It is February 1984. I am a junior in high school. The Winter Olympics are on TV and the host city, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, is like a jewel on display. Night after night after night for two straight weeks I watch these games instead of studying. I find myself daydreaming What a beautiful place. Maybe I'll visit there one day. In hindsight, those Olympic games are said to be "Yugoslavia’s proudest moment in the final years of its existence."
I've been thinking a lot about Sarajevo lately. I find myself wondering what the growing conflict in Yugoslavia felt like to ordinary Bosnian and Serb and Croatian people before their conjoined democracy, Yugoslavia, fell apart. I find myself thinking of the Palestinians and the Jews, before "the beginning" of their conflict, whatever that may mean. I wonder what ordinary Germans were thinking about when the Third Reich was an emerging idea. I wonder what it felt like in South Africa when a plan of "apartness" (Apartheid) was being hatched. I wonder about Rwanda, and the Hutus and Tutsis who intermingled and intermarried, and where in 1994, as if without warning, the Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis.
I am not a historian. I have not studied these things. My opinion is no more informed than yours, and perhaps less so. I may have already inadvertently offended you by how I described these other conflicts. I am a regular person simply wondering what is the beginning of a conflict that will turn out to be war?
I wonder about America.
Of late in America, the locus of our disagreement includes, wildly different interpretations of what the January 6 insurrection was about and what should come of it, wildly different interpretations of whether a white teenager walking down the street with an AR-15 was justified in shooting people who were protesting police brutality, and wildly different interpretations of the best way to teach America's full history to our children.
I know I am right and they are wrong, just as they know they are right and I am wrong. We're in a tug-of-war with no agreed-upon arbiter in sight. And this ain't a game. It's like we're in a black-and-white scene from the Civil Rights Movement days, where attack dogs and hoses are going after humans, and only with the benefit of sixty-plus years of reflection will anyone agree as to who was in fact the bad guy and who was in fact the aggrieved. (And if the "anti-CRT" people have their way, none of this may ever be taught to anybody.)
I wonder about our chances. I wonder how to get us back to communication, cooperation, compromise, conciliation, and reconciliation when we can't even agree about facts. When the mindset many of us have about "the other" is YOU started it. WE did what we had to do because of YOU. Our reaction to your bad thing is JUSTIFIED.
It's not just the issues that are at stake, but the entire system. "Both sides are also convinced that the other side intends to change the democratic “rules of the game” in ways that will make it impossible for them to compete effectively in future elections. In such conditions, elections are not merely contests over policy preferences; they become existential battles for the future of the nation. Whichever party loses is likely to view the results as rigged and the outcome as intolerable." This is a quote from a September 2020 article co-written by professors Jack Goldstone and Peter Turchin in the magazine NOÉMA.
The worry is not new for me. I've felt in my bones going back to 2008 that this country is on its way toward an impasse that will one day rival that of Israel–Palestine. That could one day be an American Apartheid. Which is not to say that there was not cause to be worried prior to 2008; of course there was. Yet still, in 2008, when Barack Hussein Obama became a serious contender for president and the "birtherism" strategy emerged denigrating his citizenship and right to hold office, soon followed by a surge of hits to hate group websites when he became the democrat's nominee, I grew much more alert. Like an animal of prey sensing a predator.
I can draw dots from 2008 to today, and go from dot to dot connecting the reemergence of the ideology of white supremacy which is what, for me, threatens to unravel America, again. I can draw dots in every year in between 2008 and 2021 representing an incident of concern, and some years have multiple dots. Yes, I do know that more than white supremacy is afoot. That elections are bought by the rich, that decent housing, wages, education, and health care for all form the rising tide that lifts all boats but the bloated greed of the very rich has run this ship aground. But of all of these, it is white supremacy that I personally find most threatening. It is a grand unifying principle that determines whose lives matter and whose are expendable.
I can look ahead to the 2040s when this nation becomes majority non-white, with the knowledge that today's events and happenings will contribute more dots to the timeline and will have helped determine how all of that will go down, including who will be in power, how those not in power will be treated, and whether we will finally have committed to securing liberty and justice for all.
