House Republicans seem eager to unleash on the federal government, nor do we fully understand the stakes of the fight to save Ukraine. It’s the dynamic that explains why we don’t have effective laws to reduce the gun violence, and why divisive players now hold the power to hobble a federal system that used to work pretty effectively.
None of this will help us settle upon what we think the United States ought to do to help bring peace to the Mideast. But it may help explain why it is that at a moment when America and the world are desperate for thoughtful leadership that can deliver nuanced solutions, we’re swayed instead by those who offer deception and over-simplification.
Consider, then, this chilling reminder from the 20th century: It was fourscore and seven years ago — that memorable phrase of Abraham Lincoln’s — that Adolf Hitler launched his first military action, by marching troops into the Rhineland, an area bordering France that the Treaty of Versailles had established as a demilitarized zone. It was an intentional provocation, like the Hamas attack on Israel of Oct. 7, and like Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. World War II began a little over three years later; America was drawn into the fight two years after that. And if we were to now face a threat like that which Hitler posed, would we be able to overcome the forces that divide us, as Americans did then? Or are we even now at that very point, struggling to meet the test of history?
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Battle Creek, Mich. (Battle Creek Enquirer, battlecreekenquirer.com)
Portsmouth, N.H. (Portsmouth Herald, seacoastonline.com)
Athens, Ga. (Athens Banner-Herald, onlineathens.com)
Carlsbad, N.M. (Carlsbad Current-Argus, currentargus.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
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Students rally to save after-school programs
In more than 8,000 communities across the country, students rallied recently in support of after-school programs, under the banner '“Lights on Afterschool.” Greyson Steele reported in the Battle Creek Enquirer that students from four schools and public officials joined in a march in that community, hoping to save such programs as homework assistance, mentoring, math and science tutoring, as well as clubs in robotics, coding, sports, reading, mathematics, healthy eating, and chess. “If we can give meaning to this enrichment, this will last a lifetime for them," a teacher told the newspaper.
Lawsuit blames bar and fraternity for college student’s death
In the four hours before he drowned two years ago, Vinny Lirosi, 22, was served 17 alcoholic drinks at a bar, then was assaulted at a fraternity house and pushed out alone into the night. That’s the claim in a lawsuit filed by his mother, as reported by Ian Lenahan in the Portsmouth Herald. The lawsuit names the bar that served Lirosi the alcohol, the national and local Sigma Chi fraternity and seven fraternity brothers. The story is a cautionary tale about the danger of excessive alcohol consumption by young people.
Invasive species taking over areas of Georgia
A scientist at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia is warning about four plant species that are running rampant in the countryside, threatening to wipe out native species. Sarah Dolezal reports in the Athens Banner-Herald that Japanese knotweed, Perilla mint, Callery pear and Japanese stitgrass have been spreading rapidly for the past decade in the area. "Invasive plants cause biodiversity loss," an expert told the newspaper. "These plants change movements to wildlife. We lose species. It has cascading effects as far as food chains and what things eat." Indeed, it is a problem throughout the nation, and one that governments have been slow to address.
How a lost hiker was found — rangers offer advice for all
A 71-year-old hiker who set out for a day hike went missing for four days in the remote Guadalupe Mountains National Park — but, as Adrian Hedden reports in the Carlsbad Current-Argus, he was found in no small part because he had told his family in advance where he planned to hike. That, plus the temperatures ranged only between 40 and 70 degrees during his time off the trail. "If he had not told his family what his itinerary was, we would not have known that starting point,” a park spokeswoman said. “If you're going to hike alone, let people know where you're going."
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