By Martha Quillen
Today the world seems to be locked in an existential crisis, with people from far and wide wondering: Who are we? What are we? Where are we going? And Americans are said to be more partisan, divided and antagonistic than they’ve been since the Civil War.
In late January, Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist, introduced a panel discussion on politics with the words, “All of us sense the world is in a bad way.” And participant Anne Applebaum, a journalist and historian, talked about how she and her old friends have parted ways over politics and no longer speak.
After I listened to that discussion, I went to Safeway, where two friends told me how sickened they were about what’s happening in Salida, which surprised me. To me, recent events seemed like business as usual. In the past six years, I’ve hoped for the best but expected the same old thing after every municipal election: a city council that is predictably partisan and serves its presumed constituency first and best.
Small town and school board elections are usually designed to be nonpartisan since they don’t require excessive funding or organizing. But partisan groups form regardless, encourage community discord and ensure that lots of citizens feel cheated.
As I see it, governments that primarily heed one side are unjust, because the other side may not be able to comply. Or as Anatole France put it: The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets and stealing bread.”
I reject the idea that modern societies are on the brink of disintegration because either side is right or wrong, or because one side is ignorant. I think we’re struggling because citizens have different needs – for example, some need assisted living facilities and others need amenities that encourage business. So serving everyone equitably is difficult, and sometimes even impossible. Equality, however, is one of our nation’s most cherished principles, so trying is essential.
Today, many officials don’t seem to be trying at all, and we’re ending up with too many citizens who feel neglected. Instead of addressing America’s health, education and housing problems better, Republicans blame Democrats, Democrats blame Republicans, the rich blame the poor, the poor blame the rich, others blame blacks, whites, Muslims, Christians, secularists, newcomers, old-timers, Trump, Hillary, Facebook, Google or interplanetary invaders.
I am just as prone to play the blame game as anyone else, but as someone who seldom wholly embraces any established doctrine, I tend to see fault in everything and everyone. After all, no side is perfect, and we could all stand some improvement.
Yet crazily enough, I find myself feeling fairly optimistic these days, especially compared to some of my friends and acquaintances.
Right now, the big controversy locally is still Salida’s new administrator, Drew Nelson, who Mike Rosso wrote about in December and I wrote about in January. Nelson was arrested for domestic misconduct in 2018, after he’d drunkenly chased his wife with a hammer and fired a gun in a residential neighborhood. Then he pled the charges down, got probation, and applied to be the new city administrator in Salida. He was hired, which left many Salidans incensed. Several council members and the mayor nonetheless, insisted Nelson was an excellent choice.
That decision hit hard because it totally ignored recent Me Too movement efforts to make people take domestic misconduct more seriously (even when injury or death isn’t involved). In some ways, our council’s insistence that Nelson was a one-time offender and good husband merely made matters worse, because it ignored the fact that Me Too is trying to advance the message that sexual harassment, intimidation, and violence are no longer acceptable and will not be tolerated.
At this point, it’s clear that Americans differ on what actions should be taken. Yet I think the local protests were a rousing success, because the aim of the current movement isn’t to impose harsher punishments, it is to spread awareness, prevent mistreatment and empower women. I think the presenters in our city succeeded on all of those counts. It seems to me that complainants made it clear that disregarding domestic and workplace mistreatment here will not be tolerated, and everyone who heard (or heard about) their protests will realize that excusing domestic misconduct won’t be easy.
In February The Denver Post featured an article about Salida’s disputes that revealed another problem. Some speakers at the Salida meetings reported feeling shunned and/or threatened, and many locals now report they’re scared to speak out for fear of reprisal. That is ominous news and a danger for our democracy, but it isn’t a first for our little town, or even rare. In fact, belligerent intimidation and gratuitous insults have become alarmingly common here – and in Washington, on social media and around the world.
Today, citizens frequently snipe at and threaten one another for taking a stance.
So why am I optimistic? Well, it may be because I’m congenitally contrary, which I’ll admit. Yet I think things are starting to shift. The anger that plays so well on radio talk shows, social media, news networks and in campaign materials is slowly but definitely being supplemented by lengthier, more thoughtful analysis and reflection.
Today there are dozens of books available that explore why political crisis, populist fury and governmental dysfunction seem monumental. They offer an almost infinite number of reasons, including globalization, racial and class factors, modern technology, economic insecurity, job losses, widening gaps between the rich and poor, social media, and differences of opinion about President Trump, climate change, border walls, priorities, and budgets. Psychiatrists and sociologists attribute some of our problems to human biology, evolution, addiction and depression.
When one considers horrific phenomena such as inquisitions, witch burnings, Indian wars, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, torture, murder, rape and genocide, it’s obvious that blaming other people is not an effective remedy. In fact, there is no satisfactory remedy after people suffer and/or die, so our goal has to be prevention.
Today Americans find themselves confronting staggering inequality, labor problems, civil rights violations, war, homelessness, refugees, and private, corporate, and governmental fraud and corruption. But very little is new except our extreme division.
In the end, the important question is: Are we a nation dedicated to freedom, equality and justice for all? Or are we a nation so divided in goals and viewpoints that we tend to believe that people who disagree with us are dangerous and should be silenced? Controlled? Or even eliminated?
If the latter is the case, there is no hope. But if, as I expect, the majority of us still hold America’s old truths to be self-evident, and that humans have certain inalienable rights? Then we can still work our problems out, but only if we let others speak, and we bother to listen.
Quillen’s biography is boring, so she recommends reading Anatole France quotes instead. A short sampling: “It is human nature to think wisely and act in an absurd fashion.” “Ignorance and error are necessary to life, like bread and water.” “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”