‘Tis a strange world we inhabit. We have a president from a privileged family tell Bob Woodward — another person from a privileged family, but one who believes he might have some responsibility for promoting equality and helping the less fortunate — that he “has really drunk the (liberal) Kool-Aid.”
Beyond that, we have millions of Americans who believe that they have the right — guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution — to endanger their neighbors by not wearing face masks during a highly contagious epidemic. Many of these same people also refuse to seriously address climate change despite rising sea levels, raging fires and stronger storms in the Atlantic.
This behavior could be called extremely selfish. But, hey, we are only human, and when faced with danger, we naturally do the “fight or flight” thing. Many of us are now fleeing, hoping our problems will go away “like a miracle,” as Donald Trump said about COVID-19 earlier this year.
If we are members of this “head-in-the-sand” contingent, we also become really annoyed when others tell us to take our head out of the sand and smell the carbon emissions warming the planet. We just don’t want to hear unpleasant things, and when we do, we like to blame others for disrupting our lives or, in some cases, for causing the bad things we can no longer ignore.
This apparent refusal to accept reality baffles and angers those on “the other side” and thus leads to a situation where “we are all united by our divisiveness.”
These words come from a Sept. 6 article by the British essayist and New York Times writer Pico Iyer. After living abroad and “crisscrossing the world for 45 years,” Iyer found himself teaching a class on “international cultures” at an “elite university” in America.
He was impressed that his students were far more aware — and even better-traveled than those of his generation. He even found some unexpected open-mindedness in the form of one student without religious beliefs who was attending a Catholic mass regularly to learn about “the other.” Iyer also found another conservative student who disagreed with Obama and would never vote for him who nevertheless was so impressed by “the intelligence, eloquence and subtlety” of Obama’s memoir “Dreams From My Father” that he read the entire 442-page book in one weekend. He also found a “personable gay athlete” who supported Donald Trump.
Encountering these students encouraged Iyer to wonder if it might not be possible to overcome the divisiveness that currently surrounds us. He noted that he reads “the wise Franciscan priest Richard Rohr” who preaches against dualistic thinking. Iyer also drives around blue-state California listening to Fox News in order to balance what he hears from his friends.
Of course, neither Iyer nor his “elite” students experience the pressures faced by many “lesser” Americans living unemployed in Coronaville, nor are they subject to the systemic racism that challenges people of color and immigrants seeking asylum in the United States today.
However, the presumed wealth, status and privilege of Iyer and his students does not negate the truth that we as a nation are divided because we are, in Iyer’s terms, “addicted to simplifications for which the only remedy lies within.” He adds that “we need to be reminded that not to be right doesn’t always mean you’re wrong. And that to be terribly wronged does not mean you are innocent. The world deals in blacks-or-whites no more than a hurricane or a virus does.”
When I was in elementary school, the teachers often told us to “put on our thinking caps.” This was a reminder to stop day-dreaming or dwelling on how we were feeling and actually begin to think about something new — and maybe a bit difficult or complicated.
Have we misplaced our thinking caps? According to Iyer, the Dalai Lama once said that we needed to “disarm” our emotions, and only by doing that could we, in Iyer’s terms, “see beyond panic and rage ... by using our minds, and that part of the mind that doesn’t deal in binaries.
Maybe if we did that, we could replace divisiveness with truth and analysis. Maybe.
Ken Wolf is a Democrat and a retired Murray State University history professor. He speaks here as an individual and not as a representative of either of these organizations.