July 4th historically has provided the exclamation point of the summer. The corn is “knee high”, the barbecue grills are ablaze, the day off from work is welcome, the parades are packed with marching bands and shiny fire trucks, the baseball is blessed, the public pools are packed with screeching children, and the evening fireworks are thrilling. Perhaps no other day of the year is quite the the archetype of what it means to be an American.
However, our national mood seems increasingly sour and suspicious. A Gallup Poll now finds that a record low percentage of Americans, a pitiful 45% overall (and only 22% of Democrats!), are “extremely proud” of America—and only 32% are proud of the American political system. Thankfully, 70% are still proud to be Americans, although this is in itself a sad when one considers that 30% of Americans obviously cannot bring themselves to express the same sentiment to a pollster.
Although the many personal and political freedoms that allow us to freely speak our minds are the envy of other nations, it is certain that lots Americans are completely fed up with our squabbling politicians acting just like a bunch of … squabbling politicians. The constant adolescent feuding and fighting instead of making an adult effort to find common sense compromises is a boon to cable television shouting matches and the most partisan people posting on social media, but many Americans are sick and tired of one group of hyper-partisan Americans attacking other hyper-partisan Americans—and hurting all Americans in the process.
Criticizing is easy and provides one with a sense of clear moral superiority while doing so; finding solutions that require everyone to get off their high horses, roll up their sleeves, and engage with the messy complexities of life is what we need today.
This will, on occasion require acknowledging unpleasant—and occasionally irreconcilable—truths that are lost when one has the luxury of only dealing in moral absolutes: some illegal immigrants are criminals, late term abortions are repugnant, many young Americans are being raised poorly, our educational systems are crazy expensive and often just plain crazy, and bad personal choices tend to result in lousy life outcomes. However, it must also be recognized that some illegal immigrants are fleeing certain death, access to first trimester abortion is a necessity, many parents are doing a great job against sometimes impossible odds, education is a core responsibility that must be done responsibly, and even people who make bad choices are sometimes deserving of a second chance. The middle ground might be uncomfortable because extremists on both sides can easily snipe at you, but this is where the hard work of governing—rather than grandstanding—actually happens.
The first step in learning how to get along with our fellow Americans is, of course, to focus on disagreeing without being intolerably disagreeable. Any relationship where the least little problem is a ready excuse for spewing outrageous insults and threats is bound to fail. The manner in which Republicans and Democrats approach matters of public policy should not resemble the two parties in an abusive marriage. Only crazy people stick a fork in your eye if the lasagna is overdone, but this is pretty much the kind of hair-trigger overreaction that we hear twenty times a day from the supposedly responsible elected officials whom we have entrusted with the future of our nation.
Breathtakingly disdainful rhetoric and behavior that from the outset dismisses the idea there are two sides to every story results in playground politics that allow bullies, cowards, and tattletales to dominate the dysfunctional discourse and destroy any hope for a reasonable resolution. Given the gravity of the problems and questions facing us today, we need to rediscover the charm—and purpose—of conversation that communicates without wounding. As much fun as sneer and snark might be fun for some, it forbids any but the most foolhardy or masochistic from participation in public life.
Therefore, my birthday wish for our nation is a simple one that might be damnably hard to achieve: a commitment to civility of language, moderation of thought, and charity—of both heart and mind. To continue as we are today—fists up and minds closed—will only continue the catastrophe of anger and gridlock paralyzingly our nation.
Take a deep breath, America. Prepare to listen and learn from one another. Have a beer. And keep in mind we’re all in the same boat—together.