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Guest Commentary

What to do about our dividedness? Small steps can lead us down the path to progress

6/29/2016

The evidence is strong: Americans are dividing themselves by category and issue, including personal values, politics, healthcare, international engagement, trade, war, terrorism, guns, wealth, income, housing, education, integration, race, religion, geography, sexual identity and family structure, to name a few. And what does that produce in our public and private places — generally anger, fear, a low-hanging but constant anxiety, defensiveness, and a sharp response to real or perceived political correctness. Nothing as simple as liberal versus conservative explains our various divides. So how do we address our dividedness in ways that move us forward? How do we get past this series of long-neglected potholes without bending our country’s steel axel?

Without suggesting a cure-all, there are steps, small steps that can lead us down the path to progress. I am reminded of the remarks of an endurance runner friend (yes, 50- and 100-mile races). He measures and completes his races through a series of short increments, sometimes 100 yards, sometimes one mile, often with landmarks visible from the last increment conquered. So what are some of our incremental steps?

The first incremental step is a determined hopefulness in the face of dividedness. Being hopeful and being naïve are not the same thing. The second breeds cynicism; the first is a mindset that allows us to move forward. We can choose to notice what is hopeful and remember it. Again, we don’t need to view ourselves as either liberal or conservative to be hopeful.

For instance, I am hopeful when I see a family of Caribbean immigrants posing for photographs in front of the federal courthouse following a naturalization ceremony, dressed in their brightest, finest clothes, sharing their private joy for the future.

I am hopeful when I drive down Ingersoll Avenue, Southeast 14th and East Grand and see prominent and growing numbers of small businesses with Hispanic surnames on the signs out front. Shopkeepers become homeowners who become city council members who become presidents.

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I am hopeful when I sit at the Roosevelt High School graduation and a group of African immigrant women stand, clap and issue that unique shrill clicking sound whenever any one of their sons or daughters crosses the stage, maybe representing a first for several of these families.

I am hopeful when I walk in front of the Civic Center and watch kids file out of West Des Moines school buses to attend an afternoon performance, and I notice significant numbers of Hispanic kids in the noisy melee.

I am hopeful when I attend a tennis meet at Dowling High School, and I see kids of all races and ethnicities file out of a nearby building.

Consider what happens to capitalism and its historically unmatched magic, absent a modestly expanding population. There are now economic and population stagnation problems in Japan and Europe, and looming prospective economic and political stability problems in a demographically aging and shrinking China.

We should be encouraged to consider what that means for America and be hopeful based upon our many sources of immigrants. These moments of hopefulness don’t erase the divides (or the reasons for some of these divides), but they do help us maneuver the potholes reflected in the news reports that flood our days.

The second incremental step is a determined tolerance. Not small tolerance; big tolerance. That means tolerance for the truly “different,” and not just physical and cultural differences, but differences in ideas about the big issues. We can choose this type of tolerance. This is not to suggest that we should not personally adhere to our own moral standards, our own codes of what is right and wrong. And it is also not to suggest that we don’t have certain universally acknowledged norms of behavior — basic human rights — that we will not violate. It only means that we can, at the same time, be open to the possibility that there is a different way and sometimes a better way.

What is old is not always stale and wrong; what is new is not always wise or better. And we could reject assumptions that those with whom we disagree are necessarily stupid or unprincipled, or even evil. The opposite and particularly destructive choice is a determined isolation, based upon any category or divide. Again, this tolerance issue is not subject to the typical liberal versus conservative divide.

For instance, on the right, pundits frequently brand some Trump supporters as intolerant, which does exist in some measure. But that is a vast over-simplification of what are complex motivations and a disregard for some genuine economic grievances.

And on the left, one need only consider America’s university community and their periodic choice to undermine the First Amendment, as well as what appears to be a systematic discrimination against conservative scholars. Our university system is the envy of the world; why should we settle for less than a consistently tolerant university atmosphere when we have such an extraordinary academic infrastructure? Intolerance is the captive of no party or ideological affiliation.

Here’s the good news. Neither of these incremental steps requires anyone else’s permission or even agreement. It’s personal. No entrance fee, no license, no formal program and no budget. They are free choices, freely made. Maybe we decide to start there. Yes, these increments are soft steps, but they are also soulful, which for many Americans is what feels bad. And not taking these steps can only leave us feeling overwhelmed and powerless.

The public policy solutions will come; we are collectively distilling them even now; presidential elections will pass. We have faced huge crises before and worked through them. We are a resilient and innovative people. And by the standards of world history, we are a hopeful and tolerant people. Without hopefulness and tolerance, there is no foundation upon which to take advantage of our considerable national assets.

Watch those potholes! CV

 

Joseph R. Gunderson is an attorney in Des Moines.joseph gunderson bw

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