Remember when we were kids and we got in a quarrel because we both wanted the same crayons or toys, and an adult stepped in and helped us to figure out that we either had to share and work it out, or go to our rooms? Usually we figured out that some crayons or toys and being in the same room was better than no toys and our own rooms. When we were older, when we got into fights over a disputed call playing baseball or basketball, we eventually figured out that playing the game was more fun than continuing to argue or going home. We’d call a do-over, or flip a coin and get on with the game. We were learning to be the adults in the room when no adults were around.
Watching our political discourse, and the social media discourse around it. I find myself wondering where have all the adults gone? What I’ve seen over the last number of years is an escalating fight that has lost the sight that you need an opponent, an opposition, those who are on a different team to have a good game–that it is the game and not the fights that matter (unless you are talking about hockey). Of late, it seems that the objective is not merely winner take all and leave nothing on the table. It is winner subdue or wipe out all and be the last ones standing. Suddenly it is OK to show up in public buildings with assault weapons, destroy property, and threaten the lives of public servants and their families.
The game I’m talking about is our country–this troubled place of 330 million people drawn from all over the world, from every religious faith and none, living in rural, urban and suburban settings, black, white, brown, and more. Increasingly, the question may be asked, could the fabric of our union unravel, and what could that mean?
For so many years, I think we’ve thought, “it could never happen here.” Except that it has within our very short history. It was called the Civil War. Over 600,000 young men from the north and south died because inflammatory talk escalated from words to a contentious election, and shots fired.
As a Christian, the most troubling part of that history was that churches mirrored the divisions in American society. People who believed they worshiped the same God, read the same Bible and recited the same creed didn’t care that they were deeply divided from each other. Most churches, north and south, didn’t care that blacks also worshiped the same God.
It doesn’t appear to me terribly different today except that the vitriol comes via social media and competing news networks, rather than old fashioned newspapers.
It can happen here. Children who play with matches often don’t really understand that you can burn down the house until they burn down the house. Then there are those who don’t seem to care about the house as long as they are the ones wielding the matches.
There are so many different doomsday scenarios for how it could unravel. Anne Applebaum, in The Twilight of Democracy fears the rise of authoritarian government. In a place that appears to be unraveling, a strong leader who sets things in order, no matter what else they do, has an appeal. David French, in Divided We Fall (released yesterday), thinks we could be headed toward a bloodless secession as red states and blue states ideologically harden and the United States becomes two or more separate “countries.”
I find myself wondering at times that Octavia Butler in The Parable of the Sower might be more prescient. She portrays a dystopian United States of 2024, rife with disasters both ecological and political, and where street gangs rule (writing in 1993, she portrays a California increasingly ravaged by fire seasons).
One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed is that when you listen to those doing the fighting, they all love the country and are deeply concerned about it. Granted, many of their concerns are different. What troubles me is that our binary, zero sum thinking that says you have to choose between caring for mothers and the unborn, that you have to choose whether to care for blacks or police, that you have to choose whether to care for business or God’s good creation, is leading to destroying the very place we love. Have we lost the creative imagination and skill at negotiation found at the intersection of both-and?
It’s time, and past time, for the adults in the room to step forward, and for those who should be adults to act like it. We cannot keep escalating our toxic discourse, including our toxic social media postings that are just kindling for the fire. Whether our future is authoritarian, or one of Balkanization, or civil war in our cities (which we have already tasted in some places), each signals the death of “the land that we love.” Each signals the triumph of the argument over the game.
I don’t know if it is too late at a national level for “adults in the room” to matter. All I know is that I want to work for solutions in terms of “we” rather than “us versus them” wherever I can. If someone has to be my enemy for me to be part of your party, I’m not interested. Perhaps it is quixotic to hope that there will ever be enough adults in the room to expect our political leadership to act this way. But that is just politics. There is so much more to life in this country than politics, which we’ve made into a kind of god. Perhaps the best thing at times is to dismiss this as childish and start looking for adults of integrity who will seek the common good, not as political messiahs, but as public servants.
All I know is to start with us, dear reader. Will you be an adult in the room? Will I? And who else can we get to join us?