Bless Our Souls

David Brooks is a New York Times op-ed columnist and frequent guest on NPR and PBS programs. In my view, he usually holds centrist Republican viewpoints, though he tends to run a little more left of center than what I used to consider Republican perspectives. Today, he tends to run considerably more than a little left of center when compared to what I hear from Republicans in Congress. But he’s no progressive, by any means. At least not in my view. The fact that he’s so rational in stating his positions, especially when they are counter to mine, is one of the reasons I respect him. Some of my left-leaning friends revile him as a Republican puppet; I see nothing like that in him. My perspectives usually differ sharply from his. But something he wrote in his New York Times op-ed yesterday, brought to my attention by a friend, entitled “Guns and the Soul of America” really resonates with me.

Brooks cited research that indicated explosive growth in the percentage of Americans who supported gun rights and a drop in the percentage supporting gun control. In 2000, according to a Pew survey, 29 percent of Americans supported more gun rights and 67 percent supported more gun control. By 2016, 52 percent supported more gun rights and 46 percent supported more gun control.  Brooks contends that the reason for the shift is that industrialization swept over the country more than a century ago. Monetary policy became the proxy for the fight over values and identify ushered in by industrialization. The tensions between people in agriculture and industry and those outside those spheres has been growing ever since. Though he didn’t say it, I think Brooks would argue that technology in recent years has exacerbated the divide, causing people in agricultural and industrial America to feel that their way of life is being threatened by postindustrial society. Brooks says their fear is legitimate.  Members of those threatened segments have seized on issues like guns, immigration, and the flag as launchpads for their attack (“counterassault,” to use Brooks’ term) on postindustrialization’s attack on their cultural values and identity. Guns, he says, are a proxy for broader matters and simply represent a touch point for larger social issues.

Brooks asserts that the only way to address the divide “is to forge some sort of synthesis
on the larger postindustrialization/populism war.” He does not suggest how to forge that synthesis, but I wrote the following to my friend about my reaction to the article:

My gut tells me it might begin with a lessening of the shrill screams on “my” side of the argument about guns and hyper-patriotism/nationalism. Acknowledging that people “might” have legitimate concerns about cultural dislocations involving things like gun rights, respect for the flag, etc., could temper the rage that seems white-hot on the right. But, at the same time, I think it’s important that what I believe are legitimate positions of the left and the moderate center not be dismissed.

Acknowledgement must not equate to acquiescence. I suspect the fervor of progressives, particularly those on the far-left fringes of progressivism, has in part fueled the fear of people who find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum. The same is true, though, at the other end of the spectrum. When I see alt-right demonstrations that seem intent on instilling fear in progressives, I find that they work; and I become more intent at calling out what I consider stupidity, racism, irrational nationalist fervor, etc., etc., etc.

The solution eludes me. Frankly, I’m not sure there is one. But I am as close to certain as I can be that ratcheting up the tensions by moving more and more toward opposite poles will do nothing but make things worse. Perhaps a chorus of intelligent, rational, centrist voices from inside our political system would help. First, we’d have to find those intelligent, rational, centrists and put them in office. Perhaps a chorus of intelligent, rational, centrist voices from inside other social institutions would help. Churches, the news media, well-regarded authors and actors and others who really ought not so heavily influence our culture but do, nonetheless.

It ought to be obvious that screaming and name-calling and accusations thrown at a group of people will generate like responses from the targets of abuse. But we (and I include myself in that “we”) tend not to think in response to such barrages but, instead, to react. So it should come as no surprise to progressives that our shrill reactions to shrill voices will generate responses that are even angrier and more shrill. Conservatives ought not be surprised when progressives react the same way. But we’ve all allowed our emotions, not our intellects, to rule our responses. As a result, the people on both sides of the divide who do not think for themselves but, instead, allow others to think for them, just get louder and louder and more and more firmly ensconced in their positions.

Who are those rational leaders who will guide us out of the darkness? I wish I knew. Let me think on it through my fingers. From the “left,” I’m having a bit of a difficult time. As much as I agree with the ideals set forth by people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, their hyper-partisan words prove to me they are not the ones. The place to look for possible candidates in Congress is among those Democrats and Independents castigated by those further left as “turncoats.” The place to look for possible candidates on the right is among those Republicans and Independents castigated by those further right as “turncoats.” That is, moderates.  Ideal candidates would be Democrats elected in traditionally Republican states and vice versa. People already on the national scene might include people like John Kasich, Governor of Ohio, and John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado. Ohio has been a swing state (that went for Trump in 2016 but for Obama in 2012). Colorado has gone between Republican and Democrat in elections past, voting Democrat in 2016. Hickenlooper is a Democrat but one, I would argue, who could be considered moderate on many issues. There’s been talk in the media that he and John Kasich might be members of a two-party ticket in 2020.

Whether the two Johns join forces or not, they could be among voices nationally who might soften the conversations about guns, patriotism, etc. Both of them already have targets on their backs by people at the fringes of their respective parties, but they might be able to temper the conversations. Despite the massive numbers of posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, I believe the vast majority of Americans have more moderate voices than their more vocal cohorts. Perhaps, just perhaps, the more moderate people who refrain from joining the political conversations (or, the fray, as it were) might just join in and insist on respectful conversations in which facts matter more than volume and in which civility counts more than contempt.

David Brooks’ article was about guns and the soul of America. Bless our souls. Does America even have one?


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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