In his prayer at the Inauguration, pastor Rick Warren said, “As we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ.”
Since then, clarity, responsibility, humility and civility seem to have given way to self-righteousness, anger, resentment, and what columnist Kathleen Parker calls “a political era of uninhibited belligerence,” that is finding expression in sermons, at town hall meetings, on radio talk shows, even on the floor of Congress — especially when we differ.
Why are people so angry and belligerent, and so willing to express their anger publicly? Why has our civil discourse become some uncivil? What does this public anger say about our private faith? What should we do about it?
Disintegration of a national conversation is a frightening thing to behold. Post-partisan, post-polarization, post-racism–all the feel-good epithets we clung to in the wake of the last election–nothing more than passing fantasy. Are we a nation divided, condemned to repeat a tragicomic history that seems stuck on the reset button? Has civility departed, only to have vulgarity fill the void?
There is no doubt that there are two Americas, and these two realities seem easier to discern today. We live in an era where I can drive 20 miles out of any metropolis to be confronted with wonderful people who happen to stand across a vast ideological divide if we dig just below the surface. A place where a Rep. Michelle Bachman, reviled in the urban core of Minnesota, is lionized in her exurban district. Where a Rep. John Boehner can elicit the same visceral reaction that Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi can from different parts of the country.
I wonder if the dogmatism in socio-political issues rests in the ebbing pluralism of our nation. If we are taught in our halls of worship that our religion is the only True path to God; those who follow another path are doomed to hell; those who disagree with me on abortion, guns, war or sexuality are filthy and unworthy — how can we expect the “chosen people” to check their prejudice, and yes, bigotry, at the door. Bearing witness to countless folks that claim to “bear true witness,” and realizing the futility of my attempts to explain my own Hindu faith to these true believers, I see the same obsessive conviction that “mine is the only way and all others are evil,” play out in the dialogue over health care and demonization of our President. Where pluralism rests comfortably in the gray, we are sadly becoming a nation that only sees in black and white.
But before I allow myself to completely walk down the grim path of gloom, I recall that polarity in politics is nothing new. Only a world war or a Great Depression or 9/11 succeeded in pulling together the polity for fleeting periods in our nation’s history. For the past is replete with the dichotomous pull between Hamilton and Jefferson or LBJ and George Wallace — that is the default setting of a democracy. The anger and belligerence seemed as uncivil, rancorous and unhinged even then as it does today.
Those same differences are amplified today, I believe, by the unyielding whirl of the twenty-four hour news cycle and the drive for the soundbite. It is bizarre that some of the great debates of our times are forced into two minute spots on a news network, where reasoned debate is a guaranteed snoozer, so hosts are trained only to incite. Hyperbole reigns and is the pass to a re-invite. The more controversy stoked, the more irate texts and emails generated, and the more networks crave that talking head.
And just as loud and pithy banners are not waved to excite fellow football fans in the stadium, but to coax the roving eye of the live camera, so too do town halls and the Mall in Washington become spectacles to the most outrageous slogan or image. “The more lunatic I seem, the more attention I get,” is the mantra.
Now, a few words about Rep. Joe Wilson. I am left to ponder if his foolish folly’s genesis is in the extreme petulance that our politics seem to require. Joe Wilson is not a racist, or a right-wing nut or an ignorant white supremacist from the Deep South that too many would love to believe, for that would fit the formulaic reality the media craves. In a bold move, he co-authored the only resolution ever passed in both the House and Senate recognizing the most important Hindu holiday of Diwali; as a co-chair of the House Indian American caucus, he was instrumental in ushering in the warmest relations India and the United States have had in decade s– promoting a critical nuclear cooperation treaty among other achievements; and his Chief of Staff until recently was a Hindu American. Joe Wilson got caught up in a moment and he is now the unlikely exemplar of all that is wrong in a landscape where negativity reigns supreme, and an unchecked slip of the tongue makes one a household name.
Views expressed here are the personal views of Dr. Aseem Shukla, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or Hindu American Foundation.