In this context, I felt heartened yesterday while listening to Rich Roll's latest podcast episode which features 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang. I wasn't a particular fan of Yang during the campaign. But I listened anyway, and found myself engrossed in their enlightening conversation centered on Yang's new political party called "Forward" which aims to appeal to those who are fed up with the tribalism that is increasingly entrenched in our "duopoly" or two-party system.
"Who's going to be drawn to this set of solutions, this approach, this political language?" Yang asks. "It's the most reasonable, optimistic, entrepreneurial, solutions-oriented ten percent of Americans. It's not fifty-one percent. That's one of the fun things about it. In a country this polarized, if you get ten percent of Americans excited about a particular movement you actually control the agenda." (Like that one dude (Manchin) in a Senate of 100 who appears to have a ridiculous amount of power.)
I know Yang can be a little out there and gimmicky, but he's got my attention. He cites the scholar Peter Turchin (who studies cultural evolution and has been eerily successful at predicting our latest troubles in America) as saying that America's divisiveness is at "civil war levels" and that the coming decade could be even worse. And he offers that his "Forward" party is "a tribe of reasonableness and reason." I'll admit that in a nation descending into "tribalism" at the level not just of politics but of friendship and family, I'm interested in all of us doing something before it is too late, keenly aware that we do not even know where on the timeline "too late" is.
Thinking back on the Middle East, Germany, South Africa, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, I wonder when it was that ordinary people in those places thought: Wait. What? We need to slow this down. We need diplomacy. We need to be bigger than this. We need to be humane. We need help.
I wonder where the milepost of 'knowing enough in time to do something about it' is in today's America. Whether it is still up ahead of us, or if we've already passed it.
What can you do? You can:
Register to vote and vote every single time. Tell others to do the same.
If your head is in the sand, or you are lah-lah-lahing with your fingers in your ears, commit to being more informed and alert than you are now.
Get braver, kinder, and more competent when having tough conversations with people you know. I know how hard this is!
Commit to knowing and loving thy neighbor. All of them no matter how different they look or seem from you. Hold a block party. Have people to your backyard for a meal. Get to know folks beyond their names. Ask them what they love doing, and their favorite moments in life. Humans yearn for human connection and understanding, and YOU can help make that happen. We just had an open house for neighbors here on the weekend of Halloween and new folks came and it.was.awesome.
Profess your love and respect for all humans by getting this awesome t-shirt from The Happy Givers. Yes, I realize that "love" is hard to operationalize as a political or policy strategy, yet nevertheless I know in my bones that love IS the only roadmap to peace. As a special treat for two lucky readers, I'm giving away two of these shirts (both Unisex Large). If you would like a chance to win one, simply say so wherever you're reading this and I will select two lucky winners at random.
If you're a white Christian and are willing to interrogate the incompatibility between mainstream white American Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, check out the work of the North Carolina activist pastor John Pavlovitz. His most recent book is If God is Love Don't Be a Jerk: Finding a Faith That Makes Us Better Humans."
Inequity is at the heart of discontent. We can heal divisiveness by improving the quality of life for all. If you're a democrat and are willing to interrogate why democrats don't seem able to accomplish our agenda around housing equality, progressive taxation, and education equality, even when we are the party in power check out this video narrated by NYT journalist Johnny Harris on "Liberal Hypocrisy is Fueling American Inequality. Here's How." In short, our values don't match our actions.
I want to know what's on your mind. What do you fear in this context? What do you think we can DO? Because collectively we ARE America. The billionaires are most definitely in charge, yet there are way more of us than them. I do believe in the power of the people. That we know enough about how these things go such that we can refuse to simply let it happen, now, to us. I do believe that we are capable of overcoming our harmful tribalism by seeking to know and empathize with one another. I do believe that a more equitable society is possible in which everyone's basic needs around food, shelter, education, and health care are met. I love humans. And I believe in all of us.
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If you left a comment on any post before today, I've probably responded. The comments are always thoughtful and fantastic. Please feel welcome to join the conversation. I am particularly heartened by the overwhelming response I've received a recent piece about how over accommodating childhood fears and needs (such as by preparing food for your child to take places) is correlated with anxiety in children. If that resonates, check out that post. I hope you won't feel judged by it–I hope you'll feel seen and supported. You'll get tips for the way forward.
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