Months into dealing with a truly global pandemic; deep in the throes of an epic economic crisis; in a moment in history that cries out for a collective resolve and unified, coordinated response, we are the most divided people in our recent history. The single quality that is the key to our success appears not just beyond our grasp, but feels as if it no longer exists.
That we are a nation divided is taken for granted. The inspirational moment of an ascendant Barack Obama’s convention speech in 2004 — where he proclaimed that “We are one United States of America” — feels naive and hollow today, as if we’ve grown up and discarded that fairy tale in exchange for a darker, sadder reality. Today, we feel as two species, inhabiting alternate dimensions while sharing one land, a universe where we pass through each other without recognition or affect. The only point of interaction is conflict, the only shared beliefs are in the absolute nature of our own primacy, and the irredeemability of the other.
We are the despair of Darwin, evolving into something that cannot survive rather than yielding to the imagined pull of successful adaptation. How did we get here, and more importantly, how do we find our way out?
Perhaps we have always been destined for this point. Virtually all of our systems, all of our American institutional conceits are based on competition and confrontation, rather than mutuality and cooperation.
We call our system of law “adversarial” — rather than a mutual search for truth, it is a conflict between plaintiff and defendant, often with a winner-takes-all outcome. We consider our economy to be Capitalism, a system which relies on unbridled competition in a (theoretically) free marketplace. We select our leaders through a process of contests and eliminations, culminating in a one-on-one brawl for election. For recreation, we watch or participate in sports — gladiatorial engagements based on a physical striving for victory, and all that entails.
The essence, the very nature of the our culture and our institutions is grounded in the determination of winners and losers, of rewarded and punished, of haves and have nots. Perhaps we have arrived at the place we were always destined to inhabit, that we have achieved our societal goals… whether or not we realized they were our objective all along.
There are understandable reasons for our evolution. The systems that we’ve adopted and promoted — adversarial, competitive and determinative — are not inherently wrong or bad, did not demand that we became who we are. There are clear attributes to the striving for success, for the testing of belief in the flames of the crucible, for aggressively advancing our capabilities in exchange for prosperity and recognition. We initiated these processes, these governing ideas, for some good reasons, after all, and we have created a nation that has dominated its time, and systems that are highly emulated around the world. So, why does it hurt so badly, feel so impoverished and bitter today? Why is it failing us now?
There is a clear answer.
The problem is not, and has never been, the striving for winning, the maximized effort to succeed and the rewards. The problem is the punishment for losing, the stigmas and the blame, the prejudice and the dehumanization. We did not lose our way when we elevated the victors. We lost our way when we failed to elevate the defeated.
In our system of justice, we have abandoned ideas of rehabilitation, of reconstruction and an acceptance of environmental or systemic failure. We incarcerate millions as a mechanism for ignoring them, for removing them from our population. We discard them, reclassify them as something less than human, and then feign surprise when that act of rejection creates recidivism and desperation.
In our system of economics, we have unnecessarily exacerbated income inequality, a system of unshared prosperity that is not relevant to the success of the corporate entity, but is the product of unchecked and more importantly, celebrated avarice. In creating celebrity out of vast wealth, we inspired its hoarding and justified its practice without a corresponding societal or economic benefit.
In our system of politics, we have created a priority not for leadership, but of dominance and the reveling in power. The concept of leadership is invested in the motivation of agreement, belief and collective action; that is a difficult assignment, one much harder than simply enacting desired outcomes by force. There is great symbolism in our recent sacrificing of the resources for diplomacy while escalating those for the military, but there is also a very serious and practical related outcome.
To be very clear: It is not that the system of justice should absolve the guilty. It is not that the system of economics should withhold rewards from the successful. It is not that the system of politics should deny the victorious parties their right to mold the agenda. In a culture based on competition, those are all fully appropriate outcomes, and they are not in and of themselves a bad thing.
It is entirely that, in our present culture and society, we have forgotten that the “losers” in our various systems are as human, as endowed with rights, and as potentially valuable to our collective society as the winners. We have adopted the demonstrably false concept that only the winners can provide important value. We have mistakenly promoted the belief that to the winner go not just the spoils, but everything.
In a universe where the prizes for winning, and the penalties for losing, are so extreme, is it any wonder that we fight so hard for prominence in everything? Is it a surprise that so much of our media finds profit in pandering to our self image of partisan rightness? Can we really bemoan an imbalance that is in perfect alignment with our institutional behaviors?
We live in a single dimension, walking together and visible. We rely on the entirety of our society to execute and promote the common good. In creating a chasm between the winners and those who do not win, we cannot expect the subjugated portion to equally take on the heavy yoke of progress. In division, we definitively weaken our nation, and ourselves, and promote our own ultimate failure.
There is one system in our nation, critical to our culture, that — when executed with integrity and faithful to its construct — does not agree with the rest, does not emerge from the same wellspring of competitive values. In our religious beliefs, there are priorities expressed in elevating the less fortunate, in mercy and love for the stranger and the perceived enemy, in aspiration for higher values and the rejection of selfishness. We profess loudly that we are a Judeo-Christian nation — sadly, a boast used to diminish others rather than elevate all — and yet, the core values of those precepts are fully rejected, even vilified, in our actions and practices.
What is the way forward, the path to a constructive, successful society and nation?
The path is not through the denigration of success, but through the thoughtful, intentional elevation of the far greater population that isn’t standing on the top step of a victory platform. It comes in the acknowledgement that the execution of our national progress is only hindered when those that we consider weaker are not included in the effort, and when they are not made stronger so that they can lift a greater share of the load.
It is not a call to abandon our identities, or to become homogeneous. Our diversity is a key element in our strength. It is a call to embrace a priority of elevating and respecting all of our shared planet walkers, even as we are victorious in a battle or two over them, even as we (falsely) believe that we have the power not to care.
What we call charity, or entitlements, (or worse) when we promote greater sharing and support must be better understood to be actually selfish, based on a logical desire for our own better lives. The pandemic has shown us how intertwined we are, how the strengths of the forgotten are actually indispensable. The heavy lift that we face collectively is tangibly lighter the more hands that are lifting, and the stronger that all of those hands are.
If we cannot find the motivation to change through our professed values, or through its base in logic, we should — we must — find the urgency through our own self-interest, our commitment to our own survival and to the future of our children. We must demand the same of those who seek to lead us, those who our collective agreement provides with power and authority.
For whatever reason, from whatever motivation, the answer to what ails us lies in the elevation and success of those who, too often and always wrongly, we consider to be our affliction.