When I was a kid, we just had a few television channels. I held Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings in high esteem. When Peter Jennings died, it felt personal to me. Even in my politically far right household growing up in a rural area west of Seattle, it never occurred to us that the evening news was anything other than actual news.
Back when I wrote a column for the paper, everyone used to remind me that “nobody reads the paper.” When I was a kid, the newspapers still held a lot of sway. If something was in a well-known paper outside the opinion page, it was taken seriously.
I’m not here to dog technological advances or the internet specifically. The same tool that puts truly horrific forms of pornography as well as human trafficking within easy reach, also provides potential for marginalized and powerless voices to be heard. The same tool that enables executives and staff at Facebook, Google, and Apple to pull the levers of our culture and economy, also provides unparalled access to information, technology, and wisdom from around the world. The same tool that middle and high schoolers use to berate and harrass each other, helps connect families and friends separated by significant distances of time and space.
From my perspective, almost everything in America has become partisan. By partisan, I mean clearly aligned with the agenda of one of the two ruling political parties. If I say CNN, MSNBC, FOX, Washington Post, Washington Times, New York Times, or New York Post, those are all aligned in many or most people’s minds with particular parties. Local school boards have become highly partisan and contentious, as America allows itself to be divided by issues related to COVID-19 and vaccinations and masks. I know liberals who won’t shop at stores or buy products they consider to be from the wrong side. I know conservatives who return the favor for other stores and products. Our coffee, our clothing, our big box store, our medical treatment, our church: what is not decided by politics any more?
As we align ourselves according to the two polarities of conservative/right/red and liberal/left/blue, we do each other and the collective “us” a huge disservice. We quit listening to each other. We quit engaging each other. We quit even running into each other, except in highly publicized brawls on social media giants like Twitter. Every concern and issue out there is grabbed on to by political activists as something to polarize. The media of every stripe gladly participates, because traffic is driven by controversy and traffic pays the bills.
It is absolutely striking that our Congress in Washington, DC can’t pass reforms that the great bulk of Americans agree on: prescription drug reform, legalized marijuana, closing tax loopholes used by the super rich, etc. That ought to catch our attention, because it highlights the problem. I believe the more our school boards, our city councils, our churches, synagogues, and mosques, our corporate boards, and dare I say it our legislatures, are filled with diverse people willing to have an honest conversation about differences and work together toward common good, the better off we will all be. The more we dig into polarities, the less possible this will be.
We need a return here in America. Maybe it’s not even a return to a former reality. Maybe it’s just a return to an idealized fantasy. But we need to get back to the vision of valuing being a good neighbor and a good citizen. Not a good neighbor based on right values or left values. A good neighbor to the people who live next to us, near us, all around us. We need to disengage the social networks driven by rich elites pulling levers in dark rooms, and gather on a porch or around a dining room table or around a fire pit with people who are the same as us and who are different from us and everything in between. We need to quit defining a good citizen as someone who votes a certain party line. And define a good citizen as someone who makes a contribution to the public good, who actively participates in voting and civic conversations, and who seeks a more just beautiful world for others besides only themselves and people like them.
What does it mean for someone like me to intentionally take a step back from “national issues” to focus on making my neighborhood better?
How can I find and engage meaningfully with a person, a family, a community that I don’t naturally feel aligned with or come into much contact with?
Who in my life from “the other side” do I allow to have a voice in my life, or engage in conversation with?
When was the last time I did something nice or good for someone I see myself as opposed to politically?